I Came, I Saw, I Ate

Ancient Cooking vs. Modern Eating

Editor’s Note: 
Today we depart from our usual unkind commentary to provide you with (for once) a well-researched, factual article. Don’t get used to it. 

The Western world’s oldest cookbook is thought to be the sprawling De re coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”), commonly credited to one Caelius Apicius. The book’s author is otherwise unknown, the way great chefs are always unknown beyond their epochs (try naming one great chef from before, oh, let’s be generous and say 1950, much less one from 4th or 5th century CE, when De re coquinaria was probably compiled). He is no poet, playwright, or philosopher, which is mostly what we expect our great dead Romans to be when we read their writing. He is a chef, less a writer than a stenographer, transcribing the daily work of his hands into readable form with little regard for the beauty or grace of his words.

Loving food too much was once considered suspicious behavior. To treat the matter of food systematically and scientifically, to write at length about ingredients and methods and nutrition, was frivolity at its worst. The idea of a culinary school was out of the question until famed glutton M. Gavius Apicius (no relation to our hero) established one some 300 years before De re coquinaria appeared on the scene. Before the first cooking school was founded, nobody in Rome treated food philosophically. You ate til you were full—that was it.

Some of the recipes in De re coquinaria did retain this spartan character, as did some of the overall concepts that seem to have governed Apicius’s approach to his table. For one thing, the man didn’t bake. No bread, no desserts. I know that “Rome” and “Italy” have about as much in common as jelly and jellyfish, but seriously—can you imagine an Italian meal without a few slices of coarse warm bread? He makes up for the whole not-baking thing by giving readers a recipe for roast flamingo—but still.

We often imagine Ancient Rome as a massive epicenter of excess, full of wealthy patricians draping their goutish bodies across sofas while sampling grapes from between slaves’ fingers. But according to chef-historian Joseph Dommers Vehling, the reality of everyday patricians was not extravagant; it was merely decent, and as such seemed extravagant to the impoverished masses. Indeed, Vehling claims that there were periods during which it was impossible to eat with true extravagance for all but the highest royalty. There were prohibition laws preventing such barbarisms as deliberately fattening livestock to make it tastier on the plate, or importing specialty delicacies from other regions of the empire. (Those laws were roughly as successful as prohibition laws ever are, and were ultimately abandoned.)

Some of Caelius Apicius’s recipes are, frankly, stomach-turning. There are sections on improving broth that has a rotten odor, making spoiled honey “good” again, and selling chicken that has begun to smell “goatish.” In spirit, though, this isn’t unlike modern chefs’ practice of cobbling together costly nightly specials made from anything in the walk-in that is starting to spoil. If we forgive this behavior in our restaurants, we ought to forgive it in ancient kitchens without refrigerators or preservatives, too.

Many foods are described not in terms of their taste, but with regard to their medicinal benefits. Beets are praised not as delicious, but as a fine laxative. Parboiled leeks are glowingly described as “easily digested.” A salad is called “harmless.” It’s tough to imagine a modern cookbook absent its lush photos of sumptuously melted cheese, glistening steaks, and fluffy pyramids of whipped cream. Then again, we do still buy food that is packaged and sold as beneficial rather than pleasurable: look at how popular Soylent is becoming. The ideal American diet is supposed to be beneficial first, enjoyable second (if at all).

The cook who takes the time to not only transcribe his work, but explain it in layman’s terms, is a largely modern development. Only recently has good cooking owed its subjects some degree of accessibility. Apicius’s own book, with its absolute refusal to dictate measurements or cook times, would have been unusable by anybody except other experienced chefs of means. In Apicius’s time, those with money were able to hire talented craftsmen to supervise the contents of their tables, and those without money were supposed to just eat what they could and quit worrying. Now, though, everybody is more or less expected to care about food—not just its taste, but its nutritive qualities and even its philosophical meaning. Even if they can’t afford it, they’re supposed to make their best effort. Today’s average person is not eating foie gras any more than the average person of 400 CE was—but he probably knows what it is, and furthermore, what it means and represents.

This seeming democratization of cooking is, like seeming democratizations of arts everywhere, not a democratization at all. Poor people live in food deserts, forced to eat unhealthy and unsatisfying snacks that they can buy at corner stores rather than richly satisfying meals. Rich people still regularly patronize devastatingly fine restaurants, or hire personal chefs. The mission of turning food into something that everybody can love in the same way has been a failure. One wonders what really poor people ate in Apicius’s day. What was the equivalent of the Dollar Menu or a bag of fried pork skins? And were the poor made to feel wicked for eating whatever they ate then, as they are now?

We live in a time in which it is considered shameful to feed your family “the wrong things.” Food journalists relentlessly push the benefits of beans and rice, beans and rice—as though it’s any fun at all to come home after a twelve-hour shift and immediately supervise a pot of rice for half an hour to produce a dish that is nowhere near as savory or satisfying as the supposedly Evil meal you could just pick up from McDonald’s instead. Philosophical considerations of food are no longer considered shameful; they are both moral and vital. We’ve come a decent way in our relationship with food since Apicius’s day, but the ability to enjoy food that is simultaneously pleasurable and healthy is just as out of our grasp as it ever has been.

Art by Jun Joestar. 

Alex King

Alex King

Alex King, a culturally irrelevant Jew who still listens to the Bee Gees without a touch of irony, is also Empire of Loathing's food correspondent. If you don’t like them or their writing or their opinions on the Food Network, you’re right.

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