Friday, July 24, 2009

Bulgur vs Rice

On June 25, I blogged on the publication of Vefa Alexiadou's cookbook, see Food: Avoiding the Acropolis Museum. Although I wish she had received a larger spread, I was excited to see Vefa making it into the New York Times food section, see Elaine Louie, "The Temporary Vegetarian" (June 22, 2009, p. D2). It was interesting to learn from Vefa how rice overtook bulgur wheat in 1950s Greece. Today, pilaf is a staple in Greek cooking. Although rice arrived in Greece during the Hellenistic period, it was regarded a luxury good used mainly for medicinal purposes. The Arabs brought its cultivation more widely in the Mediterranean after the 7th century. Rice production spread from Egypt to Spain and Italy. Teaching at Clemson University's Historic Preservation program at Charleston, I learned a lot about rice cultivation in North America and the esteemed Carolina Gold variety. Interestingly enough, Thomas Jefferson smuggled rice seeds from Italy's Piedmont (introduced here in the 15th c.) and genetically improved the Carolina variety, see Karen Hess, The Carolina Rice Kitchen (Columbia, 1992). For the global history of rice, see Oxford Companion to Food (Alan Davidson, ed., 1999), pp. 662-665.

Going back to Greece, one of my earliest culinary memories is a large conical pile of pilaf on my father's plate, when he would return from work. Like the frequent consumption of meat, rice entered Greek cuisine as a product of economic prosperity. Vefa teaches us that rice was too expensive for ordinary consumption and bulgur was the more common alternative.
I had not idea that stuffed tomatoes, for example, were once stuffed with bulgur. When rice became cheap, it replaced bulgur precisely because of its prestige associations. Growing up in the 1970s, bulgur had almost disappeared from the lunch table. Bulgur and corn meal (bompota) were associated with the impoverished past and especially with the famine of war.

1 comment:

Sophia from Kitchen Caravan said...

This is really interesting, and I will check out Vefa's book. I am also curious about finding Greek recipes using brompota. It is funny how the situation has reversed: in the past bringing food from far away was a sign of prosperity, and that nowadays the people who can afford it eat locally and organically when for so long it was ignored.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States