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The Garden Gate: Grains remain our staff of life

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Barley is one of the world's oldest known foods.

It has been cultivated since long before recorded history began, and bread making has been around since the end of the last ice age, when the earth warmed up and grass and seeds began to grow.

The Bible is full of references to barley as a staple food and for ceremonial use.

The first primitive breads appeared in the Eastern Mediterranean area as the people of the Middle East learned to choose the wild wheat and the barley that grew there and made a kind of dough from them.

There are 22 references to barley in the Old Testament, and it is still a staple crop in the lands of the Middle East. No grain being brought into cultivation by mankind equals barley to the extent of climatic variation under which it will grow and flourish.

Barley will successfully survive heat and drought better than any other grain. It ripens so quickly that the short summers of northern climates are sufficient for it.

The two staple crops of ancient Egypt and Palestine were barley and wheat. Barley was less expensive and  was used for feeding cattle. Mixed with wheat and other seeds, it was popular with people all over the known world. Barley 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.

In Egypt barley ripens about a month earlier than wheat, just as it did in Biblical days when the famous hailstorm destroyed Pharaoh's barley but not his wheat.

The barley was already in the ear, but the wheat was just beginning to sprout 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 worthlessness, and their scorn of them.

Barley was so well 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's breadth, 24 a span and 48 cubit, or 48 inches. This system of measurement is still used in some places.

No one really knows where barley originated, but it is now grown worldwide.

There is reference in Leviticus to land sown with 10 bushels of barley being valued at 7 pounds of silver.

Now it is extensively grown in the western world for the production of malt, from which, by distillation and fermentation, ale and beer are produced.

This fact is not mentioned or alluded to anywhere in the Bible, so it seems logical to think that this use for barley was not known in ancient times.

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 just how versatile and useful barley can be.

From the beginning of history and in every civilization in the world, grains have been a major diet staple. Breads made from grains are the “staff of life.”

The Bible has hundreds of references to bread and the various grains from which it can be made.

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. Rye and buckwheat, barley, wheat, rice and corn are familiar, however.

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 hailstorm destroyed Pharaoh's barley but not his wheat or spelt.

The mills, millstone, granaries and threshing floors mentioned in Scriptures refer to the equipment employed in processing grain, mostly wheat and spelt, to make flour.

Spelt can be found in health food stores today.

From Solomon's reign onward, Palestine became a grain-producing and exporting country. It sent much wheat and spelt to Tyre.

Wheat was usually referred to as corn in the Bible. It is mentioned this way more than 70 times. Wheat fields are often referred to as cornfields to this day. Not to confuse this with American corn, which is properly maize.

Corn, in the Biblical sense, was often a mix of peas, 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 were all known in ancient times for the quality of their grains.

Millet, native to India, has always been grown in Egypt and Palestine.

Millet was given to Ezekiel to use for bread and for medicine.

Pulse was perhaps the most ancient of all grains used for bread, as was a mixture of lentils, chestnuts, peas, spelt-grits, beans and chickpeas all ground up together to make flour.

In the first century, a Roman scholar wrote a book about food in the time of Tiberius. He listed many foods popular at that time.

Indian corn, or maize, is a staple food in many countries 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. And very good it still is.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.