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By Ellen Probert Williamson, Roane Newspapers
Barley is one of the world’s oldest known foods.
This grain has been cultivated since long before recorded history. The Bible is full of references to it as a staple food and for ceremonial use.
In fact, there are 22 references to barley in the Old Testament. It is still a staple crop in the lands of the Middle East.
No grain been brought into cultivation by mankind equals barley in the extent of climatic variation under which it will grow with success.
It will successfully survive heat and drought better than any other grain, and it ripens so quickly that the short summers of northern climates are sufficient for it.
Barley and wheat were the two staple crops of ancient Egypt and Palestine.
Barley, being less expensive, was used for feeding cattle. Mixed with wheat or other seeds, it was for human use as well. It has been described as the most universal cereal in the world.
The ancient Egyptians believed that their Goddess of Fecundity, Isis, taught people its cultivation.
Barley ripens about a month earlier than wheat in Egypt, just as it did in Biblical days when the hailstorm destroyed Pharaoh’s barley but not his wheat.
The barley was already in the ear, but the wheat was just sprouting from the ground.
Since barley was the most common food of the poor (and not always too much esteemed by them), it was made use of in those days for Biblical parables as a symbol of poverty and of cheapness and worthlessness.
Even present day Beduins refer to their enemies as “cakes of bread” to indicate their complete scorn of them.
Barley was so universally known in ancient times that it even supplied the Hebrews with a unit of lineal measurement — two barleycorns — making a “finger’s breadth,” 16 a “hand-breadth,” 24 a “span” and 48 a cubit (or 48 inches.)
This system of measurement is still used in some places.
No one knows where barley originated, but it is now extensively grown worldwide.
In Leviticus, there is reference to land sown with 10 bushels of barley being valued at 7 pounds of silver.
It is also grown now in the western world for the production of malt, from which, by fermentation and distillation, ale and beer are produced.
This aspect is not mentioned or alluded to anywhere in the Bible, so it seems logical to think that this use for barley was not known to the ancients.
However, paintings and sculptures found in tombs in ancient Egypt clearly show the production of a beer-like beverage made from fermented grain.
In more modern times, barley was once a staple
in English, Scottish and northern European diets. Old cookbooks are full of recipes for barley puddings, soups and breads.
It was easier for the small farmer to grow barley than wheat. Now, with wheat so readily available, few people realize how versatile and useful barley can be.
From the beginning of history and in every civilization in the world, grains have been a major staple of diet. Breads made from grains are the “staff of life.”
There are hundreds of references to bread and the various grains from which it can be made in the Bible.
There is also reference to what some of these grains in ancient times were and how their modern counterparts are like, or unlike, them.
We seldom hear now about spelt, millet, pulse or maize, although bar-
ley, wheat, rice, corn, rye and buckwheat are familiar.
Spelt was the most common form of wheat in early times. It was grown in ancient Egypt and was a staple grain in the time of Moses.
Native to Mesopotamia, it was common in southern Europe. It was often used with other grains and makes a rather coarse bread.
Wheat and spelt were not planted until after the other grains were. It is thought that this is why the hail destroyed Pharaoh’s barley but not his wheat or spelt.
The mills, millstone, granaries and threshing floors mentioned in Scripture refer to the equipment employed in processing grain, mostly wheat and spelt, to make flour.
Spelt can be found today in health food and specialty stores.
From Solomon’s reign onward, Palestine became a grain-producing and exporting country. It sent wheat and spelt to Tyre.
Wheat was usually referred to as corn in the Bible. It is mentioned this way more than 70 times, and to this day wheat fields are referred to as “corn fields.” This is not to be confused with American corn, which is properly maize.
Corn, in the Biblical sense, was often a mix of pears, beans, lentils, barley, millet and spelt, with wheat as its principal ingredient.
Egypt was a great grain-producing country. Rome and Constantinople regarded it as an inexhaustible granary, and it was the chief granary of the Roman Empire.
Even today, Arabia imports all its wheat from Egypt by caravan.
Grains of wheat have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and in the remains of the prehistoric lake dwellings of Switzerland.
Babylon, Syria and Palestine all were known in ancient times for the quality of their wheat.
Millet, native to India, has always been grown in Egypt and Palestine. It is widely cultivated in Europe and Asia for making into flour and bird seed. In the United States, it is more usually made into hay.
Millet was given to Ezekiel to use for bread and was also used in medicine.
Pulse is perhaps the most ancient of all the grains used for bread. It is really a mixture of lentils, chestnuts, peas, spelt-grits, beans and chickpeas all ground together to make flour.
In the first century, a Roman scholar wrote a book about food and cooking in the time of Tiberius.
In the book, he lists many foods that were popular at the time but have been since quite forgotten. One recipe for a potage combines spelt, pulse and oil boiled together and seasoned with pepper, lovage, fennel and wine to be made into a thick porridge.
Indian corn, or maize, is a staple food in many countries of the world, and rice is the mainstay grain of Oriental nations.
Grains and their many varieties are still the “staff of life” in most of the countries of the world, just as they have been since prehistoric times.
And “Ezekiel’s Bread,” made in the traditional way, can still be found in the modern supermarket.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.