Most of today's knowledge of Ancient Egypt comes from the extravagant and splendid tombs we have found of their pharaohs - divine kings buried in huge pyramids. But in actuality, not all of Ancient Egypt was that rich. In fact, Egyptian society was very stratified and had huge disparities between rich and poor. The food that people ate was one indicator of this.
The poor, for example, lived a harsh life. Their staple meal consisted of barley bread with onions (which of course they made and farmed themselves). The barley bread was made by grinding up barley into flour and putting that into a sort of porridge to make dough. On special occasions, a vegetable might be added to the meal. Garlic, dates, chickpeas, and lentils, along with a few green vegetables were rarely available. Beer was often drunk with the meal - but of course the peasants had to make that themselves, too.
In fact, in ancient Egypt, beer was a more frequent beverage than water. Beer not only soothed the peasants after a long day's work, but it also had a practical purpose. The water was so contaminated with germs, Egyptians needed the alcohol in beer to keep them healthy by killing those germs. The beer was always made by hand. The peasants took all their old barley bread and mixed with water in a jar. Then, it was left out in the sun to ferment, and the resulting liquid was strained to become beer.
There was no beer or water for the rich, of course. They drank wine on almost every occasion. And they did not have only barley bread, but more than 40 types of bread to choose from. If that weren't enough, the rich in Egyptian society often imported delicacies from around the world, or rare local foods like meat. Unlike the peasants (who once in a while had a fish from the Nile), many types of meat were available to them: they had chicken, salted goose, and wild game from the marshes of the Nile. And the rich had vegetables at every meal: luxuries like lotus root, papyrus stalks, and wild celery. Fish was also common: eels, mullet, carp or tiger fish were some of numerous options.
Grandiose food for the rich never stopped - not even after they died. For the highest-ranked in society, followers would set up a stone slab altar at the tomb. On it, they would place prayers and the food that the noble would enjoy during his lifetime. To the Egyptians, this offering was not only symbolic. They believed that the dead needed food to survive into the afterlife.
Food production was as key in Ancient Egypt as in any ancient society. The Egyptian farmers followed three seasons throughout the year. First was the akhet, or flood season (which they could predict through astronomy). The Nile would drastically overflow and nourish the fields with all of the silt that had been collecting in the Nile. The second season, called peret, or the time of planting. Farmers would hoe, plow and make the soil ready for planting. Then, of course, they planted their crops.
Everyone was involved during the shemu, or harvest season. The rich devised the following "fair" distribution of tasks during shemu: the pharaoh would oversee how well things were going. The priests would thank the gods for how well things were going. The scribes would record how well things were going. And the slaves got things going: they gathered the grain, cleaned the grain, shook the grain, and stored the grain, so that the rich could enjoy it for the following year.
But when the going got rough, so did farming. In a few cases, in fact, there have been eyewitness accounts of cannibalism (the consumption of human flesh) in Ancient Egypt. Scholars actually dispel the notion that cannibalism was a major dietary function in Egypt.
All that remains today of their complex society are the pyramids, a testament to the work ethic of the slaves and the leadership of the pharaohs. But what allowed Egyptians to have that complex of a society was their food.