The philosopher Giambattista Vico had quite a few ideas, but we remember him for one above all: Verum esse ipsum factum, often shortened to the principle of verum factum. It means, in essence, that we understand what we make. In accordance with verum factum, then, if you want to understand, say, ancient Mesopotamian beer, you should make some ancient Mesopotamian beer yourself. Such is the path taken in the video above by Max Miller, host of the Youtube series Tasting History.
We previously featured Tasting History here on Open Culture for its humorous and as-faithful-as-possible re-creations of dishes from the past, including periods as recent as the nineteenth century and as distant as the dawn of civilization. No matter the era, humanity has always been eating and drinking — and, just as soon as the necessary technology became available, getting drunk. That we were doing it 4,000 years ago is evidenced by the recipe Miller follows in his quest to re-create Mesopotamian beer, for which even the research proves to be no simple matter.
In fact, he begins with not a recipe at all, but a hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer. But this holy text constitutes only a starting point: Miller goes on to consult not just other information preserved on archaeological artifacts, but at least one expert in the field. The resulting beer-making procedure isn’t without its ambiguity, but you can certainly try it at home. You can try it at home if you’ve got about a week to do so, that is; even ancient beer needed to ferment. (If you’re anything like Miller, you’ll use the waiting time to research more about Mesopotamian society and the significant place of beer within it.)
How does the final product taste? Miller describes it as not carbonated but “effervescent,” with a “nuttiness” to its flavor: “I’m getting, like, a little bit of a cardamom.” (Moderns who prefer a sweeter beer will want to add date syrup.) Perhaps it would go well with a Babylonian lamb stew, or one of the other ancient dishes Miller has re-created on Tasting History. Such a meal would provide a fine occasion to test the principle of verum factum — or an even finer way to test the Sumerian proverb “He who does not know beer, does not know what is good.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.