In my heart of hearts, I'm a history nerd. I took so many history credits in college that I accidentally became a double major. I always gravitated to the classes that had a good hook: History of European Aristocracy (a view from the top of western politics from the 17th century onward, we sat around and gossiped about Georgiana of Devonshire or Louis Mountbatten as if they were alive and cavorting today), The Philosophical history of Fascism (chronically the journey to political crazytown starting with Kant), and the dark horse, History of Ancient Rome. It had a lot going for it: An adorable 28 year old visiting Professor who lived in Echo Park, spoke Latin and Italian, and had a pet cat. He had elbow pads on his blazers! Gah! Too cute! To distract myself from the fact that he had a girlfriend, I read the main textbook he assigned, a Roman Art History book. His idea was that supplemented with original texts an art history book would give a greater cultural context to the happenings of Rome, more so than just reading Suetonius or Tacitus exclusively. "Shut up, nerd! What does this have to do with food?" you ask...
Ancient Roman Food History is what I'm getting at.
Sally Granger is bad ass. A trained pastry chef, she took an interest in classical civilization and earned a degree in ancient history from the University of London. Combining her professional skills with her study of the culinary heritage of the Greek and Roman world, she now pursues a career as a food historian(!), consultant, and historical reenactor. She recently put on an ancient Greek banquet for the Guild of Food Writers in London and a Roman reception and tasting at the Museum of London to celebrate the exhibition High Street Londinium. She demonstrates ancient cooking skills at Roman sites around the United Kingdom for English Heritage and at Butser Ancient Farm, a reconstructed Iron Age farm and laboratory for experimental archaeology. Along with her husband, Christopher Grocock, Sally translated the ancient Roman Cookbook, Apicius, into English. Food historian. Best. Job. Ever.
Through my rabid food history googling, I came across Ms. Grainger's translation of Apicius, as well as an accompanying cookbook, Cooking Apicius, and was instantly hooked. Apicius is a 4th century collection of Roman recipes, completely unique to others existing at that time. The first to exhibit recipes outside of the narrative form (most recipes were part of or a foot note to an epic poem or story), Apicius shares similarities to how cookbooks like The Joy of Cooking exist today. The book is displayed like a high school Romeo and Juliet, with the modern English on the right and the Latin on the left. Though the recipes are engrossing, Grainger and Grocock's introduction is my favorite part of the book. Over 100 pages long, it examines the context in which Apicius was written, collected, and translated over the centuries. Their analysis of ancient Roman culture and the early "foodies" is fascinating:
"The phenomenon of the amateur cook is a familiar one today: we all dabble in the kitchen and have a basic understanding of the science behind cooking even if we have varying degrees of success with the outcome. But in the Roman world, the slave economy governed all areas of domestic labor. High-status cooking was very labor intensive and simply not to be contemplated by the gourmet who was interested in food. Cicero defined all occupations that were involved with producing physical pleasure for others as disgraceful. It is possible to imagine that a high-status gourmet might have broken through that barrier and learned how to cook for the sake of his interest, but it is not likely to have been thought socially acceptable and would surely resulted in public condemnation...The gourmet is interested in the theoretical, not practical, aspect of food before it reaches the table, and is more concerned with selecting produce, thinking up ways to enrich meat before slaughter, knowing where to get the best everything, and eating the results. The activity which takes place between selection and consumption, and which is carried out in the sooty, greasy kitchen, is simply not part of his world." (Grocock and Granger, 14)
Cooks shared more in common with prostitutes than artists and a foodie knew nothing of how their meal made it from the farm to the plate. It's almost unimaginable today, where the ability to give pleasure to others, be it through food, art, music, prose, whatever, is valued so highly, that an enthusiast of any subject would be willfully ignorant of the process behind their pursuit. But I guess that's why we study history and why I find it so fascinating. If you share my curiosity of history, culture, food, and how they influence each other, Apicius is a great resource. It's definitely on the scholarly side, and if you're more interested in cooking the food than researching it, check out Grainger's companion book, Cooking Apicius. Enjoy!
My 16 year old Latin studying brother translated the dedication as saying, "To my most faithful judge and companion."
Latin on the left, English on the right.