On the Roman Diet

Interesting item from the Independent in the last couple of days … here’s the incipit:

Whatever your Classics teacher said to wake up slackers at the back of the class, the Roman diet in ancient times was not always a blow-out of tender larks’ tongues and roasted flamingo followed by a medicinal visit to the vomitorium.

Standard fare came from whatever was available in the larder or by handing over a few sestertii coins at their equivalent of our local chippy or burger bar.

“Baked dormice and roast parrot were occasionally found on the menu,” says Mark Grant, who has spent a lifetime researching the everyday food of the Roman Empire. “But only a few wealthy and bored Romans indulged in such excesses, and even then only on high days and holidays.

“This gave moralists and satirists something to moan about. It was headline stuff which they wrote about at great length. Reading these accounts today is a bit like eating a TV snack while watching Heston Blumenthal on the telly, concocting something extraordinary out of jellyfish that we’d never dream of cooking at home.”

That’s one of the reasons why Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum, the sell-out exhibition at the British Museum, is so absorbing. It’s a snapshot in time, when Mount Vesuvius erupted AD79. Clouds of ash poured down from the sky, engulfing thousands of citizens in a tremendous blast of heat, fixing them at the moment of death.

Grant, 52, author of Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens, says: “The gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake or the marble sculpture of the god Pan having sex with a she-goat are show-stoppers. But I go straight to the culina, or kitchen, with its equipment such as a colander or the pottery bottle for fish sauce. There are frescos showing a panel of fish, or a loaf of bread and two figs. […]

… by the way, I’ve reread that intro a thousand times and still am not sure if the journalist believes in the ‘vomitory’ interpretation of Roman banquets … just in case you’re keeping score at home, here be the comparanda

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