My class called History of Food and Cuisine is only getting more and more interesting. After looking at the cuisines of different civilisations throughout history, we started focussing in on the development of the Parisian restaurant and its associated culture, and the migration of this culture to America. Last week, we had a guest lecturer from the New School in New York named Fabio Parasecoli come talk with us about the construction of heritage, ‘authenticity’ and related problems, and the complexity of tradition. It was one of the most fascinating classes so far. The sorts of things we talked about:
- “Heritage is a mode of cultural production in the present that has recourse in the past.”
- The idea that the past informs the material object of the present, but does not inhere in it.
- Heritage production as a value-added industry and the corresponding shift away from commodity.
- problems of authenticity; assumption of stasis and continuity, “a reality that doesn’t change”; “in a way, authenticity is a negation of history”
- Contextuality (i.e. subjectivity) of authenticity
What was particularly interesting about all of these topics was not only how interconnected they were, but how they applied to areas other than food culture — really, any sort of cultural production.
Then, after this amazing seminar, he went on to deliver a public lecture about his recent research on food as a mode of masculinity in blockbuster films! This guy’s smart and very knowledgeable.
I also wanted to share the first essay I wrote for this class. I studied the oldest surviving cookbook in Europe, Apicius’ De Re Conquinaria, and explored the aesthetic principles of ancient Roman cuisine as expressed in this cookbook as compared with other accounts of Roman cuisine in literature. I found it all pretty interesting – let me know what you think!
The Value of the Cookbook: Apicius and Discerning Ancient Roman Cuisine
Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria (On Matters of Cookery) is the oldest surviving cookbook in Europe, and the only one from Roman civilisation. It is a collection of recipes likely from multiple sources, the convention of attributing it to the single author has evolved due to the presence of the letters “API” on the cover of one of the copied manuscripts, and our knowledge of a few famous gastronomes by the name Apicius in imperial Rome. The specific authorship of this work is not our primary concern, however, for the true significance of this cookbook lies in its record of how people prepared and ate food in ancient Rome. This book gives us a much more accurate account of this part of Roman life than other more literary sources do, such as Plutarch, Seneca, Tertullian, Martial, Juvenal, and Petronius: either moralists who condemn the excesses and luxuries of the Roman table, or satirists who exaggerate it to disparage the society of the Roman elite. In all these cases, it becomes clear that the depictions of cuisine and culinary culture in most literature are hardly accurate, having been intentionally biased to further some political or personal agenda. Indeed it is largely because of Apicius that we are able to recognise the exaggerated nature of literary depictions of feasts, such as Trimalchio’s dinner in Petronius’ Satyricon (one of the most spectacularly excessive examples of a Roman feast, meant to satirise the ostentatious ignorance and vulgarity of the Roman nouveau-riche), for the satires they are, and thus discount them from among examples of actual Roman cuisine.
What, then, are the aesthetic principles that govern this “true” Roman cuisine? Though establishing the general principles of a whole culinary culture from one cookbook is never a safe bet (imagine doing the same for our culture with Paula Deen), the evident authorial multiplicity of and great variety of dishes in the Apician collection suggests that we can at least trust this source more than literature of a similar time period. At the very least, Apicius demonstrates that Roman cuisine employed a great variety of fruits and vegetables; had some interest in health and dietetics; was forthcoming in the kitchen realities of substitution and adulteration (or ‘resourcefulness’); used common methods and ingredients for braising liquids and sauces in a great number of different dishes; valued the visual appeal of dishes; and demonstrated an attention to detail in execution for which it is rarely given credit.
One of the most outstanding features of Apicius is the incredible variety of fruits and vegetables used in most of the dishes. Book Three of the ten books of the collection, entitled Cepuros, or ‘The Gardener’, is inspiring for its use of many different types of produce as well the multiple recipes given for each item. Throughout all ten books of the collection, uses are cited for beets, leeks, sorrel, pumpkin, cucumber, melon, fennel, citron, dasheen, cabbage, brussel sprouts, turnip, radish, celery, lettuce, endive, cardoon, parsnip, carrot, mushroom (morels and truffles included), fig, apple, pear, quince, peach, raisins, and dates, among others. Such a diversity of fruits and vegetables would not be seen in a European cuisine again until the mid-seventeenth century with the culinary revolution of LaVarenne, Bonnefon, and Massialot, and the development of ‘classic’ French cuisine. Not only were fruits and vegetables used extensively in the cooking of Apicius in many different types of dishes, but they were given primacy in many dishes that focused purely on the produce itself. Book Three is full of such recipes. There are six different methods of preparation for both brussel sprouts and mushrooms, and seven for parsnips — ranging from simple preparations like “fried with simple wine sauce” (p.87 ) or “boiled in salt water and seasoned with pure oil, chopped green coriander and whole pepper” (p.88 ) to more complex ones, such as the directions to “prepare the boiled parsnips with the following sauce: celery seed, rue, honey, ground pepper, mixed with raisin wine, stock, and a little oil; bind this with roux, [simmer parsnips,] sprinkle with pepper and serve” (p. 88 ). This appreciation of the vegetable not only as a fitting accompaniment to meat but also as a delicious feature in itself would be lost throughout most of the Middle Ages, only to resurface again with the new French cuisine of the seventeenth century.
While fruits and vegetables would be phased out of medieval cuisine, the preoccupation with dietetics would only increase. We see evidence of this interest in Apicius as well. A recipe for nettles, for example, is less a method of food preparation as it is a piece of advice on a beneficial herb. The entire recipe reads “The female nettles, when the sun is in the position of the Aries, is [sic] supposed to render valuable services against ailments of various kinds.” (p.85 ) Another recipe instructs the reader to dress a lettuce salad “with vinegar dressing and a little brine stock, which helps digestion and is taken to counteract inflation.” (p.86 ) Perhaps the most explicitly medicinal ‘recipe’, however, is for “Salts for Many Ills” (p. 54 ), a blend of salts, herbs and spices that is “used against indigestion, to move the bowels, against all illness, against pestilence as well as for the prevention of colds. They are very gentle and more healthful than you would expect.” (ibid.) This sort of panacea mentality towards certain ingredients would only further proliferate in the Middle Ages, causing cooks across Europe to sprinkle their dishes liberally with all manner of spices for hundreds of years — less as an addition to flavour and more as a necessary enhancing of the dietetic properties of the dish.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing and idiosyncratic types of Apician recipe is that of substitutions for and adulterations to different foods. Indeed, the very first book of the collection, entitled ‘The Careful Experienced Cook’, contains many recipes that aim to reproduce an expensive dish in a more economical fashion, conceal the flavour of a spoiled ingredient, or generally deceive the palate of an unsuspecting diner. After describing how to make Rose Wine, for example, Apicius goes on to describe his recipe for “Rose Wine Without Roses” (p.47 ): “a palm leaf basket full of fresh citrus leaves is immersed in the vat of new wine before fermentation has set in. After forty days retire the leaves, and, as occasion arises, sweeten the wine with honey, and pass it up for rose wine.” (ibid.) Regardless of how successful this substitution for rose wine might have been, it is fascinating and notable that a cook would include such a piece of advice. Another salient example of this practice is his recipe for Liburnian Oil: “In Spanish oil put elecampane, cyprian rush and green laurel leaves that are not too old, all of it crushed and macerated and reduced to a fine powder. Sift this in and add finely ground salt and stir industriously for three days or more. Then allow to settle. Everybody will take this for Liburnian Oil.” (p.47 , italics added) Notice how the intent to hoodwink is explicitly stated. But perhaps even more captivating are the recipes for adulterations and correctives — How To Improve a Broth, for example: “If broth has contracted a bad odor, place a vessel upside down and fumigate it with laurel and cypress and before ventilating it, pour the broth in this vessel. If this does not help matters and if the taste is too pronounced, add honey and fresh spikenard to it; that will improve it. Also new must should be likewise effective.” (p.48 ) We must remember that at this time successful storage and preservation of ingredients were still challenges in the kitchen, and it would not be uncommon for a broth, or any ingredient, to go bad before use. Cunning Apicius even has a recipe for “Spoiled Honey Made Good” (51 ): “How bad honey may be turned into a saleable article is to mix one part of the spoiled honey with two parts of good honey.” (ibid.) We may initially respond with disgust or condemnation to such a practice, especially as it is condoned by being made explicit — yet once we understand the circumstances within which the cook had to work, we can see how such a practice was necessary in the ancient kitchen. Honey was a common ingredient in many dishes, and it was not the cheapest of foods to procure. Since it was often used in combination with other ingredients like wine, broth, oil, vinegar, ‘roux’ (an anachronism of Vehling’s that we will allow), herbs and spices to create a sauce or braising liquid — a common cooking method for many different types of dishes, from meats and seafood to vegetables and even eggs — it was much more practical to dilute spoiled honey and use it with other ingredients to ‘fix’ its flavour than to throw it out altogether.
This Apician resourcefulness informs other less suspect recipes as well. One such recipe is a perfect demonstration of how, contrary to much contemporary thought, “Roman cooks worked economically and knew how to treat spices and flavours judiciously.” (p.50 ). Literary depictions of Roman gastronomic culture, as well as the frequent lack of precise measurements in most Apician recipes, have contributed to the conception of Roman cooking as excessive in every way — both in the extravagance of the dishes themselves, and the seasonings (liquids, spices, and herbs) used to flavour the dishes. But this recipe for “Making a Little Laser Go a Long Way” (ibid.) shows otherwise: “Put the laser in a spacious glass vessel; immerse about twenty pine kernels [pignoli]. If you need laser flavour, take some nuts, crush them; they will impart to your dish an admirable flavour. Replace the used nuts with a like number of fresh ones.” (ibid.) This recipe betrays a remarkable resourcefulness and restraint in use of expensive and strongly-flavoured ingredients. Vehling himself comments that “this article alone should disperse for all time all stories of ancient Rome’s extravagance in flavouring and seasoning dishes. It reminds of the methods used by European cooks to get the utmost use out of the expensive vanilla bean: they bury the bean in a can of powdered sugar… will use the sugar only which has acquired a delicate vanilla perfume, and will replace the used sugar by a fresh supply.” (ibid.) To this day we use similar methods of infusion to impart a desirable flavour to many different ingredients, especially when the flavour is expensive or strong (cf. the ubiquitous truffle oil). Infusions using liquor, oil, vinegar, salt, sugar, and even the use of marinade all follow a similar principle, and seem to have some of their roots in the resourcefulness of the ancients, if not only in culinary play in general.
Though Apicius was not nearly as preoccupied with the visual appeal of a dish as were medieval cooks (who would often use herbs and spices more to colour a dish than to flavour it, construct elaborate trompe l’oeil dishes that paid little attention to the integrity of the ingredient itself, and make entire spectacles out of certain dishes, often involving gold leaf or even fire-breathing heads), there are a few recipes that show that aspects of presentation were not at all lost on the ancient Romans. The very first recipe in Book Three, for example, is a technique “to keep all vegetables green” (p.74 ): “All vegetables will remain green if boiled with cooking soda.” (ibid.) As the first recipe in the section devoted to vegetables, this is a strong statement of the aesthetic preference for vegetables to maintain as bright a hue as possible. Another example is the recipe for “Spelt or Farina Pudding” (p.68 ), which pays particular attention to presentation: “Boil spelt with nuts and peeled almonds immersed in water and washed with white clay to that they appear perfectly white, add raisins, condensed wine or raisin wine and serve it in a round dish with crushed [nuts, fruit, bread or cake crumbs] sprinkled over it.” (ibid.) The use of white clay to achieve a uniformity of colour is certainly creative, but it is surely not the most palatable of ingredients — a fact that reveals the choice for visual over gustatory primacy. The topping of the pudding with condensed wine and nuts, fruit, and cake crumbs, as well as the stipulation to serve it in a round dish, all contribute to the sense that the writer intends for a very particular visual aesthetic, involving great attention to detail.
This attention to detail is probably the most underappreciated aspect of Apicius’ cuisine. While many of his recipes lack measurements for exact quantities, is is hardly a sign of lack of precision on the part of the cook; it is much more likely a way of ensuring that only professional cooks were able to make sense of the recipes contained in this collection — a sort of occupational security, if you will. And even so, some recipes do make explicit measurements and detailed ratios, such as the recipe for “A Harmless Salad” (p.86 ), a very detailed recipe for a particular type of salad dressing: take “two ounces of ginger, one ounce of green rue, one ounce of meaty dates, twelve scruples of ground pepper, one ounce of good honey [and important distinction, remember], and eight ounces of either Aethiopian or Syrian cumin. Make an infusion of this in vinegar, the cumin crushed, and strain. Of this liquor use a small spoonful mix it with stock and a little vinegar: you may take a small spoonful after the meal.” (ibid.) The precise measurements and use of “small spoonfuls” are signs not only of the medicinal nature of this recipe, but also of the restraint exercised by the cook — he was not indiscriminately pouring spices of all sorts over every dish; rather, he was recording which spices were to be used and trusting that the professional cook would use the recipe as a reference, judging amounts by his own intuition. In this way, most Roman cuisine was hardly the excessive display it is so often thought to be.
One of the most famous and intriguing of Apicius’ recipes is his method for preparing asparagus. It is a deceptively short and incomplete recipe (many parts are left out and it is up to the cook to intuit these intermediate steps back in), though brilliant: “Asparagus must be dried and immersed in boiling water backwards.” (p.76 , italics added) The asparagus is to be dried presumably because it has been washed first, and it is imperative to dry it before boiling as the presence of cold water clinging to the stalks would change how the asparagus cooked in the boiling water. As Vehling notes, “Apicius here reveals himself as the consummate cook who is familiar with the finest detail of physical and chemical changes which food undergoes at varying temperatures.” (ibid.) But the most telling detail of this recipe is the last word: rursus, or ‘backwards’. Rather than tossing the whole stalk into the boiling water, it seems Apicius would bunch and tie together stalks of a similar size, and place them in the water standing upright with the heads above the level of the water, or ‘backwards’ (as the common way to cook such vegetables would be to slip them into the water head-first). This method of cooking asparagus demonstrates a great attention to detail and a high level of precision in execution. Since the heads of the asparagus are so much more tender than the base of the stalks, the heads will be made tender by the rising steam and will finish cooking at the same time as the submerged stalks. Even today virtually no one uses this method; as Vehling points out, “they usually boil the tender heads to death while the lower stalks are still hard.” (ibid.) This is a shame, because the delicate texture of the asparagus tips could be preserved and enjoyed so much more if cooks would employ Apicius’ highly sensitive yet simple technique.
Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria remains one of the most telling and realistic accounts of Roman cookery in the ancient empire. Its aesthetic principles of variety in ingredients and cooking methods, an interest in dietetics, the necessity of resourcefulness, the common use of sauces among different dishes, the value of visual appeal, and great attention to detail all cause us to reconsider what we thought we knew about Roman cuisine from more literary accounts of the feast, and thus give us a better picture of how ancient Romans actually ate. Even today, after many radical shifts and revolutions throughout history in culinary aesthetics, there are still some lessons to learn from Apicius, if we are open to receiving them. I for one am looking forward to cooking asparagus ‘backwards’ from now on — I am sure it will be the most perfect asparagus I have ever made.