The role of Roman style food in creating strong memories of festivals, parties and daily life was not restricted to the past. Roman Dinner Parties are relatively common events in Britain and North America today, especially if you have the luck of being friends with an archaeologist or classicist. These events often involve a bilingual Latin and English menu, some classic recipes from Apicius, and sometimes a compulsory dress code of togas. But for how long have people been recreating such feasts, and what aspects of Roman food are chosen for these modern interpretations?
This fantastic video from British Pathe shows a Roman feast being held at the Roman Baths in Bath, south-west England, in 1961. The event is described as being held to celebrate the opening of 10 day festival of music and arts. A lot of emphasis is placed on authenticity – of the outfits, hairstyles, food chosen and the way in which the food is served (slave girls in tiny boats). On the menu was tunny fish, roast boar, snails, asparagus, swan, nightingales tongues, Neapolitan wine and “hot Roman loaves”. The sources of evidence for these include vases in the Louvre Museum, Paris, and from the looks of the menu, the writings collated as Apicius and Suetonius’s Life of Vitellius (Dalby 2003, p 328). In short, the recreation is based on written evidence for high status feasting in Roman Italy.
Many recreations are based on the popular Roman cookery books. The translation of Apicius by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum was first published in 1958 and was probably widely available. Smaller pamphlets were also made, such as Maureen Locke’s A Taste of Imperial Rome, which seems to have been aimed at providing a few dishes to allow the reader to hold their own Roman dinner party. The dishes selected include stewed lamb, stewed apricots, a salad with cheese nuts and herbs, and Chicken Numidian style, with not a patina insight (like an omelette). These types of recipes would have been more acceptable to British people in the 1980s, than maybe swan and nightingales tongues.
“With the help of this book you too can enjoy these dishes, an add an authentic taste of Imperial Rome to your dinners and entertainments”. (Locke 1983, p 8)
What about more recent examples of Roman food being recreated? The Supersizes Eat…Ancient Rome, was made in 2010, and saw Sue Perkins and Giles Coren eat their way through a few days as ancient Romans. The show states that they are recreating the food of a “wealthy Roman family”, playing the parts of a Roman General and a Vestal Virgin. The recipes that are recreated in the show are based on Apicius (5:22), and they go as far as saying that eating meat and fish was only for the extremely wealthy. Anyway, key flavours highlighted are rue, black pepper, lovage and cumin. Next up, a recreation of Lucullus’s banquet, again based on written evidence, with red mullet, swollen goose livers and jellyfish patina served up. But then, later on, the show does feature garum, broad bean soup and mortaria, all commonly evidenced at archaeological settlements across the empire. But still, statements like “most Roman meals began with an egg course” does suggest an overwhelming homogeneity to Roman food. Later on, the Romano-British feast is on more archaeological grounds, with asparagus patina, roast pork with sage, leeks, peas and turnips.
Now, Roman recipes are widely available through blogs, such as the fantastic Pass the Garum . One of the most popular recipes in the blog is for Dill Chicken, and based on one of the less extravagant recipes in Apicius entitled Raw Sauce for Boiled Chicken (Apicius 6.8.1).
Have you ever tried to cook a Roman style meal? Who was it for, and how did you choose your dishes?