Saturday, April 26, 2014

Beyond Apicius: alternate sources on Roman food

This is the first of two related posts. The second is Beyond Apicius (2): recipes from other Roman sources.

As literate as the Romans were, they left only one bona fide cookbook (arguably, two in one) and one quasi cookbook (that is, a dietetic which includes a number of recipes). Both come at or after the end of the Empire.

The most well-known, De Re Coquinaria, is fictively credited to the great gourmet Apicius, who lived in the first century. While some believe it includes fragments of his own work, it is substantially a fourth or even fifth century work. Laurioux says plainly that it is Medieval: "The history of De re coquinaria then indeed belongs to the Middle Ages, and it does so fully...the text itself, such as it has come to us, was not set before the fifth century and probably continued to evolve during the very early Middle Ages".

The author or authors are unknown; since some still fall into the error of crediting it to the historical Apicius, it is safer to refer to this “Apicius” as Pseudo-Apicius. To further complicate matters, the work is preserved with a later work by Vinidarius, who is believed to have been a Goth. Though the latter is entitled "Excerpts from Apicius", it is effectively separate.

It may in fact have been written around the same time as De Observatione Ciborum, a sixth century work left by the physician Anthimus. While being steeped in Roman culture, Anthimus was Greek and was writing for a Frankish king

With a few exceptions, Anthimus' preparations are essentially Roman. Inexplicably, some claim that he based his own work on that of Pseudo-Apicius, despite the fact that Anthimus neither copies nor adopts any of the older work's recipes and in fact includes several dishes which do not appear in any form in Pseudo-Apicius' work. It has also been claimed that Carolingian cooks used recipes from De Re Coquinaria, though no specific evidence exists of the fact.

The recipes of Pseudo-Apicius are typically very ornate. Not only do they often include a range of spices and herbs, they might also include vinegar, honey, garum and other flavoring liquids. The original work uses a long list of spices and the appendix by Vinidarius begins with separate, and lengthy, inventories of herbs and spices. Anthimus' dietetic makes for uncertain comparisons, since the brevity of some instructions may simply reflect his desire to focus on what affected health. Still, he does include several complete recipes and these are typically far simpler than recipes in De Re Coquinaria.

Taken together, how much do these works tell us of what Roman food was actually like? The (expensive) spices alone would have made much of this exceptional cuisine. But that is a limitation of virtually all early cookbooks: they describe the food of the very rich. Yet what other sources do we have?

For the Romans, the most obvious alternate source is literature. This is neither complete nor undistorted, especially since some of the most detailed references to food are found in satire. Gowers warns:
For all the vast stores of information that have survived, we have no straightforward, detailed description of a normal Roman meal. Instead there is usually a split between disgusting or extravagant meals described from a hostile point of view, and innocent meals where food is at its least gross, or is omitted altogether.... Martial's urban menus, are... heavily ironic...
It is perhaps a mistake, then to use literary sources simply as evidence for what the Romans ate. The uneasy stance of the writer and the imbalanced distribution of food across the literary genres can tell us just as much about the Romans' attitudes to the subject as any catalogue of dishes. Texts that contain food are not just repositories of information; they are often evasive and compromising stabs at a tricky subject.
But literature does much expand our view of the reality, especially in correspondence where writers are, as it were, caught off guard. It also has the advantage of showing us food at the height of the Empire, rather than at its decline.

By far the richest writer in this regard is Martial (40 – between 102 and 104), who virtually inventories various foods and is only too happy to exaggerate either their qualities or their defects when he is trying to make a point. Juvenal has less but useful observations to make. Petronius Arbiter (c. 27 – 66)'s description of Trimalchio's feast is frank satire of a vulgar arriviste and certainly does not show typical Roman cuisine. This said, Petronius is more likely to have exaggerated than invented the dishes he describes; for a contemporary audience to have been amused, his portrait had to be close enough to reality to prompt guffaws of recognition. (Think of references to sushi and goat's cheese in relation to certain circles today.)

Regional references

Probably the most striking aspect of literary references to food is the focus on their origins. These are rare in Pseudo-Apicius and non-existent in Anthimus. Martial not only references many of these in passing, but methodically enumerates a number of them as well (apparently period audiences enjoyed this kind of light topical verse, since he was very successful in his own time).

He writes of “unsavory Toulouse cheese”. Cheese from Luna (an Etruscan town) he describes as suited to slaves (despite bearing an image, probably of the moon). Vestine cheese is said to be cheap. Cheese smoked in the Velabran quarter of Rome is said to be flavorful.

He praises the “gammon” of the Cerratans (in Spain) or of the Menapians (in what is now Westphalia) over common ham.

Martial refers to prawns from Campania (the river Liris, “sheltered by wood of Marica”) and oysters from the Lucrine lake, near Baia. (Later, Ausonius (c. 310 – c. 395) would produce a long catalogue of oysters from different regions of Gaul.)

Twice he disparages the tuna fish of Antipolis (today Antibes); among other things this was used to make an inferior form of garum (more typically made of mackerel). His reference to “wrinkled Picenian olives” is not flattering either, though (probably fresher) these olives were said to be given at both the start and the end of the meal; Picenian pork was used in the (praised) sausage of Lucania, one of the few items Pseudo-Apicius does qualify by region, though probably only because the region and the concept had become so entwined.

He refers (probably favorably) to a kind of “wooly pike” (laneus lupus) from the mouth of the Timavus, a river near Venice, saying that it fattened on the mix of salt with fresh water.

“The tail of a poor Saxetan fish” (from a place now in Alicante, Spain) does not sound appetizing. He refers to lamprey from “the Sicilian whirlpool”.

Martial's complaint that birds of Libya or Phasis (probably in the modern country of Georgia) were lacking in a meal implicitly praises these. But he says that Ionian woodcock was the best of wild fowl. Martens from Pannonia (around Serbia and Slovenia) were good enough to give as a gift to an emperor.

He shows particular interest in leeks, which were important to the Germans as well. Tarentine leeks are said to be strong-smelling; Aricia's the best (with green blades and white stalks). Asparagus from the Ravenna coast was also a reference. Cappadocian lettuces are described as “common”, neither good nor particularly bad. He refers to a kind of Egyptian bean whose main disadvantage was that it took great effort get its fibers out of it (“with teeth and hands”). He also cites Egyptian (Pelusian) lentils.

Syrian pears were good enough that others were passed off for them. He praises figs of Chios for their sharp taste, says those of Syria are small and those of Libya big, though he comments on how small Libyan cottana figs were. He recommends Nomentan pomegranates (and “tuber-apples”) over those of Libya,

He praises Attic honey overall but says that one type of Sicilian honey can also be called by this name.

Picentine flour is said to be excellent, particularly with “nectar” (meaning honey in the baking?). Rhodian biscuit was clearly very hard – he says that rather than smashing a disobedient slave's teeth with one's fist, one might as well give him this.

List of foods

In trying to envision general Roman food, simple enumerations of food can be useful, even if they are not always so vivid as “capers and onions swimming in disgusting sauce, and the soft part of a gammon of bacon, whose freshness is disputable; and pilchards and tunny, whose flesh is turning white: wines which taste of the resin seal”. The last remark is one of several to highlight the unwelcome flavors added – intentionally or not – to wine: notably pitch and smoke.

The same poem lists preferable options: “mullet, turtle-dove, hare, sweetmeats, or slices of cake”; in another, Martial lists as dainties “a thrush, or a slice of cheesecake, or a hare's thigh”. He later writes that the hare is the greatest delicacy among “quadrupeds” (that is, here, land animals.)

Wild ass in general was a Roman delicacy; Martial only adds that the very young, essentially the suckling, was called a lalisio.

Beef is rarely mentioned in Roman food, but Martial mentions bullocks being slaughtered to celebrate the inscription of new honors. If this was a public ceremony, the food may have been meant for the public, so that quantity would have mattered more than quality. Similarly, oxen were offered at public (though paying) meals in fourteenth century Paris, even as the rich tended to eat other meats.

In several poems he shows how much wild boar was prized, saying that one man would not eat without it and another, having promised it, served a domestic pig in its place (though Martial claims to prefer a suckling pig to even boar). A sponger's free food includes wild boars, mullets, sows' teats, and oysters; an ostentatious man is said to give all these as well as hare and mushrooms as presents. He is also a miser however, and when he dines “luxuriously” himself, his food includes “cabbage drenched with oil” – an ironic reference?

Mushrooms were prized enough that in praising truffles, Martial says they were second only to the former. Juvenal refers to a dish of truffles ending the meal.

Anthimus, writing in the north of Gaul centuries later, omits mullets (as one might expect), but includes both boar and oysters, as well as a sow's udder. He mentions mushrooms, but, from a medical point of view, with disapproval.

Martial suggests only eating the liver of char (or entrails of sea-bream, depending on the translation). Around Venice, he writes, gudgeon began the meal. Sturgeon would later be known in France as a “royal fish” and Martial held it in the same regard, saying that it should be sent straight to the palace.

Martial says that only the breast and neck of a duck should eaten, even though the whole bird should be brought to the table. He claims a preference for turtledoves over lettuce or shellfish; that is, foods typically served at the start of a meal – meaning either that he did not want to bother with a starter or that turtledove itself might serve as one?

Partridge he refers to as a great luxury, noting later that people preferred the tame to the wild only because it was more expensive. His only comment on the peacock, also prized, is that it is a shame to eat so beautiful a bird. Wood-pigeons, he warns, decrease a man's sex drive. He points out that epicures prefer the tongues of flamingos – an idea which has come to stand for Roman excess; Pliny refers to a dish of songbirds' tongues offered by the actor Aesopus.

The Romans made what was in effect foie gras and he claims fattened goose liver could seem too big to have been in one bird. Juvenal too refers to “the monstrous liver of a pampered goose”. Fattening animals is an on-going theme. Hens, Martial says, were fattened on flour "and darkness"; capons by being castrated; dormice by nothing but sleep.

He also insists that ham be fresh and not “stale” – a curious remark for a salted meat.

The Roman love of disguised food is exemplified in Martial's portrait of Cecilius:
Caecilius, a very Atreus of gourds [alternately, cucumbers], tears and cuts them into a thousand pieces, just as if they were the children of Thyestes. Some of these pieces will be placed before you to begin with as a relish; they will appear again as a second course; then again as a third course. From some he will contrive a dessert; from others the baker will make mawkish patties, cakes of every form, and dates such as are sold at the theatres. By the art of the cook they are metamorphosed into all sorts of mincemeat, so that you would fancy you saw lentils and beans on the table; they are also made to imitate mushrooms and sausages, tails of tunnies and anchovies. This dextrous cook exhausts the powers of art to disguise them in every way, sometimes by means of Capellian rue. Thus he fills his dishes, and side dishes, and polished plates, and tureens, and congratulates himself upon his skill in furnishing so many dishes at the cost of a penny.

Similar transformations are detailed in some of the meals described below. But it is striking here that this one man is presented almost as a culinary balloon sculptor, specializing in this one food.

He says that one may eat a Priapus (phallic figure) made out of pastry with no fear for one's chastity. This highlights both the Roman love of pastry and the common presentation of this particular erect god.

Otherwise, Ausonius – writing at the end of the Empire – is a rare literary writer to mention a spice other than pepper: black cumin (nigella), which he says is just as hot.


One would not expect recipes in these works, but some of the combinations listed are explicit enough to inspire them. Juvenal mentions, though not flatteringly, “a lobster graced with large asparagi”. Martial writes “The tunny will lurk under slices of egg;...sausages will float on snow-white porridge, and the pale bean will accompany the red-streaked bacon.” (Ausonius, reviewing early Roman food, says that spelt was used to make porridge, which he describes as a food for the common folk.) This same passage describes “a cauliflower hot enough to burn your fingers” – because it has been grilled? – that has “just left the cool garden” (probably meaning only that it is fresh) and is “served fresh and green” (on a black platter, which shows some sense of color in presentation).

All this, after lettuce and “strong leeks” to whet the appetite, is a first course; the next is of raisins, pears “which pass for Syrian” and roast Neapolitan chestnuts. This second course is striking, since fruit typically were part of the final course, so either this was a simple meal (the first course was the whole main course) or fruit could be included earlier in a meal than is sometimes suggested.

Twice Martial mentions rue used with eggs and some form of fish: “Slices of egg shall crown anchovies dressed with rue”; “tunny-fish, full grown, and larger than the slender eel, which will be garnished with egg and leaves of rue.” Simple as this combination is, it is also distinctive enough to mark it as a period preparation. He suggests using garum with eggs when the “white fluid” surrounds the yolk (meaning when it is raw?).

The anchovies here are part of another banquet which begins with “mallows, to aid digestion,” lettuces and cut leeks, mint, against flatulence, and elecampane to stimulate appetite.. After this come the anchovies, “sow's teats swimming in tuna sauce.... a kid” and food that needs no carving: broad beans, and young cabbage sprouts. With these, a chicken; and a 'ham which has already appeared at table three times' ”. For dessert, ripe fruit and Nomentan wine “which was three years old in Frontinus' second consulship” (the Romans noted vintages by the consuls under which the wine was produced).

This seems to be neither satirical nor quite modest. The lettuce and leek at the start echo the earlier list. Sow's teats were a staple of better meals and seem to have been prepared in a range of different ways. Juvenal writes of “the paps of swine / Hot from the cauldron”. This would have been a relatively simple preparation; Martial claims that they could be prepared in such a way that one would think they still swelled with their own milk. Pseudo-Apicius gives a complex recipe for them; Anthimus says only they can be either boiled or fried.

Martial suggests soaking cabbage sprouts in nitrated water; they seem to have been a common sidedish. The wine would have been decent but not superb. All this is in keeping with what follows, a statement that the atmosphere will be convivial, not cruelly clever.

Elsewhere, Martial specifically comments on the use of lettuce as a starter, pointing out that formerly it had ended a meal.

He gives one simple general note on preparation: “No savory dish without an onion”.

Macrobius (fifth c.) provides what he claims are the details of a celebratory meal from 63 B.C. E. at which Julius Caesar was a guest.
Before the supper proper were sea urchins, raw oysters as desired, pelorides [large mussels or clams], sphondyli [mussels?], thrush, asparagus; below fat hens, oysters and pelorides in pasties, black sea acorns, white sea acorns, sphondyli again, glycomarides [another shellfish], sea nettles, figpeckers, loins of deer and boar, floured fat hen, figpeckers, murex [a type of sea-snail], "purples" [the spiny dye-murex or other shellfish used for the dye].
The meal proper was of sow's teats, boar's head, fish in pasty, sow's teats in pasty, ducks, boiled teal, hare, roast fowl, starch [as pastry?], Picentian bread [of Picentian flour?].
Wildly varying translations exist of this menu, not least because much of the shellfish listed cannot be reliably identified. But what is clear is that shellfish of several sorts played a key role in this banquet. Otherwise, chicken, boar, figpecker, sow's teats and hare would remain Roman standards, as would a generous use of pastry for food.

In describing a man who sponges off others Martial shows him taking home the best morsels: “boar's neck, the loin, the two hips and both shoulders of a hare .... a thrush....the livid beards of oysters. Sweet cheese-cakes stain his dirty napkin; in which also potted grapes are wrapped, with a few pomegranates, the unsightly skin of an excavated sow's udder, moist figs, and shriveled mushrooms. ....gnawed fish-bones, and a turtle-dove deprived of its head.” Unattractive as all this has become, it is some of the best food.

(This theme of taking food home, by the way, is a common one; two other accounts show diners eagerly stuffing free fruit in their pockets.)

He rejects the precious gift of a wild boar because in making it “my cook will consume a vast heap of pepper, and will have to add Falernian wine to the mysterious sauce.” What else went into this “mysterious sauce” we will never know, but these two ingredients on their own were costly, so much so one flinches at the idea of large amounts of pepper being put into what was then the equivalent of a grand cru.

But he also writes “how often must the cook have recourse to wine and pepper!” when referring to beets. In one reading of Anthimus, the same combination is used with peacocks in their own juices. It is a simple combination which then had the advantage of being inherently luxurious as well (pepper being then and long after fabulously expensive).

Would any other seasoning actually have been able to compete? For a Roman palate, conceivably; Anthimus offers a recipe for beef which uses so much vinegar a modern eater is unlikely to taste the carefully measured spices, except perhaps for the nard, or at least the Valerian often used to replace it today, which itself overwhelms the other spices.

Pliny the Younger (61 – c. 113) half-humorously chastises a friend who failed to come for a meal he describes in self-mocking detail: a lettuce for each, three snails, two eggs, and a barley cake, with some sweet wine and snow, as well as Andalusian olives, shallots, and “a hundred other dainties equally sumptuous”. His friend however preferred sow-bellies, oysters and sea-urchins (not to mention dancing girls). If Pliny exaggerates the simplicity of his meal, details like lettuce, snails and eggs, as well as wine cooled with snow, are familiar items in the Roman repertoire.

Horace (65 BCE – 8 BCE) has a tiresome would-be epicure describe his sauce for a large lamprey with shrimp swimming in it: pure Venafrian oil, garum with Spanish mackerel, five year old Italian wine, poured into it when it is boiling, after which is added Chian wine, white pepper and vinegar "of the best Lesbian grape".

Horace gives the first course in this meal as a Lucanian boar garnished with small turnips (where Seneca mentions pyramids of apples for this dish), lettuce and root vegetables, all these intended to whet the appetite. With this was also served skirret-root, alec (a sauce from the solid remains of making garum) and the lees of Coan wine. Cecuban wine and the wine of Chios follow, with the offer of (equally excellent) Alban or Falernian if anyone wants any.

The lamprey and shrimp, and other fish, follow. Then comes a crane "curiously carved", seasoned with flour and salt; foie gras (a goose liver fattened with figs) and the shoulder of several hares.

Last are listed roasted blackbirds and "pigeons without rumps" (the last peculiar detail probably meant to highlight the host's ignorance of what was the best part).

Martial refers to keeping mullets alive in sea-water. Several other writers refer to killing it at the table, in a sort of sado-aesthetic ritual. The older Pliny (23 – 79) writes:
M. Apicius, a man who displayed a remarkable degree of ingenuity in everything relating to luxury, was of the opinion, that it was a most excellent plan to let the mullet die in the pickle known as the " garum of the allies "—for we find that even this has found a surname
If this seems cruel to a modern reader, Seneca (ca. 4 BCE– 65 CE) did not approve either:
The Romans had their brooks even in their parlors; and found their dinners under their tables. The mullet was reckoned stale unless it died in the hand of the guest: and they had their glasses to put them into, that they might the better observe all the changes and motions of them in the last agony betwixt life and death. So that they fed their eyes before their bodies. "Look how it reddens," says one; "there is no vermilion like it. Take notice of these veins; and that same gray brightens upon the head of it. And now he is at his last gasp: see how pale he turns, and all of a color." These people would not have given themselves half this trouble with a dying friend; nay, they would leave a father or a brother at his last hour to entertain themselves with the barbarous spectacle of an expiring fish.
Martial makes various references to preserved fruit, such as candied plums and Libyan figs (the latter given with onions, shell-fish and cheese); quince soaked in (Attic) honey are said to be “delicious” (like “honey-apples”). (This is particularly of interest because in France at least the idea of candying fruit did not resurface until sugar arrived from the East.) He also refers to “gilded dates” supposedly offered on the Kalends of January.

Mixing honey with wine was common enough, but Martial refers to Attic honey with Falernian wine as something to be mixed by Ganymede (cup-bearer to the gods); that is, the height of perfection.

Trimalchio's meal

Petronius' description of this arriviste's meal is one of the classic descriptions of a Roman banquet, but a Roman banquet at its most pretentious extreme. Still, if much of the presentation is pushed to the point of caricature, the foods themselves are not, for the most part, unusual for an upscale meal of the time. The pretense lies above all in the mechanics of presentation (omitted, for the most part, here).

The appetizers are green and black olives, followed by dormice seasoned with honey and poppyseed and sausage (from where is not said) on a silver grill with plums and pomegranate seeds under it to represent unlit and red-hot coals.

The straw under a wooden fowl turns out to hold pea-hen's eggs made of flour paste holding plump reed-birds in peppered egg yolks.

A vintage wine of the very best kind – "Falernian Opimian, one hundred years old." – is served from glass vessels sealed with plaster (a rare reference to anything like the later glass bottle).

One of the more colorful, but not at all unbelievable, touches comes in a tray labeled with all the signs of the Zodiac:
Over the Ram, some chick-peas with tendrils that curled like a ram's horns; over the Bull, a bit of beef; over the Twins, a pair of lamb's fries and kidneys; over the Crab, a garland; over the Lion, an African fig; over the Virgin, a sow's paunch; over the Balance, a pair of scales on one of which was placed a tart and on the other a cake; over the Scorpion, a crab; over Aquarius, a goose; over the Fish, two mullets. In the middle was a piece of fresh turf supporting a honeycomb.
If the presentation is as theatrical as all the others, the contents are largely familiar ones for the time: chick-peas, a fig, a goose, a sow's belly, mullets, tarts and cakes. This makes others – beef, the lamb's fries (testicles) and kidneys – believable as well as current items.

The narrator refers to all these as “absurd viands”, highlighting their ostentation. But none are too exotic to be believable as the kind of over-clever food some of the rich might then have served.

The upper part of this tray opens to show “capons and sows' breasts, and a hare with feathers stuck in its back so as to represent Pegasus. We observed also in the corner of the tray a figure of Marsyas, holding a wine-skin from which highly peppered fish-sauce flowed out over the fish, which swam in it as though they were in a brook.” Again, if the service is over the top, capons, sow's udders and hare were all standard upscale delicacies. The idea of a cooked fish “swimming” in the sauce reappears later in Fortunatus; it was probably as standard a presentation conceit as serving a bird in its own feathers.

Note that Pseudo-Apicius gives no instructions for such gimmicks, where Taillevent (14th c.), for instance, is more explicit about how to serve dishes like peacock, for instance.

A large boar is served with dates and figs hung from its tusks; all three elements commonly found in Roman food. Piglets made of pastry “suckle” it, showing that the animal is female. This is the kind of touch later found in Medieval food, though figures were more likely then to be made of sugar (the French took a very long time to revive the Greek and Roman idea of fine pastry). When the animal is cut open, live thrush – another upscale commonplace for the period – fly out. In Medieval times, similar tricks were played with pies. But the Romans seemed to prefer stuffing large animals with unexpected items; a celebrated favorite was the Trojan Pig, so-called because the cooked animal was filled with other animals (also cooked), just as the Trojan horse was filled with soldiers.

After this several animals are proposed to the guests, alive, and then two are supposedly cooked at once (implying that in fact one of each had already been prepared and that Trimalchio did not mind wasting whichever was not chosen). One is a pig which, cut open, turns out to be filled with sausages. The other is a boiled calf, which is simply cut into pieces that are served around (though it is brought in wearing a helmet).

After more theatricality, “a tray was set before us full of cakes with an image of Priapus as a centre-piece made of confectionery and holding in its generous bosom apples of every sort and grapes, in the usual fashion, as being the god of gardens. We eagerly snatched at this magnificent display, and suddenly renewed our mirth at discovering a novel trick; for all the cakes and all the apples, when pressed the least bit, squirted forth saffron-water into our faces.” Saffron water was used somewhat like a perfume or deodorizer. Otherwise, it is interesting that, after all the ornate food they had been served, these guests are so eager for fruit.

Note that this is a rare reference to any spice beyond pepper, and even here is it is not being used to flavor food. Given all the spices specified in the cookbooks, one would expect some comment on their redolent odor, at least, especially because, being expensive, they were yet another way to flaunt one's wealth.

The next offering seems almost comically simple: “in place of dainty little thrushes there were fat hens, and also goose eggs prepared with pastry, all of which Trimalchio earnestly begged us to eat, saying that the fowls had been boned.”

At this point, Petronius provides a kind of interlude in the form of a newly arrived guest's account of the funeral meal he just left. If this is simpler than Trimalchio's, it is copious and complex enough:
For the first course pork washed down with wine, and cheese cakes and chicken livers, mighty well cooked, and also beets and [per the translation] “graham bread”, which this man (in a very modern way) prefers to white, saying it makes him strong and helps his digestion.
For the next course little tarts with a hot sauce of honey and “first-rate” Spanish wine, as well as peas, nuts, and apples.
A piece of bear's meat (which made his wife sick, but which the teller claimed tasted like wild boar).
To end, pot-cheese, jelly, snails, and a dish of heart and liver, eggs and turnips, and “some kind of a dish fixed up with mustard”, as well as pickled olives, and a ham (which he did not touch)
The reference to a mustard-flavored dish is one of the few to an explicit preparation; sauces and spices simply do not seem to have interested these diners much. Note too that again the fruit – classically listed as a dessert for the Romans – again appears in the middle of the meal.

Back at Trimalchio's meal, a dessert comes in of pastry thrushes stuffed with nuts and raisins and quinces studded with thorns to look like hedgehogs.

Even this is not the end of what the narrator describes as an interminable and excessive meal. A goose is served “surrounded by fish and every kind of birds”.

A running theme is Trimalchio's use of slaves to pull various pranks. Here they stage a fight and break a waterjar, spilling out oysters and scallops which are “matched” by snails on a silver gridiron.

A kind of postscript occurs when Trimalchio takes a cock's crow as a bad omen and has the bird killed and cooked:
As soon as it has been cut up by the accomplished cook who a little while before had made birds and fishes out of pork, it was thrown into the pot, and while Daedalus tossed off a hot drink, Fortunata ground up some pepper in a wooden pepper-box
This improvised meal seems to come down to cooking the rooster and serving it with pepper.

Dining details

It is unlikely that a modern diner making Roman food would want to do so prone on a couch “on purple and silk cushions”, nor to use “red feathers” (of the flamingo) to provoke vomiting, but a sticker for detail might like to know that some toothpicks were made of lentisc wood. Martial writes elsewhere that, in a pinch, one can use a quill. He points out that stoneware cups may be less elegant than glass, but do not crack in boiling water. Breaking the crystal was already a concern among the Romans; Martial notes that it is precisely in trying not to that one sometimes breaks them.

He also mentions a snow-strainer (for the snow used to cool wines) but says that linen is good enough for the lesser wines. Note too that he insists on the importance of having a water-jug on the table; highlighting again how common a drink water was in former times.

The vessel “nobly” named for mushrooms (boletaria) in practice was used for the more humble cabbage.

He also mentions peacock feathers being used to drive flies away from food. Slaves, he claims, have stopped using brooms (made from palms) and now simply pick up crumbs.

Horace shows one man wiping up the table with a purple napkin after a first course while another gathers up the remains of the food and “whatever else might give offense”.


Given the wealth of spices listed in Pseudo-Apicius and even the handful used by Anthimus, one thing in particular stands out in literary references to food: the lack of any references to spices. Even if these writers were not writing recipes, one would think some would highlight the rich effect of what were exotic and expensive ingredients. Consider that in later centuries, even before the Crusades, Peter Damian referred to “dishes sprinkled with fragrant spices”; later a poet like Champier mentioned green sauce and saffron. The twelfth to thirteenth century fabliaux mention cinnamon, ginger and other spices of the period.

Yet with very rare exceptions Roman writers mention one spice: pepper. Does this mean that the dishes they otherwise described in such detail did not use other spices or was it that the visual presentations were simply too captivating to allow one to think about the flavors in the food? Or was the pepper so overwhelming that the other spices were not apparent to anyone but the cook?

Martial himself offers an epigram on pepper, but on none of the other spices. Where he does mention nard, for instance, it is as a cosmetic. He does not mention the most specifically Roman spice
 – silphium – at all. The strongest flavors he cites for dishes are pepper and onion. Nor does Horace's epicure includes spices other than pepper in his careful description of a sauce. Rather, the varying flavors come from the blend of liquids. It is possible then that the rich use of spices found in cookbooks was a later development and that at the height of the Empire, these were used far less in elegant cooking.

Otherwise, the list of delicacies in these texts is, in the end, pretty limited: oysters, snails, mushrooms, asparagi, thrush, turtledoves, mullets, wild boar, hare, sow's teats and belly, figpeckers, with less mentions of dormice, fattened goose livers and sea urchins. Lettuce and leeks were standard openers. Meals often included pastry of one form or another and cheesecake is often mentioned.

Though peacock is often highlighted as an extremely luxurious food, it does not appear in the specific meals here at all; rather it is wild boar that seems to have been most popular when one wanted to impress.

Mentions of specific dishes are rare, but enough are described to suggest unique combinations or even recipes: lobster with asparagus, slices of egg and rue with seafood, sausage on porridge, eggs with fish sauce (garum), wine and pepper as a sauce, poultry or other food in flour and salt, beans with bacon, and fish (probably not lamprey) with shrimp swimming in a sauce of oil, fish sauce, Italian wine, Greek wine, pepper and vinegar.

Note too that the different sequences in which food was served show a number of variations on the services classically defined for Roman food, showing that is was somewhat looser than general descriptions might suffice.

Above all, it is important to bear in mind that most of this data comes from the earlier centuries of the Roman Republic and then Empire, whereas the surviving collections of recipes are from several centuries later. It is entirely possible that some of the latter reflect a cuisine that had incorporated far more seasoning as the Empire began to decline.


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