Food In The Ancient World
WHAT would the food have been like at an ancient Greek banquet? Moussaka would certainly have been off the menu - there were no aubergines or tomatoes back then. In fact, many of the items we now take for granted as being part of the Mediterranean diet were quite unknown in ancient times. Plato never ate an orange or squeezed a lemon; the knobbly citron was the nearest thing on offer. There were, however, other foodstuffs available which have since fallen out of use, such as silphium: a herb that tasted of "sulphur mixed with garlic". Add in some liquorice-flavoured lamb, thistles soaked in honey and lots of wine, and you begin to get an idea of what Wilkins and Hill consider to have been one of the world's great cuisines. Greco-Roman cookery, they claim, was on a par with Indian or Chinese.
After that, though, it all gets trickier. Cookery books were highly popular in ancient times (one poet complained that they outsold Homer), but manuals which take you step-by-step through food preparation are a fairly recent invention. The 'aspirational' food book - tempting you with mouthwatering descriptions and illustrations evoking posh dinner parties or rustic foreigners - are actually the more traditional kind, and this is what the Greeks and Romans had. The reason is simple: cooks were illiterate slaves who learned their skills through apprenticeship, and cookery books were aimed at rich diners wanting to know how best to impress their guests.
Consequently, Wilkins and Hill have to piece together a picture built largely from literary quotations and archaeological remains. It amounts to an enormous pile of evidence, but the missing factor is what it all really tasted like. That is the first problem with this book - it provides, in an appendix, only three very basic recipes, and readers expecting to learn how to cook authentic Greco-Roman food will be left disappointed.
The other problem is the writing. This is an absolutely fascinating subject, but it is presented in a singularly unappetising way. Wilkins, a professor of Greek, writes the main chapters, while Hill, a chef, contributes brief introductions to each. Wilkins' tone is meticulously scholarly, but the frequent repetitions suggest a work pulled together from lecture notes and conference papers. I lost track of the number of times I read that apricots were introduced in the first century BC, but by the fourth or fifth time I was sick of apricots.
This book is best treated as a kind of mezze, dipped into at random. Every page offers something interesting, even if the whole thing taken together results in a bad case of indigestion. While it cannot enlighten us on exactly what a Greek or Roman meal was like, it does raise intriguing questions about the way we regard food, and why we eat the things we do.
For example, the Roman physician Galen described a village that suffered a particularly hard winter. First the people slaughtered all the pigs and ate them. Then they dug up the acorns stored as pig food, and ate those too. The acorns, Galen noted, were nutritionally superior to the peasants' usual diet, but they never normally ate them because of their low status as animal food. Our diet is a statement about where we see ourselves in nature's pecking order.
In one ancient Greek play, a woman illustrates her poverty by saying she has eaten a cicada. Insects are a potentially rich source of protein, but Greeks and Romans ate cicadas only in desperation (though they tolerated locusts). They turned up their noses at camel meat but happily tucked into puppy, hedgehog and fox (the latter fattened with grapes).
We tend to forget the link that has always existed between food and medicine. Plato distinguished between the doctor who prescribes food for health, and the cook who entertains the palate. Many familiar foodstuffs were initially eaten for medicinal reasons, then found attractive in their own right. Garlic and onions came into this category, as did the noxious silphium, which apparently became one of the classic flavours of ancient cooking. Puppy meat, too, was originally a medicine.
Some familiar images turn out to be true - the Greeks and Romans really did recline on sofas while dining, and dormice were a delicacy. But Wilkins and Hill say nothing about the legendary vomitoria of Roman orgies. In Greece, men and women dined separately - and nothing at all is known about what the women ate. For the men, meat was the most prized food, with athletes being the biggest eaters. One supposedly got through an entire bull, having carried it on his shoulders first.
For the Greek hoi polloi, the staple meal was mazza, a barley porridge flavoured with olive oil and vinegar. On this, the authors take a tone reminiscent of Samuel Johnson. "Porridge has a deeply unappealing image. Made from oats, it forms the traditional breakfast in Scotland, where it is considered part of the country's heritage, but is little eaten by choice elsewhere." Maybe Wilkins and Hill should be force-fed thistles by way of punishment for this slur, but in any case they reckon mazza was more like polenta, used as a base for a variety of dishes.
The other great factor of food that we have largely lost is its religious dimension. Sacrifices were part of daily eating - the slaughtered animals were all consumed. Our choice of particular festive meals, such as Christmas turkey, is a last puny vestige of something that endures more strongly in Greece, where the lambs roasted on a spit and eaten at Easter time - along with delicious dishes made from the entrails, such as kokoretsi - are a direct link with the pre-Christian past. So too is kolyva, a boiled wheat dish still eaten at funerals, exactly as it has been for thousands of years.
As for the liquorice-flavoured lamb, the authors confess there is some ambiguity in the recipe preserved from ancient Greece. The word used could mean anise or dill, the latter giving a dish that would pass muster in any modern-day taverna. Maybe Greco-Roman food was not so weird after all.
Given the potential appeal of its subject matter, this book does feel rather like a missed opportunity. Academics will appreciate the level of detail and thoroughness, but with only a little more warmth and a lot less needless repetition, Food In The Ancient World could have been a must-read for adventurous gastronomes. As it is, this is an interesting curiosity to add to the shelf: good for a browse but leaving many questions tantalisingly unanswered.
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