Around the Roman Table by Patrick Faas: Italy has always been about the food

Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient RomeAround the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome by Patrick Faas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining and wide-ranging look at ancient Roman cuisine.

When I decided I needed to know more about food and eating in the ancient world of my own work in progress, I went overboard and ordered three different books on it. When they arrived I had to choose which one to start with. Looking them over, I thought that Patrick Faas’s book would provide the best introduction. Now, although I haven’t read the other two books yet, I feel sure that I chose right.

The other books are primarily cookbooks, and Faas’s book is also that, with plenty of recipes drawn from ancient authors, notably Apicius, who wrote “the only gastronomic cookery book handed down to us from classical antiquity.” But it’s also much more than that. Faas sets the scene by taking us through all the things that surrounded the dishes themselves, starting with a “culinary history” of Rome that looks at the agricultural basis of Roman society and the various influences that affected it, such as Africa and Greece, and other factors such as feast days, philosophy, and sumptuary laws. He moves on to a study of “the meal,” with chapters on table manners, the courses of a meal, the menu, and “the carousal” or drinking party that usually followed a dinner party. The author goes on to discuss Roman wine and other drinks, the Roman cook, and his condiments. Only then, in Part Two of the book, 175 pages in, does Faas start presenting recipes for actual dishes.

I was captivated by so much of what I found in this book. I knew that Romans reclined to eat their dinners, but how exactly did they arrange themselves around the table, and who reclined next to whom? The answers are here, along with illustrations. Did Romans really gorge themselves and then vomit up their food to eat more? (Not often, according to Faas; after drinking, though—that’s another matter.) What kinds of dishes and utensils did they eat with? What kinds of pots and pans did they cook with? All here, and illustrated.

The recipes section is broken down interestingly into four parts named after the four elements, presenting dishes drawn from the land (cereal and vegetables), from the fire (cooked meat), from the air (birds), and from the water (fish). I’ve read some authors who claim that the typical Roman diet was monotonous and frugal, but the great wealth of ingredients, flavors, and techniques presented here seem to give that notion the lie. The Romans liked strongly flavored, highly seasoned foods. But they also liked fresh vegetables, and Roman gentlemen took pride in their skill at growing them—much like modern Italians that I’ve known in the Vancouver area! And Roman women did not cook. If a slave was not cooking, then the head of the household would attend to it himself; even emperors would practice cuisine and personally see to the feeding of their family and guests.

Faas does not simply give recipes; the various dishes offer opportunities to explain various facts, attitudes, and peculiarities in the Romans’ approach to food. The section on vegetable dishes starts with a discussion of the Roman garden, including its required statue of Priapus, the phallic god of gardens.

Each recipe is presented first as the original Latin text followed by its English translation, then a more detailed discussion intended to make the recipe doable for the modern cook. For hard-to-get ingredients he suggests good modern alternatives. The ubiquitous garum or fermented fish sauce, for example, can be replaced with soy sauce or anchovy paste. The equally ubiquitous herb lovage can be replaced with parsley or celery root.

It seems that Faas has made all these dishes himself, even the most exotic, such as roast flamingo or brain pate or sow’s udders. He notes when the food is likely to be less palatable for the modern diner, but also how often the Roman dish is very good as is.

I have not been bold enough myself to try making any of the dishes; that was not my aim in reading the book. But Faas’s enthusiasm and depth of knowledge have got me interested in trying some. For cuisine makes its own strong, definite statement about a culture, and this book gives a real flavor of ancient Rome.

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