Book Review: Fruit from the Sands by Robert Spengler (2019)

Since my last post, I’m excited to announce that I’ve been working on a series of food history videos with my friend, nutritionist and food vlogger Fiorella DiCarlo. But in the meantime, University of California Press graciously asked me to review a newly-published book on food history. Check it out below, and stay tuned for updates!

“As American as apple pie,” runs the old adage, even though apple pie was first baked on the other side of the Atlantic, in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. Food travels with the people who eat it, and apple pie has traveled far; though not so far as the apple itself. But the story of this ubiquitous fruit doesn’t start with Snow White, or with the golden grove of the Hesperides in Greek myth. It doesn’t even start with Adam and Eve (whose forbidden fruit, by the way, is never specified in the Bible and probably wasn’t an apple to begin with). The apple may be beloved across the world today, but it was born in Kazakhstan. Like many other plants with useful and pleasing qualities, it was dispersed in ancient times, bought and sold along the extensive trade routes that tied humanity together long before airplanes and express shipping.

Robert Spengler‘s Fruit from the Sands (2019) follows the ancient journeys of the apple and a variety of other important crops along the legendary Silk Road, overland trade routes that linked ancient Europe and Asia. As Spengler informs us early on, some historians prefer the plural Silk Roads as a more accurate reflection of the complexity of this commercial web. Most historians mark the beginning of the Silk Road as occurring during the second century BC, but Spengler draws on archaeological evidence indicating the movement of material culture as far back as the late 3rd millennium BC. 

Though the Silk Road(s) have no clear beginning or end, they do have a focal point: Central Asia, a region that gets precious little attention in modern times. I’ve long been interested in Central Asia, and I appreciated the spotlight it receives in this book. When most people think of Central Asia today (if they think of it at all!) they tend to picture empty plains where horse-mounted nomads roam, but Spengler demonstrates that there were already advanced, settled civilizations here more than two or even three thousand years ago, cultivating fruits, flowers, vegetables and grains and selling them to more famous peoples like the Persians, Arabs and Chinese.

Spengler is the Paleoethnobotany Lab Director at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, and the majority of the evidence he draws on is of the material, archaeobotanical sort: physical remains of plants that ancient peoples stored, discarded, or even placed in tombs to accompany the dead to the next world. Through this evidence he is able to trace the point or points of origin for each plant. For the most part, the names of individuals responsible for these ancient migrations are unknown, so it is the plants themselves who become the central characters in Spengler’s narrative. We meet major players like apple and barley as well as less-familiar faces, plants that have fallen into obscurity but were valuable to our ancestors: skirret, sea buckthorn, dragon’s head, gold-of-pleasure, and a type of millet called “panic” (ah, the endless possibilities for wordplay). Botanical genetics and morphology can get a little dry at times without cultural references to balance them, although this is more evident in some chapters than others. In particular, Spengler provides a lot of great literary and art historical references to two plant-based beverages that humans have never run out of words to describe: wine and tea.

Overall I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it, in particular about how humans influence the genetic development of our crops not only consciously, but unconsciously. For example, Spengler describes how differing grain-harvesting techniques in Asia and pre-Colombian North America produced differing evolutionary pressures on the grain, resulting in divergent development of the grain’s features. Some of the plants Spengler describes have been heavily modified by humans through selective breeding; others occupy a space somewhere between tame and wild, growing and presenting their useful features with minimal intervention.

The relationship between plant and animal, including the human animal, is a delicate balance of push and pull, adapt and adjust. Spengler identifies the direct human dispersal of plants via commercial activity with the inadvertent seed dispersal practiced by animals, who eat a tasty fruit and carry its seeds inside them to a new location. In this mutually beneficial relationship, one wonders which side is truly in control.

If you’ve ever been curious about the history of agriculture or the true origins of the fruits and vegetables at your local market, this is the book for you.

Ancient Recipe: Egyptian Beer (Egypt, ca. 5000 BCE)

“Give me 18 cups of wine; I want to drink to drunkenness, my throat is dry as straw!” ~ Words of a female partygoer in an Ancient Egyptian banquet painting


Homemade bousa with bonus homemade glass.

At some point in the distant past, an Australopithecus taking a stroll through the East African grasslands ate some rotten fruit off the ground and got a little dizzy and giggly. That hirsute lush was the first of our ancestors to get drunk. But the first hominids to do so deliberately were the people of the ancient world: the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese and others who stumbled upon the wonderful secret of brewing beer.

Beer was invented independently by several civilizations, and may have originally been discovered by accident. If water leaked into an ancient container used to store grain, the excess moisture would cause grain to sprout, releasing new chemical compounds that altered its taste. Moisture would also foster the growth of bacteria and yeast, which would feed on the grain and produce alcohol as a waste product. And if some curious Egyptian or Sumerian (perhaps a direct descendant of the aforementioned Australopithecus) decided to taste the leaky drippings of that improperly sealed jar–bam! A life-changing discovery. Some archaeologists believe it was the rise of beer-making that directly inspired early humans to transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural economy. That is, the ancients planted grain for beer before they planted it for bread.

Ancient Egyptian beer, called bousa, was a dietary staple. With more nutrients and less alcohol than modern beers (about 2%), it could be drank throughout the day and was actually safer to drink than water due to the lack of modern sanitation. Laborers were often paid in beer rations (the workers on the Great Pyramids at Giza received 4-5 liters a day). Beer was served at every Egyptian meal, especially among the lower classes. Multiple people often shared the same beer vessel using long reed strawscreating a visual effect similar to 1950s teenagers sharing an ice cream float (or modern college kids sharing a fishbowl of liquor and fruit juice at that one restaurant that doesn’t card). The straw was both social and practical: bousa is a lumpy semisolid rather than the liquid we might expect. The custom persists in some African cultures that make beer in a similar manner (here’s a picture of people sharing beer with straws at a wedding in 1980s Burundi).

Written sources record various kinds of beer flavored with different ingredients and given poetic names like “Friend’s Beer”, “Iron Beer”, or “Beer of the Protector”. Some of these variants were only made for special occasions, such as the annual “Festival of Drunkenness“. On that day, Egyptians indulged in a beer dyed red with pomegranate juice or powdered ochre (a kind of mineral clay) in honor of the ferocious lion goddess Sekhmet. According to legend, Sekhmet once threatened to devour all of Egypt, until she was tricked into thinking the red-dyed beer was blood. Literally bloodthirsty, the goddess chugged a few barrels and passed out, sparing the Egyptians from her hunger. Sekhmet was one of several goddesses associated with beer in Egyptian mythology. Viewed as an offshoot of bread-making, beer-brewing was considered a largely feminine activity.



First, we will malt the grain, meaning we’ll allow it to sprout and then roast it. Soak one cup of wheat berries in a bowl of water at room temperature for 8-10 hours/overnight. Drain the wheat berries and place them in a large glass jar. Cover the jar with a light cloth, such as cheesecloth, secured with a rubber band. Let stand at room temperature for 1-3 days or until you see little tails sprouting from the grains. During this time, make sure the grains stay moist but not submerged in water. Once a day, shake the jar gently to help air circulation.

Once your grains have sprouted, spread them on a baking sheet and roast them at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for about 3 hours. When done, they should be completely dry and dark brown and give off a pleasant, nutty aroma. Grind the malted grains into coarse flour in a food processor or with a mortar and pestle.

3Some Egyptian beers used bread as a starter yeast culture, and others used grain porridge, as confirmed by archaeological evidence. We’ll be making a porridge-based beer. Boil two cups of barley in two cups of water until you have a soft, mushy porridge. It should be soft enough that you can break an individual barley grain with the edge of a spoon. When your barley porridge is no longer boiling hot but still warm, put it into a pot with the ground-up wheat berries from the previous step and six cups of water. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 3 to 4 days.

When you uncover your Egyptian beer, the first thing you’ll notice is that it smells like it’s gone bad. This, of course, is because it has. The smell will dissipate completely if you take off the lid and let it air out for a while. It’s safe to drink, I promise! And it tastes completely different from the off-putting initial aroma. Very lightly sour and fizzy, with a little bit of smokiness from the roasted grain. You can also try sweetening it with honey or date syrup, or mixing it with pomegranate juice if there’s a lion-headed goddess you’re trying to intoxicate.


This beer is not bad, but it’s also not something I could picture myself ordering at a bar. The rank smell means that I have to rank it behind my Mesopotamian beer recipe, which I’ll share another time. III out of X.

* Adapted from Cooking in Ancient Civilizations by Cathy Kaufman (2006).