Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Ancient Greeks Write About Food

The next Christmas present I intend to write about is another slender tome. This time, the subject matter is ancient Greek cuisine:
Ricotti, Eugenia Salza Prina. Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece. J. Paul Getty Trust (English ed. 2007).
It is clear from the very first pages of Ms. Ricotti's book that a scholar of ancient Greek cuisine has the very opposite problem to the problem Ms. Mehdawy and Mr. Hussien had in ascertaining the secrets of ancient Egyptian cuisine. The ancient Egyptian food scholar has plenty of archaeological finds of food remains and a large number of illustrations  of cooking in both two-dimensions and three dimensions.

Ms. Ricotti, on the other hand, as a scholar of ancient Greek literature, has a body of writing about food to draw upon, including even some recipes--but no illustrations of the food preparation process and few, if any, tomb finds.

At first, the difference seems to be a fortunate one. Ms. Ricotti begins her book by regaling the reader with interesting tidbits from the Iliad; apparently the heroic attackers of Troy dined every night on roast meat and little else, and were proud of it. Anecdotes about dinners fancy and modest, Spartan cooking (they made and enjoyed a black soup that seems to have been the ancient world's equivalent of haggis, i.e., a food no foreigners would eat), and Cleopatra's attempt to poison Mark Antony with a floral coronet, liven the pages.

But problems arise when Ms. Ricotti attempts to give us actual ancient Greek recipes. The first problem, which is likely attributable to the fact that Ms. Ricotti is drawing her recipes largely from literary sources, is that the recipes give a bizarre and unbalanced picture of ancient Greek cuisine. On the one hand, we get simple, plain foods such as Zeno's recipe for lentil soup (which required exactly 12 coriander seeds). On the other, the book contains a large number of recipes for simple preparation of all types of sea creatures, some of which probably cannot be found outside the Mediterranean. (Thornback ray? Stewed conger eel, anyone?) She claims that hyacinth bulbs were prescribed to men in ancient Greece as an aphrodisiac, and she reports several recipes containing them with the comment, "In all likelihood they were none too tasty."

The second problem is that Ms. Ricotti appears to be lost when she cannot refer to ancient literary sources.  As a result,  those of her recipes that are not clearly paraphrased from an ancient source raise authenticity questions that she makes little attempt to answer.   For example, she makes modern substitutions for ancient ingredients (e.g., Vietnamese fish sauce for garum) without explaining clearly why she's doing so. She also throws in modern food trivia, such as the following, for no clear reason, since her proposed ingredient is still unlikely to be easy for most modern Westerners to find:
In bazaars in both Turkey and Egypt, the red pistils of safflower, or "false saffron," are passed off on the unsuspecting tourist, who believe he or she is getting genuine saffron. It is nevertheless delicious. (page 62)
More seriously, she gives a recipe for "cooked water," an all-vegetable soup, that includes potatoes, even though potatoes are a New World plant and wouldn't have been available to the ancient Greeks, or to anyone in Greece until after Europe's discovery of the New World.  Her only explanation for her decision to add the potatoes, given inconspicuously in the margin, is this: "Today dishes based on field and wild herbs have changed somewhat, owing to the introduction of New World plants, but they are directly derived from the traditional recipes. For example, the following recipe for 'cooked water' combines Old and New World foods." (page 57) No explanation is given as to how we know that "cooked water" is "traditional" or why we should believe that the "tradition" in question goes all the way back to ancient Greece, potatoes or no.

I suspect that the real source of both of these problems is that Ms. Ricotti knows her ancient Greek literature well but has less than expert knowledge of the history of food in general. As a result, she falls back on spotty personal background knowledge when speaking of food history matters not directly attested to by her literary sources. For example, Ms. Ricotti comments, after reporting that several characters in ancient Greek plays long to eat grasshoppers or cicadas:
I don't know whether these insects would have been cooked as Istanbul clams are cooked today, skewered three by three on sticks, floured and then fried, but even prepared this way, I would not be tempted to try them. However, if anyone should wish to do so, feel free. In Africa, they are often talked about and my African nanny assured me that "grasshoppers are sweet as cafe latte."
Insects have been eaten in many cultures, both as a delicacy and otherwise. That's even true of our own culture. My mother told me she had enjoyed chocolate-covered ants when she was a young woman.

Despite its limitations, I enjoyed Ms. Ricotti's little book. Although it doesn't give the clearest picture of ancient Greek cuisine, it appears to have some genuine details from that world which, though in some ways familiar to us, was very different from ours. My favorite recipe from the book is a short one, so I'll reproduce it here:
Turnips in Mustard
4 white turnips, cleaned;
1 rounded teaspoon mustard seed, crushed;
1/2 cup (125 ml) oil;
1/2 cup (125 ml) vinegar.
Slice the turnips thinly and put into a pot of boiling water for one minute, and then rinse them and dry them, and let them cool. Stir the other ingredients together in a jar and toss in the dry, cooled turnip slices. Cover the jar, and let the turnips sit for at least two days. They can last about a month and are served directly out of the jar.  (page 50)
This may not be the most authentic recipe in the book, but in some ways it's the most homey and appealing one. It conjures up a picture of people striving to take the simplest ingredients and, not just preserve them but make them into a tasty treat.  This is a more appealing picture, to me, of ancient Greek food than the image of the Homeric heroes flaunting their status by dining on roast meat, night after night, while camping in a war zone.

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