Friday, June 25, 2010

Review: A Taste of Ancient Rome

Ilaria Giacosa (Translator: Anna Herklotz), A Taste of Ancient Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 231 pages + illustrations, bibliography, and index. $29.95

Giacosa, a food-loving archaeologist from Switzerland, delights the reader with a zesty report from 1st century Roman kitchen. The food she describes is not the boiled grain of a soldier on campaign, nor is it the nearly unbelievable cuisine of the orgy (More candied flamingo tongue, anyone?). Rather, the food she describes is that Romans ate day in and day out, with maybe a couple of fancy meals on special occasions such as recipes from “business” occasions, when a patron would feed his clients, but those were not usually anything like Caligula’s orgies.

With plenty of quotes from the period, the book does more than just reveal to modern readers and eaters the culinary practices of the ancient Romans, it shows modern people how the ancient Romans lived. For example, this quote of Martial:

“Rise: Already the baker is selling breakfasts to the children
and the roosters crow everywhere with the first light of day.”

Here we learn that people of Rome were not just awake but out in the streets about their business at dawn; the bakers having risen even earlier to prepare their goods for their customers’ morning meals. But Martial is not alone in bearing witness to the diet and lifestyle of the Romans. Seneca, Cato, Apicius, Petronius, and Juvenal are all mined for gastronomic as well as agricultural insight: Olives were not merely grown, they had to be cured. Grapes were not merely harvested, they had to be crushed and turned into wine and vinegar. And we learn such fun trivia, via Pliny the Elder that foie gras (fat liver) was invented not by the French but by Italians, who force-fed figs to their geese. The livers were called by them, iucur ficatum, (figgy liver) a much more pleasing name than that chosen by the French.

Much is often made about the differences between ancient Romans and modern Americans. I recall hearing Donald Kagan say in a radio interview that a Roman statesman would consider the American constitution absurd and unworkable. (Why Kagan, a Greek specialist was commenting on the mind of a Roman statesman I do not know.) But Giacosa brings us a quote by Tacitus, describing the influence of Petronius, the taste maker of Nero’s Rome that indicates things might not be as different as Kagan said. Immediately, upon reading the description of Petronius’ personality and influence, the names of the taste-makers in my own San Francisco and Silicon Valley come to mind, as the description by Tacitus seems to fit them all to a T.

The glory of this book, which has a few minor type-setting errors, is the many sumptuous ancient Roman recipes. The recipes are easy to follow, are composed of ingredients available in any big city (or via mail order or the internet), and translated into modern measures. There is one problem however: Apples. Finding ancient varieties of apples, as far as I can tell, is impossible, and recipes that call for apples will be problematic. Figs, grapes, grains, and animals are all easy to find in forms not much changed from what was known in 1st century Rome. But Apples today are enormous and incomparably sweet to what the Romans knew.

A lesser glory of this book, perhaps a greater glory to an anthropologist, is the inclusion of modern versions of the ancient recipes. This handy inclusion not only makes for what are, generally, easier to make dishes, but are comforting in that they show the continuity of cultural memory in an age when things seem to change at the speed of light.


DebD said...

what a fascinating book. Thanks for sharing it with us. Loved the review.

GretchenJoanna said...

Thanks so much for a good review. I'd like to read the book, or at least give one for a gift.