Earth, Ash, and Blood: The Unlikely Components of a Nutritious Diet (Part 2)

Guys laughing





Part II of Earth, Ash, and Blood:
The Unlikely Components of a Nutritious Diet (Part 1)

Part 2: A Very Unique Combination

Pouring blood

The primary purpose of the trip to Kenya was to learn more about Mursik, however, I was also interested in experiencing the nomadic pastoralist practice of bloodletting to supplement diet made up almost exclusively of dairy.  Milk, especially raw milk, is an incredibly nutritious food.  And, nomadic pastoralists groups in Africa who have been historically raising animals as sources of food for thousands of years realized this long ago.  In fact, they take an entirely different approach to using animals as factories that convert food we cannot use into that we do - instead of focusing on the animal’s meat, fat and organs which requires killing the animal providing one huge harvest, they rely upon the by-products of the animal as their main food source allowing the animal to live for much longer, the entire time providing food on a daily basis!  However, milk needs to be supplemented with other vitamins and minerals, such as iron, to provide a more well-rounded diet that has the ability to more fully sustain adult humans.  Their answer...blood!  And, I am not referring to the blood of the animal after it had been slaughtered.  Rather, they view the blood of the animal in a similar way that they do milk - think of it the same way they (and we) think about milk - as a renewable source of high quality food for humans that animals produce by eating foods that are otherwise inaccessible to us and using their digestive tracts and physiology to transform those foods into foods from which our bodies and digestive tracts can safely and effectively obtain nutrition.  And, because the animals are continuously producing blood just like they are milk, so they have developed techniques to continuously harvest it from the animals without harming them.  


Certainly, it is all about context.

 We modern westerners view blood as something that keeps us alive and should remain in the veins of the animals until death, at which time, depending on where you are in the world it is either turned into one of a handful of traditional dishes such as blood pudding in the British Isles or, as it is not viewed as a real food source at places like the United States, typically discarded for “safety.”  What is different in all of these instances is perspective - the blood and the incredible nutritional value it holds for humans hasn’t changed, it is our perspective that has and results in us disposing of one of the most nutrient dense sources of food in animals - it is nutritionally, ethically, sustainably and, financially wrong.  I wanted to see for myself what this bloodletting process was like and, most importantly, how difficult it would be for my family and I to attempt to shed ourselves of our modern western baggage preventing us from viewing fresh warm blood as a real source of food and experience drinking the blood minutes after we watched it drain from the neck of a living cow.

Along the Lugga to Find Blood

Delia had arranged for us to visit a group of Somburu to take part in the bloodletting and consumption practice.  It required several hours driving from Lewa on a black top road to Sera National Wildlife Conservancy and then several hours more through the “bush” where we set up camp for a few days.  Once we pulled off of the main road and drove through the bush we didn’t see another human for days, except, of course for our guide/guard, Jimmy, himself a Somburu, and his partner.  


The morning of our visit to the Somburu we loaded up in the vehicles early and drove from camp another few hours through the bush sometimes following faint tires marks in the dirts, sometimes paving our own way and sometimes crossing dried river beds.  Eventually, when there was no hope of travelling any further on the ground dodging boulders, acacia trees, and a complex topography the lead car drove down into another “lugga” or dried river bed.  But, instead of driving across, the lead vehicle turned and followed once is at sometimes during the year the middle of a raging river!  We drove along this lugga for several miles until we came across three young Samburu mean waiting for us on the bank.  We pulled up out of the lugga and up onto the bank, unloaded the car, and Jimmy initiated the formal introductions.

Walking to Camp

These three young men were in full traditional dress, wielded rungus (throwing sticks), and were chiseled models of the human form.  They motioned for us to follow them as the turned and walked across the flat, dry, landscape towards their village.  We arrived within a half mile walk of the river and as soon as we arrived they sprung into action.  


The Process Begins

It didn’t take long for them to grab a cow and walk it over to an open spot near the outside of the village.  As one woman held the cow by the ears another one tied a large rope, seemingly reserved solely for this purpose, around the cow’s neck just above the shoulder snugly.  In no time its jugular swelled and became an easy to see target and one of the men who met us at the river walked towards the cow armed with a bow and arrow.  The bow was simply a branch tied with a cord and looked almost like something a kid would make.  But, the arrow, however, was something different all together.  It had obviously been used repeatedly for a long time and embedded in the end of a smooth, straightened wooden shaft was a small polished metal point.  But, the most interesting part of the arrow was the seemingly excessive amount of cord - made up of what looked like whatever they had available in small bits of leftover string made out of everything from natural fibers to strips of plastic bags - in a way you would never see a hunting or war arrow made.  In order for an arrow to take down animals or humans it must penetrate deeply requiring the profile of the arrow to be streamlined as to not impede the penetration in any way.  Excessive amount of wrapping to secure the point would prevent this, which is exactly why the Somburu make these arrows this way - they want to prevent the arrow from penetrating any deeper than the centimeter long point.  They are not trying to kill or harm the cow, they simply want to harvest some blood.  It became obvious very quickly that using a bow and arrow to do this is much more accurate than using a knife. Plus, it provides an added element of safety into the entire process.

Shooting the cow

The man notched the arrow, walked right up to the cow, raised the bow and drew it a few times to check his aim.  The tip of the arrow was so close to the next of the cow that every time he released his draw it seemed to touch the jugular.  After drawing a few time he let loose the arrow and, in an instant it punctured the jugular and bounced back.  The entire thing happened within a few centimeters and, in fact, the arrow never left the hand that held the bow in such a way that it also anchored the arrow against the side of the bow.  He stepped back out of the way, his job complete, and another man swiftly placed a gourd under the blood that flowed out of the neck of the cow.  Once the gourd was filled with a little more than a liter of blood, the rope was released from the cow’s neck and another man reached down and picked up some dirt which we threw into the small cut on the cow’s neck and, the combination of those two actions stopped the bleeding.  I don’t think a drop of blood was spilled at any time!  The cow then walked away as if nothing had happened.  It never even blinked - almost as if it didn’t feel anything happening.


IMG_2662 2.JPG

The boy who collected the blood then picked up a stick off the ground, knelt down with the gourd on the ground and began to slowly stir the blood.  After about five full minutes of stirring I asked what he was doing and he lifted the stick out of the blood.  It was covered in one continuous, stringy blood clot.  Jimmy, who was translating, informed us that this blot clot covered stick was fed to the dogs and the rest is consumed by humans.  I asked him if it was a special stick, perhaps one that contained a low pH since it is common on other places to add vinegar to fresh blood to prevent clotting and, he replied, no, just any stick off the ground would do!


Another person grabbed a similar sized gourd to that which held the blood and quickly milked a cow into it and brought it back.  Jimmy then took the two gourds, one filled with warm fresh blood and the other with warm raw milk and began to pour one into the other back and forth in an effort to mix the contents together.  When he was finished he offered it to me and I drank, hesitantly, but I drank. 


What bothered me the most as I swallowed my first taste fresh blood was how much I liked it!  Everything about it, the texture, the temperature, and even the taste was oddly welcome.  And, perhaps most importantly, it was satiating.  It tasted like a thick, rich, chocolate milkshake with a little iron and salt thrown in for good measure!  I passed the gourd around to the rest of the group and almost everyone tried it with a very similar reaction.  When it eventually came back around to me I drank more to make sure my initial reaction was the correct one - and it was.  I didn’t even have that much and my body felt full and satisfied - it is almost like it knew that it had just received a huge dose of nutrients that is could really do something with!

Bill drinking
Billy drinking
Christina Drinking
Brianna drinking


It was only through actually witnessing the process and experiencing it in context with people that still engage in this traditional dietary practice that I realized what it really meant.  The cows were not harmed and, given that the cow didn’t even flinch once during the entire process, probably did not feel any pain whatsoever.  The process did not take very long and, from start to finish probably required significantly less active time than any of us would need to prepare a meal of comparable nutritional value - even with today’s modern food processing technologies and access to ingredients from all over the world!


And, it was great to see that this was not just a carry-over ritual from the past.  Instead, it is still an active part of their regular diet today.  Jimmy informed me that during the dry season, when the men and boys leave to tend their herds of cows or goats grazing throughout the countryside they could be away from the village for months.  During this entire time they bring only what they can carry very, sleep directly on the ground, and maintain a diet that consists almost solely of the fresh blood/milk mixture twice a day - about a liter in the morning and another in the evening!  That’s it!


And, back in the village they consume the milk and blood on a somewhat regular basis and, as they believe that blood makes someone stronger, they feed it to people that are recovering from an injury or illness, pregnant, giving birth, or lactating. Now, that is testimonial enough for me - you don’t need fancy lab tests or nutritional breakdowns to determine whether these are food appropriate for humans - the Samburu and other groups relying upon blood and milk for thousands of years, eeking a living out of such a marginal environment and producing chiseled, healthy, happy bodies is testimonial enough for me.



A disorder or a forgotten panacea?

When you peel back the layers and take an informed, contextual look at the consumption patterns of people all over the world what would initially seem odd takes on new meaning.  In fact, the more I learn about traditional eating practices in other parts of the world the more I come to the realization that it is actually our own modern western diet that is strange.  We label the consumption of earth as pica, a disorder, but it is perfectly “normal” to consume massive quantities of nutrient-free “food” that is full of sugar, chemicals, and preservatives.  We wouldn’t consider eating ash or charcoal, but have no problem spend significant quantities of our paychecks at the health food stores on artificial supplements and medicines to supply the minerals lacking in our modern diets, control the pH of our blood, and settle our fragile upset tummies.  We consider drinking blood taboo even though it has the ability to nourish us far beyond almost anything we do eat on a regular basis.  And, saving the blood and using it as a source of food from the massive quantity of animals we slaughter has not only dietary but also ethical, sustainability, and monetary implications.


We can learn a lot from watching how others eek out a living in marginal environments.  In fact, if we take an honest, self-reflective look at our own environments who actually live in environments with less food resources?  Is it the people of West Pokot that rely on nutrient and probiotic dense ash yogurt that has fermented for several months to make it through times of hunger or the Samburu who rely on rich blood and raw milk twice a day for months at a time as they follow their animals on pasture?  Or, is it us who live in artificial cities with, except for the wild plants sprouting through the cracks in the sidewalk or the pigeons living in the city park, absolutely no remaining naturally occurring food resources anywhere and the millions of inhabitant subsist on food that is shipped in from the outside?  We need to take a close look at what we consider “normal” and reconsider from whom we should take lessons about how to feed ourselves. 

Bill and men

Earth, Ash, and Blood: The Unlikely Components of a Nutritious Diet (Part 1)

I have always been fascinated by the incredibly strange things that people have learned to eat through time in order to extract the maximum amount of nutrition from even the most desolate of environments.  

And, it has been rewarding to repeatedly attempt to shed myself of my inherent cultural biases that defines “normalcy” in my diet and try to contextualize why people eat what they do.  To step outside of our comfort zones to try to truly see other dietary practices from an emic, or insider perspective is difficult, considering our perception of food and the place it holds in our lives are so intricately intertwined with everything that we are and everything that we do.  But, when we are able to do this successfully, so many aspects of other people’s dietary practices take on entirely new meanings!

The Search for the Ash Yogurt

Sue Dave Delia Shark.png

Several months ago I met Dave and Sue Brown and Delia Stirling at David Ascher’s Traditional Cheese Making course in Iceland.  After spending a week together and learning about all of the things we have in common - from our love of traditional raw milk cheese to foraging to ancient stone tool technology - they invited me and my family to visit them in Kenya where they operate Brown’s Cheese and spend time working with traditional groups to learn about their contemporary foodways still based on ancestral practices.  After I returned home and mentioned this to my family we jumped at the opportunity - and, I am so incredibly glad we did!

Ash Yogurt being poured for us in a village in West Pokot

Ash Yogurt being poured for us in a village in West Pokot

Preparation for our visit required months and Delia took on the majority of the planning herself.  It was during this time that I kept stressing to her my desire to learn about mursik, a traditional yogurt made with ash in the West Pokot County of Kenya and, if at all possible I also wanted to experience the blood-letting practice of the pastoralists such as the Samburu.  After much work, Delia devised an itinerary that would accomplish all that I wanted and also included the added bonuses of camping in the bush and multiple safaris at Lewa House!  We were all in, and the next few months seemed to drag on forever as we anxiously anticipated our adventure to begin.


We started our journey to Kenya after a short visit to Johannesburg where I was presenting at the 2018 ACE, the first Experimental Archaeology Conference held in Africa. Despite the multiple flights, layover in Ethiopia, and hour-long drive to Brown’s Cheese from the Nairobi airport, our expedition to find people producing mursik was just beginning.  After one day’s rest we woke up early and drove an hour in the dark through pouring rain to Wilson Airport where we boarded a small, propeller plane and flew to the more remote area of Kitale.  There we were greeted by our driver, Samuel who would unexpectedly would also later turn out be be our guide. 

Ready to fly

As we sat around Cranes Haven Lodge that evening discussing the research plan for the next day that Delia had arranged with Slow Food Kenya, Samuel overheard us and suggested we travel to the lowlands, further and deeper into the West Pokot area to find people less influenced by modern western diets.   There, he told us, we would find what we were searching for - people still actively engaged in production and consumption of mursik because they still relied upon it as an important component of their daily diets.  And, he assured us that we could also learn how to make traditional honey wine and how the people of West Pokot slaughter and butcher goats and eat their small intestines raw.  This sounded great!  However, it was already 10:00 pm and didn’t know how we would make it all work on such short notice.  With cell phone in hand, Samuel calmly replied that he knew people and could make it happen.  He just needed our go-ahead to “activate his network” to make it happen.  “Activating his network” cost us a little more than we anticipated (and included the purchase of two goats!), but it was worth it because thanks to Samuel and his network, the next day was better than we ever could have ever imagined.

Bill and Samuel working on "activiting his network" at Cranes Haven Lodge

Bill and Samuel working on "activiting his network" at Cranes Haven Lodge

The wonderful Cranes Haven Crew!

The wonderful Cranes Haven Crew!

Setting off to Find Mursik

The day started as planned and, after driving a couple of hours we met with the Kenya Slow Food International representative, Sampson, at the Horizon Hotel who took us to the Tarsoi Village for our first mursik experience of the day.  Sampson explained to us that the Tarsoi Village is actually made up of two separate village, the Tartar and Soibei whose names combine to make Tarsoi (sort of like Benifer - Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner - but longer lasting...). The drive from the hotel to the village was much shorter than I expected.  However, since the paved road quickly changed to dirt and the rectangular concrete block buildings became round wattle and daub thatched structures the scene quickly met our expectations. We parked the cars and waiting for someone to come greet us my sight focused on the fence like metal contraption whose purpose it was to funnel cows into a narrow concrete shallow pool filled with some sort of disinfecting liquid meant to sterilize their legs, bellies and udders.  I thought it out of place for a village that we spent so much time and effort getting to in order to learn more about traditional diets.


We heard them from a distance before we saw them… the sound of the singing and the bells and then the bright colored clothing and the dancing.  

Being greeted by members of the Tarsoi Village

Being greeted by members of the Tarsoi Village


It looked as though the entire village was coming to greet us.  Over the next 20 minutes, through the magic of music and dance, we were transformed from spectators into participants.  

Joining in

Introductions in the Tarsoi Village

We were then escorted to an open grassy area where the villagers had brought a couch from one of their homes for us to sit.  As they gathered around one of them led us in an obligatory prayer.  Then, through the help of an interpreter, the chairman told us the story of the Tarsoi, welcomed us, and thanked god for the kromwo tree, the tree that they burn to obtain the ash to make the mursik, for the medicinal value it brings to them.  Afterward he also thanked the milk for the medicinal value it brings them.  Then he thanked Slow Food because of them, he said, they have been to Italy to show people in other parts of the world how to make the mursik.  Finally, he asked us to go around and introduce ourselves and for each of us to let everyone know why we were there.   Only after we had become a part of the process through the ritual of music, dance and prayer and introduction were they ready to share with us their traditional food, mursik.

The Traditional Process Revealed

We were brought into a small, round, wattle and daub kitchen with a compact dirt floor.  There, three women were huddled around a small fire burning in the hearth.  One held the end of a stick in the fire until the tip was glowing red.  She then stuck the charred end into the gourd all the way to the base and scraped it up along the inside to the top with more pressure than I would have expected.  


This resulted in leaving a black streak of ash behind in its path.  This scraping motion was repeated once or twice and then the stick was returned to the fire until it once again glowed red.  The stick was then placed inside the gourd and the scraping motion resumed for a stroke or two.  The repeated scraping inside the gourd and burning in the fire continued until the entire inside of the gourd was coated with black ash.  Excess ashes were shaken out and then the gourd was filled with cows milk.  Immediately, the ash coating inside the gourd changed the bluish/white color of the milk to a speckled grey.  A lid made from the cut-off end of the gourd that utilized a coiled natural cordage twined base that fit snugly over the base was placed on top, and the gourd was set aside to ferment.  As soon as the gourd was set down, indicating the end of the process, I began to bombard them with questions...thankfully they were so incredibly generous and patient with their answers.

This is what I learned:

Notes in Kitchen
Drinking yogurt
  1. The ash is essential to the process because a) it imparts a flavor and the mursik simply does not taste right without it, b) it changes the color and look and the mursik does not look right without it, and c) it provides a medicinal value since it is basic versus the acidity of the fermented milk.
  2. The stick they burned and used to scrape the inside of the gourd they called “kromwo” its genus and species is Ozoroa insignis.  They insisted that the mursik can only be make from a stick from this tree, however, they could not tell me why other than it, “has different properties” and the fact that it forms theproper coal.  In the few instances they can recall not being able to obtain a stick from the kromwo tree they substituted with wood from a native olive tree.  I assume this is the tamiyai or, Olea africana.  
  3. Once the gourd is filled they set it aside to ferment for anywhere from 3 days to 3 months depending on several factors including how much surplus milk they have.  Typically, once the gourd is filled and the milk has fermented for at least three days it is ready to drink.  Before it is consumed the gourd is shaken.  After consumption, the gourd is refilled with new milk and, because the residue from the previous mursik is still alive and active with strong bacterias that were built up during the fermentation process the fermentation of the new milk will only take a day or two!
  4. The milk they used was pasteurized.  Wait, what?  As soon as I heard this Delia and I immediately shot a look at one another.  We are both cheesemakers who deal with raw milk and utilize traditional methods and understand what this means and how dangerous it is.  Raw milk is naturally full of the active bacteria that produces the fermentation.  When the fermentation begins through this process the pH drops and kills off harmful pathogens in the process.  However, the pasteurization process does not discriminate between good and bad bacteria and kills it all leaving behind a blank slate.  There is nothing there to initiate the fermentation nor any good bacteria left to fight harmful pathogens.  That is why modern cheesemakers using pasteurized cheese MUST add a culture of bacteria to the milk to begin the fermentation.  Blank slates such as these are easily colonized by harmful bacteria that have nothing stopping them from taking over and creating a very dangerous situation.  
A picture with the village elders before we left to meet a tribe in the Low Lands of West Pokot

A picture with the village elders before we left to meet a tribe in the Low Lands of West Pokot

Into the Lowlands

Other than a nagging, uneasy feeling over their use of pasteurized milk, I felt I accomplished what I set out to do - see mursik production, taste/experience mursik, and observe how mursik production and consumption is influenced by and is an important part of their culture. Nevertheless, Samuel was urging us to say goodbye and load up in the vehicles quickly to provide us enough time to drive all the way to the lowlands.  His promise of an even more traditional mursik experience was romantic and we followed his advice, thanked everyone for sharing such an important part of their lives with us and left.  

The drive was the scariest automotive experience . . . straight drop here with no guard rail

The drive was the scariest automotive experience . . . straight drop here with no guard rail

The drive was fact, it was the hottest, bumpiest, scariest drive I have ever experienced anywhere in the world!  Recent intense and persistent rains had washed out the sandy dirt roads and our descent down the side of the mountain was risky.  There was no guard rail and not much left of the road.  I was seated right next to the window on the side of the vehicle closest to the edge and, with a clear few of the shear several thousand foot drop and there more than a few times I thought we were going off the road - and there was no chance whatsoever of surviving.  I wondered if this was the right choice and what kind of father I was to put my family in this sort of danger.  For what?  We had already experienced the mursik.  Was it worth it to go this far to witness something a little more traditional?  I seriously wondered if my family was going to survive this experience but it was too late to turn back.  Stopping and attempting to turn around would have been more dangerous than just continuing down the mountain.  We were committed.

Goats on road

Eventually, after almost three hours of descending down the mountain we reached the lowlands and the roads flattened out.  The dirt roads were not in any better shape, but at least we no longer faced the danger of falling down the escarpment.  A while later we turned off the road and drove into the bush eventually stopping at the entrance to a village.


And again, we heard it before we saw it - the villagers came out to greet us with song and dance!

Being greeted Tribe 2

The songs were different, but the enthusiasm the same.  

We were all quickly surrounded and, through hand and eye gestures invited to participate.  Once we did we worked our way as a group through the gate. The singing and dancing lasted for about 20 minutes and seemed like every person in the surrounding area participated.  It wasn’t until the music stopped that I realized I was mistaken. 

greeting tribe 2
Meeting the Chief

Our driver-turned-guide, Samuel, approached me and pointed out the man in the distance - the single person not participating.  He was laying on a rawhide mat in the shade of a tree with his head resting on a carved wooden headrest.  There was a look on his face of complete indifference and he refused to make eye contact with any of us.  I thought it strange that with all of the festivities - singing and dancing and laughing - that he was positioned where he was in an almost angry state. Samuel informed me that this is Kadel, the head man and that it is my responsibility to go to him and introduce myself before he would acknowledge any of us.  As Samuel, Jason and I walked over Kadel remained steadfast with his eyes seemingly focused on something in the distance.  Whatever he was looking at was not us.  I spoke first and, and through Samuel, thanked him for allowing us to visit him and his people.  A moment passed and then he spoke as Samuel translated.  Kadel asked me to introduce myself and to tell him why we had come - which I did.  As Samuel tried to keep up with my enthusiastic response I told Kadel what I did and all about the Food Evolutions Project and the Eastern Shore Food Lab at Washington College that I was building and how excited I was to learn more about the mursik at a level that would allow me to inform others of this important food that is so integral to the health and well-being of his people in West Pokot.  I wished to develop strategies where I could adapt the approach to make something similar with the resources local to the Eastern Shore of Maryland while meeting the requirements of the local food health and safety standards - an almost insurmountable task unless the process is fully understood. 


When I finished, he stood up and approached me.  My eyes caught the ring knife he wore on the ring finger of his left hand.  I had never seen anything like it before and the intense sun reflected off of the polished metal surface making it look even more ominous.  I didn’t know what to expect, but as he approached me he generously reached out his right hand to greet me and we shook.  At that moment everything changed - a smile came across his face and his eyes brightened.  We began to joke and laugh and I brought him over to introduce him to my family and the rest of the group. 


Our 1st Taste . . . Honey Wine 

The rest of the visit was incredible.  We started by drinking honey wine made with the sausage tree fruit to celebrate our visit and, of course there was ritual associated with this practice as well.  One man was in control of the gourd that contained the honey wine and how the wine was distributed.  After removing the plug of branches and leaves that kept the flies out of the wine he spread them out on the ground.  He filled a long, thin bottle gourd with wine and, then, before drinking any wine whatsoever, he ceremoniously sprinkled drops on the ground as an offering to the ancestors.  Then, he began to pass the gourd around to drink.  The first recipient, my 10-year old daughter, Alyssa who was taken aback both by the opportunity to drink alcohol and the bits of dead bees and bee parts, wax, and sticks floating on the surface.  After a few awkward glances she took an obligatory sip and passed the gourd along. Contrary to her experience we all enjoyed the honey wine, some perhaps too much! And, with the added benefit of the social lubrication offered by the honey wine we proceeded to learn how they make their traditional mursik.


They prepared the gourd in a very similar fashion at the Tarsoi, except, that it is first rinsed with cow urine and then scraped with a burning end of a stick also from the Kromwo tree.  However, the biggest difference is that they fill the gourd with raw milk and set it aside to ferment.
 Typically, it is consumed around the 3-7 day mark, however, when there is a surplus it is set aside to ferment for much longer period, sometimes for over 6 months and is known as cheposoyo.  It loses quite a bit of moisture over this period and becomes more like cheese than yogurt.  During times of huger a spoonful of the concentrated cheposoyo is mixed with water and drank.  Two servings of this is sometimes the only food consumed each day!

Ladies making yogurt

Then they offered us several month old mursik made from raw goat’s milk - it was amazing!  The flavors and textures were complex but welcome.  There was absolutely no off or strong taste and even the kids went back for seconds!  It is hard to believe that the only ingredients were ash and raw milk fermented in a gourd cleaned with cow urine!

So...after my short but intense experiences with Mursik this is my take:

Bill drinking yogurt with Chief
  1. The ash in “ash yogurt” isn't ash after all, but rather charcoal
  2. They are not making yogurt, but instead clabber
  3. After watching the process of coating the inside of the gourd with ash/charcoal I think there is a possibility that the practice of using the burned stick to add ash/charcoal to the fermenting milk was not initially for dietary or medicinal purposes.  

Certainly, the presence of the ash/charcoal impacted the flavor, texture, and presentation (look) of the mursik, introduces important minerals to their diet and, it provides medicinal value, but I think something the practice provides which is more basic that has nothing to do with the ash/charcoal is why they first started to do it and continue to this day - the heat of the burning coal cleans the gourd and gets rid of unwanted pathogens.  And, this is why - after watching the process several times, I was struck as how often the stick is returned to the fire until the end is glowing red.  Then, the stick is used to scrape the inside of the gourd only a couple times before it is returned to the fire to burn some more.  This repeated returning to the fire only to scrape a couple times is more than necessary to produce enough ash/charcoal to sufficiently coat the inside of the gourd.  Every time they stuck the stick in the gourd smoke escaped out the opening revealing just how hot the stick actually is!  Also, the inside of the gourds are somewhat rough and porous and I believe a combination of the heat and the pressure they use when they scrape helps the “fibers” of the inside of the gourd compress resulting in a smoother surface and, perhaps the ash/charcoal fill some of the pores. 

If this is correct, then over time the flavor, texture, and look of the mursik would become the standard and requirements for “proper” mursik.  It simply would taste right, or look right, or have the right mouth feel without it.  However, if the addition of the ahs/charcoal was only for dietary or medicinal purposes why not just directly add the ash/charcoal into the milk?

The kids with all our new friends in the Village!

The kids with all our new friends in the Village!

Of course something has to happen on a plane ride . . . 

Walking with Governor

The next day as we boarded the tiny plane in Kitale to return to Nairobi I proudly clutched the gourd that had held the 3-month old goat milk mursik beautifully decorated with cowry shells I received from Kadel the day before.  And, it was that gourd that the four impeccably dressed men who boarded the plane with us noticed and prompted them to ask us who we were and what we were doing.  Taken aback, I explained all about the Food Evolutions project and the Eastern Shore Food Lab to, who is turns out, were the West Pokot Governor, Chief of Staff and two other government officials travelling to Nairobi on government business.  They were excited about what we were doing, why we were doing it and so thrilled to share their traditional food practices with the outside world!  When we landed in Nairobi we exchanged contact information and they invited us back and hoped I would bring Washington College students next time! 


Wait till you see our next stop in Kenya!

Blood Milk

Stay tuned for the next blog from Africa . . .

Here's a hint to see what we drank with the Somburu!!


Feta Cheese Molds, Food Evolutions & a Proud Professor Moment!


I dreamed of seeing Athens

one day with my own eyes ever since I first contemplated becoming an archaeologist.

This year I not only had the chance to visit, but also the honor of presenting a paper on the incorporation of experimental archaeology into the Food Evolutions project and the development at the Eastern Shore Food Lab at the conference, Experimental Archaeology Conference: Making, Understanding, Storytelling at the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies.

Aidan on the feta hunt

This was an extremely short trip and with only half a day before the conference I wanted to take full advantage of our limited time, so I dragged my travel companion, Dr. Aidan O’Sullivan, out of our hotel to wander into the city, check out the food markets and, most importantly, to search for traditional Feta Cheese molds! 

Cheese molds are containers in which the curds are placed in to drain their whey during the production of certain cheeses.  Often the size and shape of the molds help define what sort of cheese is produced and are therefore specific to different cheese making traditions.  In the past, cheese molds were often made from clay or woven from natural materials and these porous materials were perfectly suited for the job because they served two very important functions - 1) they wicked moisture away from the curds and 2) stored the beneficial bacteria, yeasts and molds responsible for the cheese production for subsequent cheese inoculation. 

Even though they have been used in the successful production of cheese for thousands of years, these more porous, natural materials are unfortunately today considered a health hazard and are practically impossible to find.  I was hoping that modern feta cheese production today in Greece would have “grandfathered” in the traditional use of molds made of natural materials and, that they may still be produced commercially. 


Having a specific goal gave us focus and guided us around a several block area where shop owners repeatedly shot us dirty looks as we rummaged through their wares in search of cheese molds. I can only imagine what they were thinking!

One of the many stores we visited

One of the many stores we visited

Lots of beautiful wares but no feta molds

Lots of beautiful wares but no feta molds

Feta was everywhere but where were the molds?

Feta was everywhere but where were the molds?

Meeting the cheese guys

To a passersby, our repeated unsuccessful attempts at communication consisting of a combination of fragmented English and Greek phrases interspersed with hand gestures describing the cheese making process when the language barrier proved too formidable must have seemed hilarious! 

Dr. Schindler and the shop owner with the coveted feta mold!

Dr. Schindler and the shop owner with the coveted feta mold!

Shop after shop turned into block after block which eventually turned into mile after mile.  

Finally, just when I thought Aidan was ready to strangle me in an effort to terminate the mission, we came across a shop owner who spoke a tiny bit of English.  After realizing what we were looking for, he directed us to a little unmarked kitchen supply store tucked away off the beaten path.  There, in a back room were stacks of plastic feta cheese molds!  My initial excitement wore off quickly when I realized they were the same mass-produced feta cheese molds I already had back in America, but I still could not resist the opportunity to pick up a few more to bring back to the Eastern Shore Food Lab to help me relay the story about the trip to Greece every time I made feta with them.  Aidan and I left the shop proud that we had accomplished our goal, but a little defeated that the “traditional” cheese molds in Athens were the same mass produced plastic molds we had back in America. 

We walked a few blocks and there, across the street, was a small shop with its hand-made goods spilling into the street!  We literally both ran into the shop and gazed longingly at the handmade butter churns and kneading boards and knew that there was absolutely no way that we could get any of it back on our return flight with Ryan Air!  As we stood there, defeated, we spotted a stainless-steel feta cheese mold!  Though hand-made, this is not a traditional material for feta cheese production.  The shop owner informed us that this is the closest thing to traditional we were going to find because of modern food safety laws.  It was gorgeous and I knew it was coming home with me!

With the infamous feta mold in hand - let the Conference begin!

The Greek-Irish Experimental Archaeology conference took place the next day.  Just before it started we had the unique opportunity to meet the Irish ambassador to Greece, Orla O’Hanrahan and talk to her about experimental archaeology and the unique way in which we are applying experimental archaeological research to address issues of food, diet, health and sustainability.  The conference, co-organized by the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture and Museum of Cycladic Art, was full of excellent presentations on exciting and innovative approaches to experimental archaeological research. 

The UCD presenters with the Irish Ambassador to Greece, Orla O'Hanrahan

The UCD presenters with the Irish Ambassador to Greece, Orla O'Hanrahan

Aidan gave the keynote address, co-authored with Eileen Reilly and Brendan O’Neill, titled, Experimental Archaeology: Making, understanding, and storytelling about Prehistoric and Early Medieval Houses

My paper, co-authored with Jason O’Brien and Aidan O’Sullivan was titled: Food evolutions: using anthropology, experimental archaeology, food sciences and culinary arts to fuse ancient and modern foodways.  

Aidan delivering the keynote address

Aidan delivering the keynote address

Bill presenting his paper about Food Evolutions

Bill presenting his paper about Food Evolutions

Maggie Presenting

The most meaningful part of the entire trip, however,
was watching my former student, Maggie Kobik,
present at her first professional international conference! 

Maggie delivered a paper co-authored with Dr. Jo Day, titled, Reconstructing a Minoan pottery kiln from Priniatiko Pyrgos, Crete.  Maggie, who graduated from Washington College in 2011 was one of my students when I first started teaching there almost a decade ago.  Maggie recently graduated with her master’s degree from University College Dublin in Ireland, ironic since I am spending my sabbatical this year here in Ireland in collaboration with UCD. 

Maggie has even made the front page of the Washington College website with a piece that details her story called "Digging into Her Future."  


Maggie presenting








I can honestly tell you that, as a professor, there is no better feeling than to see your students succeed.  I was bursting with pride as I sat in the audience watching her command the room while she confidently and articulately presented her research to an international audience. 

Great job, Maggie!

And in case you were curious . . .
I was able to make feta when I got back to Ireland!

Homemade feta

The Original Cheesemaker 

The Original Cheesemaker 

I had no idea when I registered for the Traditional Cheese Making Course with David Asher that I would end up in a rural part of Iceland, knife in hand, skinning a two-week old veal calf hanging from a forklift in a toolshed . . . .