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What Did Ancient Romans Eat? New Novel Serves Up Meals And Intrigue

Fortified dwelling and open air banquet, detail from a mosaic portraying a Nilotic landscape from El Alia, Tunisia. Roman Civilisation, 2nd century. Musée National Du Bardo (Archaeological Museum)
DeAgostini/Getty Images
Fortified dwelling and open air banquet, detail from a mosaic portraying a Nilotic landscape from El Alia, Tunisia. Roman Civilisation, 2nd century. Musée National Du Bardo (Archaeological Museum)

"Marcus Gavius Apicius purchased me on a day hot enough to fry sausage on the market stones."

So begins the tale of Thrasius, the fictional narrator of Feast of Sorrow. Released this week, the novel is based on the real life of ancient Roman noble Marcus Gavius Apicius, who is thought to have inspired and contributed to the world's oldest surviving cookbook, a ten-volume collection titled Apicius.

But it is Crystal King's Feast of Sorrow that brings readers into the kitchens of ancient Rome, where nobles and slaves jockeyed for position by using food as bargaining chips for personal and professional advancement — whether it's the radishes that Thrasius carves into roses for his lady love and fellow slave, Passia, or the pig-shaped pastries stuffed with ham that he makes to delight the dinner guests of his gluttonous master. For Thrasius, relocating from the countryside to the metropolis also means the coveted opportunity to cook, and serve, the exotic animals killed by Roman gladiators: bears, tigers, rhinoceros.

During Apicius' time, in the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire stretched from northern Europe to Africa, with a total population estimated up to 100 million people. It was an empire filled with ingredients and food traditions that made their way to the capital city with traders and slaves. At the same time, Romans were extremely influential throughout the empire, bringing the original versions of everything from haggis to French toast to Roman settlements.

"As conquerors, Romans brought their food and lifestyle with them," King says. "Excavations in Britain have turned up many food artifacts that originated in Rome, like garlic, asparagus and turnips."

History tells us that Apicius had a voracious appetite for the finest foods. The Roman naturalist Pliny, a contemporary of the gourmand, reported that Apicius referred to flamingo tongues as being "of the most exquisite flavor." Apicius is also credited with inventing what is considered to be the world's first version of foie gras, made from pigs rather than geese.

"We think of foie gras as a French delicacy," says King, "but it was well-documented that Apicius was known for feeding his pigs with dried figs and then overdosing them with honeyed wine to produce fatty livers."

But at the center of Feast of Sorrow is the view of the ancient Roman world, by turns exciting and cruel, through the eyes of slave Thrasius, a talented cook who is purchased by Apicius for the unimaginable sum of 20,000 denarii, about 10 times the yearly wages of a common soldier.

"Apicius would have gone out of his way to pay for the best cook," asserts King. "He was a lover of luxury who traveled the world in search of the best ingredients, at great expense. He would want to have his kitchen led by someone who could do justice to those ingredients." Indeed, his renown as an epicure inspired the eponymous cookbook Apicius, published three centuries after his death.

Thrasius soon learns that Apicius seeks to elevate his political power by serving elaborate meals to the Roman elite, dishes made with the most sought-after ingredients of the time, from oysters to silphium, an herb native to present-day Libya that was already going extinct during the time of Apicius, despite desperate attempts at cultivation.

"Silphium was their most precious flavoring," says King. "In fact, it was so prized that you'll find its image on coins." Indeed, in Feast of Sorrow, Thrasius is flattered to be given an amulet by Apicius emblazoned with the silphium leaf, a symbol of how prized he is by his master.

With romance, intrigue and tragedy supplied in abundance throughout the story, it's the book's title which provides clues as to the downfall that must inevitably come from Apicius' insatiable hunger. "The characters' lives are consumed by sorrow, even as they are consuming these feasts," King says. "Apicius has everything, yet at the same time, he has nothing."

9th-century manuscript <em>De re culininaria</em> (sometimes <em>De re coquinaria</em>), attributed to Apicius.
/ Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
9th-century manuscript De re culininaria (sometimes De re coquinaria), attributed to Apicius.

Using food as a central theme for the story was a logical concept in King's view, because food was such a precious commodity.

"Even the word 'salary' comes from the Latin word 'salarium'," she says, referring to a Roman soldier's allowance for purchasing salt. During the process of writing elaborate descriptions of roasted hyacinth bulbs and morels cooked in wine, King felt the need to delve into Roman cookery, consulting with historians. The result is a companion digital cookbook called A Taste of Feast of Sorrow.

What King found was that ancient Roman cuisine was far different from modern-day Italian recipes, as lemons, tomatoes and pasta were not yet part of the culinary landscape. Instead, she found herself trying to learn how to stomach the flavor of garum, a potent fish sauce made from fish entrails that was found in nearly every dish of the time.

"I grew up in a landlocked area," King says, "and I'm not really that fond of fish. Garum was the hardest for me to figure out, but when you use it sparingly — sometimes just a couple of drops — it isn't really fishy, but adds salt and umami."

King and her husband now make Parthian chicken regularly, a roasted chicken flavored with sweet white wine and asfoetida powder — a substitute for the long-extinct silphium. Still, she laments that she'll never know what certain ancient delicacies, like peacock, taste like.

On the other hand, some delicacies are perhaps better left to the imagination. "Dormice were fried and eaten whole," she notes with a bit of a shudder. "Romans would eat all the pieces of the animal, and I mean all the pieces. We talk about 'tail to hoof' eating today, but they took it to a whole other level. I'll stick to the Parthian chicken."

Honey Fritters—Apicius 7. 1 1 .6 and Cato 79

By Crystal King

Honey fritters
/ Courtesy of Touchstone
Courtesy of Touchstone
Honey fritters

The Apicius cookbook has a simple fried dough recipe that calls for the cook to combine coarse wheat flour (or semolina) with water or milk over heat until it's a thick porridge. That mixture is spread out on a sheet, cut into pieces then fried in oil, drenched in honey then sprinkled with pepper. However, the ancient Roman Cato, in his treatise On Agriculture, has a tastier recipe.

Simply put, take equal parts ricotta or other soft cheese and flour (you can use any type of flour that is to your liking), form it into dough balls, then fry in oil. Let cool, roll in honey and sprinkle in poppy seeds. These are extra good if sprinkled with pepper and if you substitute poppy seeds for toasted sesame seeds. To get a sense of proportion, a half cup of ricotta and a half cup of flour will make approximately six 1-inch fritters.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kristen Hartke
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