I Came, I Saw, I Ate!
Exercise 8: Ancient Rome
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Exercise 8: Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome was one of the great early centers of gastronomy (China is the other). Whereas the Chinese valued sophistication, the Romans valued excess. They were known for the abundance and ostentation of their banquets. Roman emperors would consume pearls dissolved in vinegar and dinner guests would eat 60 pounds of meat in a sitting just because they could. These vulgarities are satirized in the Satyricon, written in the 1st century.

Ancient Greek and Roman cultures shared similarities when it came to dining: reclining was for the civilized and upper classes and distinguished them among those who sat or stood; utensils were available but most foods were eaten with fingers (grabbing food with the whole hand was considered rude and barbarous); and napkins were used for cleaning fingers. Special utensils were available for Sauces and tricky jobs such as shelling Shellfish out of their shells. For the wealthy, there were imported silver or bright red Samian ware from France and elaborately decorated items. Most cooks were slaves, but there were some true gourmands who found cooking too important to leave it to an untrained hand and took over the kitchen or hired a cook, sous-chef, and more. Women were not in the kitchen as their time was deemed too important—they were needed to supervise the running of the household.

With apologies to the stoners out there in the back of the virtual class, the original “Herb” was the "Salad." Though Salads were served before them, the Romans took the dish of dressed raw vegetables that they called "Herba Salata" or “Salted Herb,” (because salt was often an ingredient in Roman vinegar-based salad dressings) to new heights and had hundreds of different recipes and preparations. The Romans cooked meats over spits near the tables, and then served the animal up whole before the guests. The Devon Cattle Breed, is one of the oldest Beef Breeds in existence today (noted in Ancient Roman records from 55 BCE).

When it came to Meat, the Romans loved it Boiled or Pan Fried in Olive Oil. However, sale of boiled meat in taverns, where diners sat on stools, was illegal during the Emperor Claudius’ time. To circumvent the law and prevent the tavern from being shut down, the meat was boiled outside at “Take Out Stands” in nearby streets. Boiled meat could also be purchased at sumptuous restaurants, where the patrons reclined, instead of sitting on stools in a less respectable tavern.

Moretum, a coarse mixture of Cheese, Garlic and Herbs, was prepared by Ancient Roman chef's. The poet "Virgil," described a sauce made of crushed Herbs, Garlic, Salt and Olive Oil. Pesto, developed most fully in the city-state of Genoa where grated hard cheese (Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano), pine nuts, and basil were added. The first mention of a recipe for modern Pesto is contained in Giovanni Battista Ratto’s “La Cuciniera Genovese” (1863). 120 years later, in the 1980’s it was all the rage in U.S. restaurants.

When people think of popular food that came from Italy, besides Pasta, people often guess Pizza which is unfortunately wrong. The word Pizza was not in common use, or in the written record until 997 CE. The Romans though, did love their baked Breads. There was even a Goddess for that! Fornax was the personification of the baking oven on which spelt seeds were scattered in sacrifice. The earliest pizza was likely Focaccia Bread, a flat bread, to which toppings were added. Milling the grain and making bread became one of the first mass production jobs. Whether you like Olives on your pizza or not, the Romans were crazy for them and Romans feature prominently in The History of the Olive. They ate Olives in vast quantities and used the Oil for everything, from axle grease to making soap.

In fact, the Romans thought the Olive was so important, that they took the Olive tree to all corners of their Empire, including Western Europe. The Romans didn’t just plant the trees; they taught their subjects how to extract the precious Olive Oil, as well as the technique for curing Olives.

To Extract the Oil from Olives (and juice from grapes for wine), the Romans invented the "Screw Press," the same screw press that was part of Gutenberg’s first printing press. Except for mechanizing it and adding the centrifuge in the 19th century, the machinery and method of extracting olive oil hasn’t changed much from Roman times to this day.

Feeding an Army

When thinking of Ancient Roman Civilization, most people think of its vast and successful army that conquered many kingdoms, tribes, and territories, expanding across countries and continents into the Roman Empire. For these men to march, and, eventually ride, they needed to be fed. Rations were selected by cost; availability; portability; imperviousness to weather, rodents, and insects; and cooking requirements. Soldiers stationed at a fort could expect fresh bread and regular meals from a kitchen while those engaged on the march or in camp made the best of the daily situation and what was available and edible nearby.

The army had a department charged with the provision of supplies, both food and forage, for the troops. Efficient contact networks were created to ensure supplies could be moved quickly through the empire—hence the building of roads. Standard foods included Bread, Bacon, Cheese, Vegetables, and watered wine. A standard rate was deducted from the soldier’s pay for the food. However, not everything was fresh, there was a type of MRE (meal ready to eat) called "buccellatum," which was hardtack.

Besides his armor and weapons, the solider would carry his own utensils and items such as the important water flask and patera, which was an all-purpose cup for cooking and eating out of, and sometimes the solider, when going short distances, had to Carry his Own Provisions.

Recommended Reading

Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome by Patrick Faas

Food and Cooking in Ancient Rome by Clive Gifford

Roman Dining : A Special Issue of American Journal of Philology Edited by Barbara Gold and John Donahue