- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 2, 2003

AROUND THE TABLE OF THE ROMANS: FOOD AND FEASTING IN ANCIENT ROME
By Patrick Faas
Palgrave, $29.95, 371pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY DAVID JOHNSON


History remembers Quintus Horatius Flaccus simply as "Horace." Time has not only truncated the name of Augustus' poet laureate, but also his greatest piece of advice. The full line from his Odes, "carpe diem, quam minumum credula postero," the intent of which is translated as "enjoy today, trusting little in tomorrow," survives as perhaps the most well known ancient soundbite: "carpe diem," taken literally, "seize the day."
This handy bit of editing gave plagiarizing poets of an earlier century ammunition in their randy campaigns against the pesky chastity of young maidens ("Gather ye rosebuds while ye may …"). It has also helped crystallize the modern perception of the Romans as brutal opportunists.
Thankfully, a wonderful new treatment of a little visited part of that ancient culture, it's food, has arrived to remind us of Horace's real meaning: "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." In his "Around the Table of the Romans: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome, Dutch writer, chef and food historian Patrick Faas explains to us that, in addition to those for power and conquest, Romans had more common appetites.
Mr. Faas adeptly points out that while it is easy to appreciate Roman art and architecture from the tangible relics that survive the period, the methods and techniques of Roman cookery are lost to us. The flavors of the Roman kitchen are long faded and those ancient aromas have wafted where only time can savor them.
Moreover, there are many misconceptions about the food of ancient Rome that the author sets out to correct. Hollywood historians have helped us envision the ancients' feasts and pagan orgies in countless films, but there is more to the culinary culture of the expansive empire.
Mr. Faas takes an admirable stab at putting some perspective on the decadent delicacies, exotic flavors and indulgent feasts, implementing a forked strategy. The first section of his book might be the most comprehensive survey of Roman culinary history ever attempted. From Romulus and Remus to the republic to the decline of the empire, he stirs all the pots, including wine, etiquette, kitchen tools, spices, and everything else. The second tine is comprised of more than 150 ancient recipes set contextually with appropriate explanation and interpretation. The result is half cookbook, half history book and is entirely fascinating to both chef and antiquarian alike.
Recent advances in scientific archaeology have opened doors for scholars in recreating the "foodways" of ancient cultures. Mr. Faas notes this evidence in passing, but he dishes his history in the classical style. The buffet before the reader is set with copious chestnuts plucked from ancient texts. He tastefully peppers his reconstruction of Roman culinary traditions with appropriate morsels of Cato, Tacitus, Ovid, Pliny, and others.
While Latin literature includes many plays and histories, the only cookbook that survived classical antiquity was written in common language by an author known only as "Apicius," the Roman nickname for "gourmet." An excellent translation of the book by Barbara Flower and Ethel Rosenbaum was published in 1980, from which Mr. Faas adopted their numbering system for the recipes he presents.
Apicius gave recipes, but was imprecise about quantities and proportions, essentially leaving us lists of ingredients and a lot to interpolate. Mr. Faas gives his reconstructed recipes with an up front caveat coquus ("let the cook beware"). Authentic Roman cooking, which was generally executed by legions of skilled slaves, is not a simple walk in the forum for the modern cook.
Perhaps surprising, modern Italian cuisine has virtually nothing in common with it's ancestral forebear. Roman food primarily involved the flavors of cumin, coriander, and lovage, as well as shockingly large doses of pepper. No senator's toga was ever threatened with a sloppy red marinara sauce stain. The arrival of foodstuffs, such as tomatoes and potatoes, after the discovery of the New World completely reshaped the culinary tradition.
It may be that the most direct descendent of the Roman table is Risotto. Wealthy and common, citizens and slaves, all Romans dined upon puls, a slow-cooked porridge of polished spelt grains. Mr. Faas offers many authentic variants upon the basic dish, sweetened, with cheese, meats or sausages and vegetables.
While simple dishes sustained the masses, wealthy citizens gorged themselves with complex and creative dishes, strongly seasoned with a huge spectrum of herbs, spices and condiments. Mr. Faas explains that the Roman cook saw a piece of meat as a blank canvas to paint with a bouquet of flavors. It was simply plebian if lamb tasted like lamb.
Imperial Romans delighted in cleverly disguised dishes where not all was as it seemed. Ancient chefs were like artists of form and flavor, creating anchovies from turnips or sculpting pigeons from pork.
The Romans found delicacies where modern palates would fear to tread. A peckish Emperor Vitellius once tucked into a giant patina of parrot-fish livers, pheasant and peacock brains, flamingo tongues and the spleens of moray eels. Called "The Shield of Minerva," it was a merely a side dish at an opulent banquet of thousands of fish and fowl.
Ingredients were precious in ancient times, but the odds are against the modern cook conveniently locating flamingo tounges at the local supermarket. Still, Mr. Faas is devoted to putting his mouth where his history is. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals filed a lawsuit against him for preparing the Roman delicacy, baked stuffed mice.
All this withstanding, nothing contributed more to Roman cooking's notorious reputation than Garum, a salty sauce that was made from fermented fish in reeking factories. That Romans used it in everything they ate gave later historians the impression that their food was revolting.
However, Mr. Faas seasons our understanding and likens garum to soy sauce or the fish sauce that is key to many Thai dishes. With their love of fakery, a Roman cook might even appreciate a modern chef trying to pass off a dash of Worcestershire instead.
To read Mr. Faas' book is a pleasure, to put it to use requires a certain spirit. Many of the recipes he includes in his book are accessible to the adventurous cook and will definitely reward a curious mind and palate, especially if they are taken with a grain of salt. Some are a challenge not only to execute but also to ingest, and a few are downright dares.
If you are looking to make the switch from Martha Stewart to Martial for your next dinner party, you could play it safe with selections from "The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines: China, Greece and Rome" by television chef Jeff Smith. But if you and your guests don't fear the Ides of March, take Horace to heart and seize a copy of "Around the Table of the Romans" and get the real experience. Who knows what tomorrow might bring?

David Johnson, a serious amateur cook, is chief technology officer of the Scripps-Howard News Service.


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