These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder

Khalid Elhassan - August 12, 2023

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Statue of Genghis Khan outside the Mongolian parliament. Mongabay

The Mongols Enjoyed Their Food Best When Feasting Atop the Bodies of Their Defeated Foes

Good food is the centerpiece of celebratory feasts. The Mongols put a twist on by enjoying their food while feasting atop the live bodies of their defeated foes. In 1223, after he crushed the Khwarezmian Empire, Genghis Khan sent a Mongol expedition to raid into the Caucuses and southern Russia. Led by generals Subutai and Jebe, the force defeated all in its path, including the Cumans, allies of the Kievan Rus. The Rus came to the Cumans’ aid, and a vast army set out after the raiders. The Mongols retreated, and their foes pursued.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Captured Rus commander Mtislav III brought before Subutai and Jebe after the Battle of Kalka River. Imgur

For nine days, Subutai and Jebe led their pursuers on a merry chase across the Steppe. Then the Mongols suddenly turned on their by-then strung out enemies at the banks of the Kalka River. In a battle fought on May 31st, 1223, the Mongols annihilated their pursuers. The Mongols’ reputation for cruelty and bloodthirstiness was well deserved. Those who surrendered immediately often found the Mongols to be decent rulers, but woe betide those who resisted. After the Battle of the Kalka River, the Mongols decided to celebrate their victory by dining over their captives.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Mongols feasting atop captives. Pinterest

The Mongols Were Not the First to Feast Atop the Bodies of Their Enemies

The Mongols liked to make examples out of their defeated foes. After their victory at the Battle of Kalka River, captured enemy commanders were laid on the ground. A huge board was then laid over their bodies, over which the victors sat to eat, drink, and celebrate their triumph. Meanwhile, the men beneath were slowly crushed and suffocated to death. The Mongols’ feast over the bodies of defeated commanders after the Battle of Kalka River was not the first time that vanquished leaders had faced such a fate.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Al Saffah getting acknowledged as Caliph. Alamy

The first Abbasid Caliph Abul Abbas (722 – 754), nicknamed Al Saffah (“Blood Shedder”), did the same after he defeated and displaced the Ummayad Dynasty of Caliphs. Al Saffah initiated a revolt against the Ummayads, and crushed them in a climactic battle in 750. He then tracked down and killed as many members of the defeated dynasty as he could. In 751, Al Saffah declared an amnesty, and eighty surviving Ummayad princes emerged from hiding to receive their pardons at a banquet. Mid-feast, he had them seized, stabbed, and covered their quivering bodies with leather rugs. He then bade the other guests to sit down and enjoy their food and drink atop them.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Union soldiers getting their caffeine fix. Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Food Shortages Led to Creativity in the US Civil War

Hunger is not only a great appetizer, but is also a great prod to get people’s culinary creative juices flowing. In the US Civil War, inadequate and frequently interrupted food supplies led Southern soldiers to come up with new dishes. The most famous – or infamous – of those were “cush” or “slosh”. Small bits of beefs were placed in bacon grease, water was added, and the mixture was stewed. Corn bread was crumbled into the concoction, and stewed again until all the water had evaporated.

Another recipe began with a stew of potatoes and whatever meat was available. Then flapjack batter was added, a spoonful at a time. The mixture was stirred together, and as a Rebel soldier recalled, the next morning: “we got meat, bread, and potatoes all in the same slice“. Another recipe used potatoes and green apples boiled together, then mashed and seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, or onion. “Slapjack” used a thick mixture of flour or cornmeal fried in bacon grease in a skillet until the bottom turned brown, before it was flipped over to cook the other side.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Confederate soldiers cooking in a camp. Ebay

Food Was a Key Factor in the Civil War’s Outcome

Union and Confederate soldiers liked their caffeine fix, but only the Northern men at arms had regular access to coffee made from real coffee beans. The Union blockade made coffee rare in the Confederacy, so Southerners often settled for substitutes. Rebels desperate for a cup of Joe brewed up chicory, peanuts, peas, rye, dried apples, acorns, dandelion roots, or whatever else could trick their senses into believing it was coffee. Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart described the use of potatoes as coffee substitutes:

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Heritage Auctions

Potatoes were peeled and cut into “chunks” about the size of coffee berries. The pieces were spread out in the sun to dry, then parched until brown, after which they were ground. The grounds were mixed with a little water until a paste resulted, after which hot water was added. When the grounds settled to the bottom of the coffee pot, the beverage could be poured and drunk“. Coffee beans became such hot commodities in the Confederacy that one Atlanta jeweler used them instead of diamonds in breast pins.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Raqefet Cave and evidence of a 13,000 year old brewery. Sci News

Booze Made Humans What We Are

Researchers have recently found evidence of an extensive beer brewing operation, about 13,000-years-old, in Raqefet Cave near Haifa, Israel. As the research team’s leader put it: “This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world“. The people who brewed that beer, the Natufians, were hunter-gatherers, not settled farmers. Indeed, their beer brewing predates by millennia the earliest known permanent settlement, and predates most estimates of when bread was first made. That discovery lends supports to the notion that beer, not bread, is what set the stage for civilization. People wanted to drink beer, and for that, they needed grain. In order to have a steady supply of grain for beer, they needed to settle down to tend their fields. Beer thus motivated humans to settle down into permanent farming communities.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Stone Age people, just like modern folk, liked to chill with a beer. Springer Nature

Indeed, the love of booze might have been a key motivation for why hunter-gatherers settled down to farm, not just in the Middle East, but all over the world. The first cultivated crops, such as wheat and barley in the Middle East, or rice in the Yangtze River Valley, are great for alcoholic drinks, whether beer or rice wine. The desire to get drunk is an ancient behavior. People liked the psychoactive effects: among other things, it relieved stress and anxiety. Also, drinking with strangers lowered inhibitions, reduced everybody’s ability to deliberately lie and deceive, and thus made people more trusting and trustworthy. That enhanced trust improved the ability to cooperate, and created – or strengthened – bonds with others.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Spinach is not the super food Popeye led many children to believe it is. Imgur

The Spinach Super Food Myth

Generations of children were entertained by Popeye the Sailor Man. Thanks to him, many kids have dreamt that they could gain super powers by overcoming their distaste for spinach. Popeye’s love of spinach was popularized to a receptive public, primed by a widespread belief that spinach was an extraordinarily beneficial food item. Sadly, Spinach is nothing special – at least as a source of super powers. Kids who mastered their gag reflexes long enough to swallow the green stuff were not rewarded by an explosive increase in strength, prowess, or other abilities and talents. There was a silver lining, however, as the kids learned one of life’s early lessons: don’t believe everything you see on TV.

Popeye’s passion for spinach, as well as the popular faith in its exceptional qualities, was caused by a simple mathematical mistake. In 1870, German scientist Erich von Wolf was researching the amount of iron in spinach and other vegetables. He discovered that spinach’s iron content was 3.5 milligrams per 100 gram serving. However, when he wrote his findings, Wolf misplaced a decimal point. He put down spinach’s iron content as ten times greater than what it actually was: 35 milligrams of iron per 100 gram serving, instead of 3.5 milligrams. It was not until 1937 that somebody double checked Wolf’s math, and spotted the error. By then, Popeye was already a cultural icon, and the spinach myth had taken hold.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Thomas Jefferson. Time for Kids

Thomas Jefferson Controlled His Slaves With Food

The control of food has long been a means to exercise power, and slave owners throughout history knew that. Take Thomas Jefferson. The Founding Father and leading member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence penned some of the most stirring words in advocating freedom, liberty, and equality. The phrase “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has moved and inspired idealists for centuries. On the other hand, Jefferson pursued his happiness in a slave-operated plantation. Although he called slavery a “moral depravity” and “a hideous blot“, Jefferson lived a life of luxury that was only made possible by the labor of hundreds of chattel slaves.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Plantation slaves. National Geographic Society

Jefferson argued that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, by which all humans have a right to personal liberty. He told all who would listen that it was necessary to end slavery. Those views were quite radical in the environment in which he grew up and lived. Nonetheless, Jefferson owned slaves throughout his life, with all the violence that accompanied that. He also used food as a means to control and compel his slaves to do his bidding. Throughout his life, Jefferson owned over 600 slaves. Over 400 of them lived and worked in his Monticello estate. He constantly monitored his human property to extract the maximum labor out of them, and strove to increase their numbers through procreation – sometimes with his own personal participation.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Enslaved children. News Dog Media

Food as a Means to Manipulate Child Slaves

Thomas Jefferson’s child slaves toiled in his tobacco fields: children were the right height to reach and kill tobacco worms. When Monticello shifted from tobacco to wheat, which required less manual labor, Jefferson had the children taught trades as an alternative to field toil. As he put it, his slave children must “go into the ground or learn trades“. He used food to make the kids work harder: if they did a good job, they got more food. If they were particularly diligent, they might also get new clothes. Jefferson had a clock installed on a Monticello wall that only had an hour hand. Jefferson, who believed that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,” figured that hour increments were all that the slaves could understand or needed to know.

These Bizarre Food Facts Make History Even Weirder
Monticello today. Monticello Org

Jefferson had cabins built for the house slaves about a hundred yards from and facing the mansion. Blacks who worked the fields were housed further away. That way, they and their backbreaking labor would be out of his sight in both the literal and figurative senses. Originally, Jefferson’s slaves lived in two-room cabins, with one family per room and a single shared doorway to the outside. From the 1790s onwards, the slaves were housed in single-room cabins, each with its own door. By the dismal standards of American slavery at the time, the lives of Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello were less terrible than average. Their lot was still quite horrible, but not as horrible as the lot of most other slaves with most other masters.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient Origins – Adolf Frederick: The Swedish King Who Ate Himself to Death

Atlas Obscura – When Tomatoes Were Blamed For Witchcraft and Werewolves

BBC – The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Status Pineapple

Catton, Bruce – Bruce Catton’s Civil War, Three Volumes in One (1984)

Bear, James A. Jr. – Jefferson at Monticello (1967)

Biography – Gary Gilmore

Brodie, Fawn McKay – Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974)

CNN – ‘Game of Thrones’ Author George R.R. Martin: Why He Wrote the Red Wedding

Encyclopedia Britannica – McDonald’s, American Corporation

Encyclopedia Britannica – Columbian Exchange

Gabriel, Richard – Subotai the Valiant: Genghis Khan’s Greatest General (2004)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990)

Harari, Yuval Noah – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014)

History Collection – How George Cheyne Created the First Fad Diet, the Georgian Diet

Kroc, Ray – Grinding it Out: The Making of McDonald’s (1977)

Library of Congress – Civil War Thanksgiving Foods

National Geographic Genographic Project – The Development of Agriculture: The Farming Revolution

National Park Service – Fort Scott: Cooking Food Rations

Nordstjernan – King-Sized Meal: A Cautionary Tale

NPR – When the Supreme Court Decided Tomatoes Were Vegetables

Paris Review, April 25th, 2018 – The Strange History of the “King-Pine”

Ranker – Old School Fast Food Photos That Remind Us of ‘The Way We Ate’

Ranker – Unconventional Foods People Ate to Survive the Civil War

Salon – Drinking Culture: Why Some Thinkers Believe Human Civilization Owes its Existence to Alcohol

Slingerland, Edward – Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization (2021)

Spoon University – The 9 Items on McDonald’s Very First Menu

Times of India, June 9th, 2014 – The World’s First McDonald’s Restaurant

Williams, John Alden, ed. – The History of Al-Tabari, Volume XXVII: The Abbasid Revolution, AD 743-750 (1985)