Rome: Porridge or Pig Stomach?

I’m in the beer section of a market, what to have?  What to have?  Ah, Dogfish Head, yes they have some rather . . . oh, an almost three-thousand year old beer recipe from Italy.  I’ll take it.


Birra Etrusca Bronze: drinking vessels in 2,800 -year-old Etruscan tombs.  I taste wine?  Sauturne?  Fermented pomegranate?  A drink to keep you in the underworld or let you out?  Did I mention honey?  Oh my!  Bronze added to the fermentation process, and apparently bronze is friendly to yeast!  All this makes for an incredibly refreshing beverage–it’s beer, it’s mead, it’s a culture the Romans extinguished.  Ah, the Romans.

Etruscan civilization flourished on the Northern Italian peninsula until it’s absorption by the Roman Republic in the late fourth century BCE. Academia Barilla offers a summary diet for the 99%: “cheese, soup, legumes, onion and garlic,” while the upper class ate “roasted game, poultry and pork.”  There are a number of Tuscany sites providing information about the Etruscan menu.  We do know more about the cuisine of the Roman Republic and Empire.  In Cuisines and Empires, Rachel Laudan writes about the strict Roman Republican approach to food.


Republicans believed that the state’s success or failure depended on the civic virtue of all citizens–courage, simplicity, dignity, duty, honesty, civility, reason, and temperance, including eating–not just on the personal virtue of a monarch, such as Cyrus or Alexander.  To be clear, republicanism was a far cry from democracy: the citizens in question remained a minority of the population, made up of wealthy men who formed a small ruling elite.  They advocated a plain, restrained cuisine and opposed gluttony, the result of an unbridled or unnatural appetite, stimulated by the sauces and sweets of high cuisine, and rampant sexuality, thought to be closely related, both of them vices that would endanger the philosophic life and the politician’s dignity, commitment to duty, and ability to command obedience. (74)


Take Cato the Elder for instance, via Plutarch, he’s pretty clear on what cuisine brings you military victory.

Here it was that the ambassadors of the Samnites once found him seated at his hearth cooking turnips, and offered him much gold; but he dismissed them, saying that a man whom such a meal satisfied had no need of gold, and for his part he thought that a more honourable thing than the possession of gold was the conquest of its possessors.

Or this.

He tells us that he never wore clothing worth more than a hundred drachmas; that he drank, even when he was praetor or consul, the same wine as his slaves; that as for fish and meats, he would buy thirty asses’ worth  for his dinner from the public stalls, and even this for the city’s sake, that he might not live on bread alone, but strengthen his body for military service . . . .

In his journal On Agriculture, he’s very clear on what trade creates the best citizens:

. . . it is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come, their calling is most highly respected, their livelihood is most assured and is looked on with the least hostility, and those who are engaged in that pursuit are least inclined to be disaffected.  (3)


Farming is also a sacred bond.

Perform the vow for the health of the cattle as follows: Make an offering to Mars Silvanus in the forest during the daytime for each head of cattle: 3 pounds of meal, 4 1/2 pounds of bacon, 4 1/2 punds of meat, and 3 pints of wine.  You may place the viands in one vessel, and the wine likewise in one vessel.  Either a slave or a free man may make this offering.  After the ceremony is over, consume the offering on the spot at once.  (87)

Recipes appear.

Recipe for Punic porridge: Soak a pound of groats in water until it is quite soft. Pour it into a clean bowl, add 3 pounds of fresh cheese, 1/2 pound of honey, add 1 egg, and mix the whole thoroughly; turn into a new pot. (89)


The amazing effects of cabbage:

If you wish to drink deep at a banquet and to enjoy your dinner, eat as much raw cabbage as you wish, seasoned with vinegar, before dinner, and likewise after dinner eat some half a dozen leaves; it will make you feel as if you had not dined, and you can drink as much as you please.  (141)


One of our favorite Roman Stoics also weighs in on cuisine.  Here’s Seneca in Holidays.

That doctor of pleasure Epicurus kept certain days on which he appeased his hunger on short commons, with the object of ascertaining whether this was a diminution of full and complete pleasure, how great the diminution was, and whether it was worth supplying at the cost of great exertion.  At least that is what he says in his letter to Polyaenus, dated in the archonship of Charinus. Indeed, he boasts that his food came to less than a nickel, while Metrodorus, who had not progressed so far, required a whole nickel.  Do you suppose such diet is adequate?  It even gives pleasure, and not the fickle and fleeting sort which always needs renewal but a pleasure sound and sure.  Water and porridge and a crust of barley bread are not the jolliest fare, but it is a very great pleasure to derive pleasure form such things and to have established a regimen which no malignancy of Fortune can spirit away.  Prison fare is more generous, the executioner is not so stingy with food for culprits awaiting capital punishment.  What loftiness of spirit to descend voluntarily to a level which a man sentenced to death is spared!

However the Empire would change this stoic approach to diet.


Rachel Laudan continues into the days and nights of the empire.


Host and guests gathered for the evening dinner (centa) in the finest room in the house, its floor and walls often beautifully decorated with mosaics or paintings, and adorned with furniture, vessels and implements.  They lay diagonally, three to a couch, on couches arranged in a [sideways u]shape. Holding their plate in their left hand, they delicately picked up food with the right.  Those who dined together were theoretically equals, thought hosts often gave the lesser guests smaller portions, less choice pieces, and less desirable places at the table, or simply ignored them.

The dinner included appetizers, sauced dishes, and desserts, all spurned by republicans.  For appetizers, diners might have lettuce (perhaps served with an oil-and-vinegar dressing), sliced leeks (boiled, sliced in rounds, and dressed with oil, garum, and wine), tuna garnished with eggs on rue leaves, eggs baked in the embers, fresh cheese with herbs, and olives with honeyed wine (muslim).

For the main course, slaves brought in dishes such as red mullet roasted and served with a pine nut sauce; mussels cooked with wine, garum, and herbs; sow’s udder, boiled until soft and then grilled and served with sauce; chicken with a stuffing of ground pork, boiled wheat, herbs, and eggs; and crane with turnips in an herb-flavored sauce.  Exotic fare, such as a pea dish, a chicken stew, and baked lamb with a sweet-and-sour sauce, attributed to Persia, added a cosmopolitan touch. (81)

Yet, well within the Empire the former “spartan” cuisine had been lost and excess ruled the upper classes.  Petronius’ satire gives us a clear view of the aristocratic Roman dinner table in The Satyricon.

Naturally we drank and missed no opportunity of admiring his elegant hospitality.  In the middle of this a slave brought in a silver skeleton, put together in such a way that its joints and backbone could be pulled out and twisted in all directions.  After he had flung it about on the table once or twice, its flexible joints falling into various postures, Trimalchio recited:

O woe, man is only a dot:

Hell drags us off and that is the lot;

So let us live a little space,

At least while we feed our face.

After our applause the next course was brought in.  Actually it was not as grand as expected, but it was so novel that everyone stared.  It was a deep circular tray with the twelve signs of the Zodiac arranged around the edge.  Over each of them the chef had placed some appropriate dainty suggested by the subject.  Over Aries the Ram, chickpeas; over Taurus the Bull, a beefsteak; over the Heavenly Twins, testicles and kidneys; over Cancer the Crab, a garland; over Leo the Lion, an African fig; over Virgo the Virgin, a young cow’s udder; over Libra the Scales, a balance with a cheesecake in one pan and a pastry in the other; over Scorpio, a sea scorpion; over Sagittarius the Archer, a sea bream with eyespots; over Capricorn, a lobster; over Aquarius the Water-Carrier, a goose; over Pisces the Fish, two mullets.  (56-57)

And here’s Fellini’s version.

And to end, here is Apicius’ recipe ( not a person but a collection of recipes from the fourth and fitch century common era) for a pig’s stomach.  Bon Appétit!

Carefully empty out a pig’s stomach, wash it with salt and vinegar and afterwards with water and stuff it with the following mixture: pound pork meat throughly, mix this with three brains that have their sinews removed and raw eggs.  Tip in some pine nuts and put in whole peppercorns, and flavor it with this sauce: pound pepper, lovage, silphium, anise, ginger, a little rue, the best liquamen, and a little oil.  Fill the stomach, leaving little space so that it does not burst during cooking.  Tie up both ends and put it in a boiling pot.  Lift it out and pierce it with a needle to release the air.  When it is half way through the cooking, lift it out and hang in the smoke to give it colour, and then finish boiling it so it maybe be cooked. (247, 249)


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