Ancient Cuisine Philosophy For 500, Jack! The Odyssey To Yum Yum Cha To Nineveh To Cajun Country.

Why would this episode of Empires, Cannibals and Magic Fish Bones begin with Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates?  Ah, just you wait–death, drink, friends, and something sacred are all in the air.

The Odyssey, so much eating, so much time: sacrifice and feasts, strangers walking in the door and feasting, sailors feasting on cattle they have been told not to feast on, and then a young man feasting as an arrow penetrates his throat because he’s violated the rules of feasting.  When Athena, disguised as Mentes, lord of the Taphians, walks into Odysseus’ home, now run by the suitors and brooded over by Telemachus, food immediately greets the goddess via Robert Fagles’ distinguished translation.

A maid brought water soon in a graceful golden pitcher

and over a silver basin tipped it out

so they might rinse their hands,

then pulled a gleaming table to their side.

A staid housekeeper brought on bread to serve them,

appetizers aplenty too, lavish with her bounty.

A carver lifted platters of meat toward them,

meats of every sort, and set beside them golden cups

and time and again a page came round and poured them wine.  (1.160-68)


I know what you’re thinking, sure, this reads like a modern churrascaria where waiters carry out skewers of picanha (beef top sirloin cap), costela premium (prime rib), fraldinha (skirt steak), bife ancho (rice eye), costeleta de corder (lamb chop), filet mignon, and then, of course, the chicken hearts, oh how I love grilled chicken hearts.  Smiling attendants circle Telemachus and Athena with all the bounty of the land, that is as long as our Homeric characters keep their coasters green-side up.

Gabriela, Demian and I have dined (with Athena) at Porcão in Rio de Janeiro where a giant salad bar, and I mean giant, really a salad island greeted us as we entered and a waiter guided us to our table with a view of the lagoa.  Of course, Athena had no interest in foliage, and certainly every time I’ve dined at Porcão I’ve forgone anything that wasn’t once alive and moving.  Since we’re on the topic of pages bringing round wine, I’m drinking a 100% Aglianico from Campania.  What a wine / subject pairing! Aglianico is a black grape brought by Greek settlers to the Italian peninsula possibly in the 8th century BCE, about the time that the Iliad and Odyssey had moved from oral tradition to written form.  Campania meaning “fertile countryside” became part of Magna Graecia in southern Italy, and then of course, the Roman Republic.  Aglianico was also the featured grape of the famous Falernian wine, a top wine in ancient Rome.  It smells much like fresh bread on the nose, and then delivers a berry-filled tangy taste.  Well done Mediterranean! Are there other culinary equivalents to The Odyssey throughout our contemporary, gastronomic world?  What about Yum Yum Cha?


Oh yes, Cantonese-style feasting featuring ha gao (shrimp dumplings), cha siu bao (barbecue pork-filled bun) and, of course, jasmine tea.  We’re at Yum Yum Cha in Rice Village.  We’ve entered, no one has asked our names or if we’re pirates.  We sit down and order.


Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce.


Sautéed beef tripe with ginger.


Sticky Rice and Fried Shrimp Balls.  And all with jasmine tea.  Delicious!  So whether it’s a churrascaria in Rio or dim sum in Houston, we’re welcomed as strangers, served copious amounts of food over seemingly endless courses, and then sent on our way.  The successful continuation of Ancient Etiquette?  Well, this isn’t the full range, ritual, spectacle and meaning of a feast in the ancient world, especially when it concerns royalty.


Here, King Ashurbanipal relaxes and dines with his Queen in the Royal Garden, Nineveh from the Neo-Assyrian Period, let’s say, maybe seventh century BCE. Rachel Laudan writes about this famous feast in her fantastic, recent book Cuisines and Empires.

In 645 BCE, Ashurbanipal, the last king of the Assyrian empire, gave a feast in his capital, Nineveh, where he reportedly entertained seventy thousand guests over a ten-day period.  Accounts emphasize alcohol and meat, including sacrificed domestic animals and wild game killed in the hunt.  A thousand cattle, a thousand calves, ten thousand sheep, and fifteen thousand lambs were sacrificed.  Five hundred each of stags and gazelles, ducks, geese, and doves, as well as tens of thousands of smaller birds were killed in the hunt. Ten thousand fish were rushed to Nineveh from the rivers and ocean.  Ten thousand eggs were collected.  Ten thousand loaves of bread were baked.  Ten thousand jars of beer were brewed, and ten thousand skins filled with wine were delivered.  (58)

There’s definitely a number-thing going on in ancient literature and records. Remember Book II from the Iliad with the “Catalogue of Ships?”  Good times.  The gods plant man in nature, and the royalty of the world cooks and consumes as much of it as possible.  But is there an ethic, a philosophy that underlies all this celebration and mass consumption from the Mediterranean, through the Middle East, to China?  Why yes, yes there is. Rachel Laudan again.

Minerals, vegetables, animals, humans from commoner to king, and spirits were ranked in a hierarchy.  The cosmos had been created in the not-so-distant-past and would end some day.  It was enclosed by the arc of the heavens with the rising of the sun in the east and its setting in the west.  Cooking drove changes in the cosmos, which humans imitated and improved on when they cultivated fields and cooked in their kitchens.

This vision of the world underlay ancient culinary philosophy, which was based on three principles: the principle of hierarchy, which posited that every rank of living being had appropriate foods and ways of consuming them; the sacrificial bargain, which specified that humans should offer foods to the gods and consume the leftovers as the emblematic meal in return for the gods’ original provision of food; and the theory of the culinary cosmos, which asserted that cooking was a basic cosmic process and that foods were part of an elaborate system of correspondences with ages, seasons, compass directions, colors, bodily parts, and other features of the world.  (42-43)

In the above excerpt from the Odyssey, human and god sit down to a meal, the requisite etiquette creates a safe and sacred space, and the machinations of this ancient Mycennean become Hellenic ritual grounds each character in roles propelled toward the final feast and slaughter.  Even more to Laudan’s point, Telemachus witnesses a sacrifice and feast as he arrives at the palace of King Nestor.

As the sun sprang up, leaving the brilliant waters in its wake,

climbing the bronze sky to shower light on immortal gods

and mortal men across the lowlands ripe with grain–

the ship pulled into Pylos, Neleus’ storied citadel,

where the people lined the beaches,

sacrificing sleek black bulls to Poseidon,

god of the sea-blue mane who shakes the earth.

They sat in nine divisions, each five hundred strong,

each division offering up nine bulls, and while the people

tasted the innards, burned the thighbones for the god,

the craft and crew came heading straight to shore.  (3.1-11)

And then, an even more focused look at the nuances of killing and eating at a celebration just before Odysseus’ son leaves Pylos.

The heifer came from the fields, the crewman came

from brave Telemachus’ ship, and the smith came in

with all his gear in hand, the tools of his trade,

the anvil, hammer and well-wrought tongs he used

for working gold.  And Athena came as well

to attend to her sacred rites.

The old horsemen passed the gold to the smith,

and twining the foil, he sheathed the heifer’s horns

so the goddess’ eyes might dazzle, delighted with the gift.

Next Stratius and Echephron led the beast by the horns.

Aretus, coming up from the storeroom, brought them

lustral water filling a flower-braided bowl,

in his other hand, the barley in a basket.

Thrasymedes, stuanch in combat, stood ready,

whetted ax in his grasp to cut the heifer down,

and Perseus held the basin for blood.

Now Nestor the old charioteer began the rite.

Pouring the lustral water, scattering barley-meal,

he lifted up his ardent prayers to Pallas Athena,

launching the sacrifice, flinging onto the fire

the first tufts of hair from the victim’s head.


Prayers said, the scattering barley strewn,

suddenly Nestor’s son impetuous Thrasymedes

strode up close and struck–the ax chopped

the neck tendons through–

and the blow stunned

the heifer’s strength–

The women shrilled their cry,

Nestor’s daughters, sons’ wives, and his own loyal wife

Eurydice, Clymenus’ eldest daughtter.  Then, hoisting up

the victim’s head from the trampled earth, they held her fast

as the captain of the men Pisistratus slashed her throat.

Dark blood gushed forth, life ebbed from her limbs–

they quartered her quickly, cut the thighbones out

and all according to custom wrapped them in fat,

a double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of flesh.

And the old king burned these over dried split wood

and over the fire poured out glistening wine

while young men at his side held five-pronged forks.

Once they’d burned the bones and tasted the organs,

they sliced the rest into pieces, spitted them on skewers

and raising points to the fire, broiled all the meats.  (3.481-520)


The heifer, the victim, is afforded sacred status, art crowns her horns, the abundance of the earth from water, wine and barley poured over and around her, and finally there is blood, women wail–voices created much as the spilling of blood in the underworld allows the dead to speak–much as the women cry around Hector’s corpse–and the passing of a life becomes the passing of the animal to food to cooking to mouth.  The world continues because we cook, consume and consecrate.  Maybe this is ancient, a thing of the past, dead and buried.  Then again, maybe not.  If I’m connecting Telemachus and Athena feasting to Yum Yum Cha, then why not connect Nineveh and Pylos to Cajun Country? Pay attention to the pig, the killing, the music, and the feasting from the twenty-fifth minute until the end of Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Cajun Country.   Of course, the whole episode brings humans and gods together. Again, thank you Anthony Bourdain.  And yes, when Gabriela, Demian and I sit down to a meal and we know where the animals and vegetables have come from, when we’ve used the fire Prometheus brought to us, and we raise our glasses and then proceed to eat and talk, I’d like to think the ancient world continues on within us, and around.


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