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Food archaeology: how old is too old to eat?

I hadn’t really thought about food archaeology much until one day in the car. I was sitting idle in the Saturday morning traffic on the Pacific Highway listening to the radio. Simon Marnie on ABC 702 was talking about beer that had been brewed from yeast salvaged from 220 year old Tasmanian shipwreck. Not too long later, I heard about an American who ate a cracker from the Civil War. So how old is too old to eat?

Examples please!

In 1797 a commerical trading ship started leaking and ran aground on an island in the Bass Strait.  Most people were rescued but alas, the beer was not.  The wreck was salvaged in 1990 but it took until 2014 for a crafty chemist/conservator to find a still sealed bottle and start to wonder….. (read more here or watch the Catalyst episode).

“That gave us a chance to possibly have access to the oldest beer in the world. I thought we might be able to culture that yeast and recreate beer that hasn’t been on the planet for 220 years.”

Would you be brave enough to sample that beer?

Now onto that Civil War cracker.  At 135 years old, military food enthusiast and YouTuber Steve1989 MREinfo ate the cracker. What did it taste like?  According to Steve, mothballs and old library books. Almost lost a tooth the process too.  You can watch him eat it in the video below.

Steve eating a 135 year old cracker reminded me of a Seinfeld episode where Elaine ate a slice of wedding cake. Her boss J Peterman had bought for $29 000 at an auction, from the wedding of King Edward VIII to Wallace Simpson.  After discovering the crime on camera footage from his office, Peterman said that what she’d experience digesting a 6 decade old cake would be punishment enough.

How brave are you?

How old would something have to be for you to draw the line, not eating it?  Do expiry dates or best before dates matter to you?  Would you eat an M&M you find down a crack in the couch even though you can’t remember when you last ate M&M’s on the couch? How about sampling some cheese vintage 1,615BC?  Yes, the world’s oldest cheese sample was found in the 1930’s, crumbles on the necks of Chinese mummies from the Bronze Age in the Taklamakan Desert.

Learn more, share more!

The Department of Anthropology at the University of California offers a course in The Archaeology of Food and the University of Southampton offers The Anthropology and Archaeology of Eating and Drinking.  While Andrew Howley of the National Geographic Society shares 3 Suprising Discoveries From the Achaeology of Food.  You could also try some ancient recipes and report back to us!


2 thoughts on “Food archaeology: how old is too old to eat?”

  1. A relative probably saved his family by tossing the meal when he noticed the included anchovies were several years out of date. This was within just a few months of moving house. I am also guilty of packing expired food when moving.
    In the fridge or in the cupboard?…
    I now store maple syrup in the fridge after one long-stored bottle grew a beard.
    tomato sauce?
    peanut butter?
    And when is it just too long?
    Life choices.

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