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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Mueller

Food History

A well-dressed couple enters a handsomely decorated house for a bit of dinner and entertainment. The setting and clothes don't matter, what do they eat? Food is one of the necessities of life and yet thousands of years of cuisine are only theories. Paintings, sculpture, archeology can tell what the ingredients were, but really how did the ancients or even the not so ancients eat? With cooking a largely mundane task, recipes were passed orally, few getting around to actually writing such things down. Even the cookbooks that did make it onto paper, assume quite a bit of local cooking knowledge.

Roast Duck with Damson Sauce From Ingredients 1 duck

For the damson sauce Pepper Dried onion Lovage Cumin Celery seed Stoned damsons (a type of plum) Mulsum Vinegar Liquamen Defruitum Oil To give the bird a greater flavour and make it more nourishing and keep all the fat in, wrap it in pastry made of oil and flour and cook it in the oven.

Damson sauce Take pepper, dried onion, lovage, cumin, celery seed, stoned damsons, mulsum, vinegar, liquamen, defruitum and oil. Cook together until damsons are tender. Strain

A scholar might know that Liquamen is a very salty fermented fish sauce, and so would a Roman matron who heard the recipe from a friend. I recently saw a show bringing up the very topic, and through some natural breakdown of the fish it was a form of MSG basically. What were the tastes of the ancient Romans though? Mulsum is honeyed wine, and defrutum is reduced must of wine, both sweet so the research says. With no amounts given would you describe it was a salty dish or a sweet dish. Duck in plum sauce, I would imagine sweeter, but would fish sauce completely change my conception of the dish or would it just add salt and MSG?

The cook had outdone himself on the meal; grilled damsons and pomegranate seeds, truffles and mushrooms, sausages on a silver grill, piping hot wild boar, lobsters garnished with asparagus, apples whose scent was a feast in itself, Syrian pears in a soufflé. It was all the best that could be purchased, but as far as feasts went, it was quite modest. The family prided itself on its fine standing in Rome, but they weren’t the sort to have lavish feasts that people spent all night long at. Besides, there was business to take care of this night.

This is a paragraph that I wrote for A Little Roman Scandal, the feast little more than a list of dishes whose recipes are lost to time. I think if I remember right, I found an archeology magazine where they were trying to recreate them. Does it matter that the reader won’t know more than that, are the names enough of an impression to imagine the splendor of a wealthy roman senators banquet?


How about we go back even further? The Ancient Egyptians left hundreds of records of banquets and food preparation, but in the most basic terms. Few recipes exist and the ones there are come simply as a list of ingredients. The following is a recreation of what they think an Egyptian recipe might be.

Tiger Nut Sweets From An Ancient Egyptian Herbal Grind a quantity of tiger nuts in a mortar Sift the flour carefully. To the ground tiger nuts add a bowl of honey and mix to a dough Transfer the dough to a shallow vessel, Place on top of the fire and add a little fat. Boil over a gentle fire until a firm paste is obtained. It must smell toasted, not burnt. Cool and shape into tall conical loaves.

“Oh look, Tameri’s cooks make the best duck.” Kifi squealed in delight as more servants brought in tray after tray of food. Mounds of vegetables, more birds and fish than she could count and wine enough to float a ship.

Just a tiny paragraph in Egyptian Days describing a feast, but with drawings alone, even names are not known, how do you describe what is there when it’s all guessing? Whole books have been written about incantations for the dead, sexual practices, herbal medicine, gods, daily life, but not one about the food, a small chapter telling the ingredients they had access to, maybe one or two recipes, but even the vast internet can’t provide more than a snippet of how the Egyptians ate with certainty.

After looking up food history for some 100 stories I ended up making a cookbook called cooking through the ages. I mean just how do you use all those little tidbits you find? An 1850 recipe for sore nipples relief just isn’t in demand, interesting, but I’m sure the Lead would turn people off. So for good cooking and a few facts you might not have known. Enjoy!

#food #history #writing #rome #egypt #alittleromanscandal #egyptiandays

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