In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
In ancient Rome, poetry was pop culture, and being a poet was a viable living of sorts—you attached yourself to a patron and wrote flattering words about him, nasty verse about his enemies, and humorous epigrams to enliven his dinner parties. You kissed political ass, stuck in well-timed barbs, snarked about fashion and stupid food trends, and called out friends, foes, and former lovers. And while many wrote elevated, epic work, there was a thriving culture of poets like Martial (A.D. 40–103) and Catullus (84–54 B.C.), whose catty, witty, often obscene poems reflect daily life and circulated first through gossipy word-of-mouth and graffiti.
If it seems surprising that the enjoyment of bitchy public ephemera (see: Twitter) is as old as human civilization, it’s only one way in which the psychology of ancient Rome seems eerily similar to our own. Martial and Catullus cared about money and sex, status and partying, making art and having dinner, just like we do today. Their city, as described by Martial, has “grimy restaurants” that “spill out too far” onto the sidewalks, “inn posts … festooned with loads of chained flagons,” and at least one bar that’s a “smoke-blackened dive.” It’s populated by “bar owners, butchers and barbers,” but the elite pretty boys have “long hair and soft beards,” and there is a brisk economy of gift-giving. In one epigram, Martial notes that “this month,” trendy items include “napkins, pretty spoons, / Paper, wax tapers and tall jars of prunes.” In another, wishing to be written into someone’s will, he sends gifts of “cakes flavored with honey from Hybla.” Even in the ancient world, the provenance of gourmet food items mattered.
The atmosphere and mindset is so recognizable that the translators of my edition of Catullus’s poetry, Jeannine Diddle Uzzi and Jeffrey Thomson, have used modern slang, giving poems titles like “This One Boy” and “BYOB.” To explain the choice, they write, “We have tried to capture in English the spirit and essence, the intentio, of each of Catullus’ poems, allowing the original content, form, and language to inspire our native language.” The modern words fit so well that I’d read half the volume before realizing that liberties must have been taken. The following poem, about a frenemy, shows the approach:
Fag-boy Thallus, softer than bunny fur
softer than foie gras or a tender earlobe,
softer than the long-neglected limp dick
of an old man—Thallus, like a storm
of gluttony when Sloth puts suckers
to sleep. Thallus, return the cloak
you pinched, my Spanish napkin,
and the foreign engravings you display
as your own heirlooms, you idiot!
Return them, pried from your sticky fingers
or my smoking whip will lash invective all over
your soft little ass and your girlish hands
while you thrash like a skiff on the raging sea.
This is a poem about a guy who waits for his friends to pass out after a long night of dining and boozing, and then steals their stuff. The “Spanish napkin” is relevant because people were expected to bring their own to dinner parties—a man’s napkin was his accessory. It’s different, and yet so similar to our own day. If we display status by scoring tables at hip restaurants and dining on all the right ingredients (local, organic, hand-harvested by fair trade villagers, et cetera), they displayed theirs by seeking invitations to eat at the houses of the wealthy and powerful and feasting on exotic delicacies. Their dolphin balls to our salt-crusted organic beet carved tableside; their sow’s udder or grilled peacock to our farm-raised, maple-glazed, fennel pollen–dusted pork chop.
One reason the poetry of Martial in particular has survived is that he was both an avid participant in his times and a keen, honest observer. He lamented the hypocrisy of Rome and, to the extent he could, critiqued his own role as a flatterer and hired gun. He felt so much better during weekends at his country house (sound familiar?). One epigram reads, in its entirety: “You drink the best, yet serve us third-rate wine. / I’d rather sniff your cup than swill from mine.”
Considering everything else we have in common, I set out to discover how Roman food would taste to the modern palate—an experiment I encourage readers to try. I found two works of historical cookery—Around the Roman Table, by Patrick Faas, and A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa—and learned from them that the ancients didn’t have staples we’d expect, such as sugar, or some foods emblematic of Italian cuisine today, such as tomatoes. They did have cows, but they didn’t make butter. They used olive oil as their primary fat, and dates and honey for their sweeteners. The main condiments were garum, made from fermented fish (fish sauce is a perfect substitute), and defructum, a kind of supercondensed grape molasses made from must (a mash of grapes and stems often used in making wine). For the defructum, I substituted pomegranate molasses. The Romans tended to eat banquet style, with lots of appetizers followed by larger dishes, or sometimes each person would get their own table covered with small plates. Food was served by slaves. And while it’s not true that Romans vomited to make room to eat more (their vomiting, like ours, was more about an overindulgence in alcohol), they did eat propped up on one elbow, reclining on chaises, just like in the movies.
The selections of Martial and Catullus that I read mention only a few individual dishes, such as the aforementioned “cakes flavored with honey from Hybla,” but name many ingredients: foie gras, brill, mushrooms, two-pound turbots, oysters, beans, tuna, sausage, dormice, cheese from Umbria, Cappadocian lettuce, capons, turtle doves, apples, eggs, cabbages, and more. These provisions felt familiar but intriguingly skewed, an effect I aimed to capture in the final menu, which wasn’t literally lifted from a poem but rather a re-creation of the atmosphere of a Roman feast. I made a quail-egg appetizer, a puree of quince and leeks, grilled lobster, meatballs with fava beans, and a honey cake, all from ancient recipes found in my two historical-cookery books.
The results were mixed. The sauce for the quail eggs had much more pepper and fish sauce in it than I thought sounded edible. I followed the directions and found the flavor to be a punch in the face, not enjoyable but perhaps establishing the Roman tone. The grilled lobster, marinated in fish sauce, coriander, and vinegar, was easy to do and fantastic to eat. The quince-and-leek puree was interesting in its boiled-and-blended form, but a second step suggesting I add eggs to the puree and bake it destroyed both the flavor and the texture. For the meatball dish, I got confused and ended up combining two recipes, both based on Apicius, from A Taste of Ancient Rome. The meatball technique, deliciously, called for bread soaked in red wine (instead of in milk, as Italians do today), fish sauce, and ground myrtle berries. I couldn’t find myrtle but created a substitution of juniper berries, rosemary, and ground orange peel granules. The flavor of the finished dish, especially when eaten with the side of plain, boiled fava beans, was exotic but good and somehow felt ancient Mediterranean.
Of all the items at my Roman feast, the one I would make again (though admittedly for a slightly weird dinner party) is the honey cake—called a “placenta,” probably for its shape. The volumes of Apicius covering sweets have been lost—unfortunate, since his cuisine was the lavish kind my poets wrote about—and the cake I made, adapted from Cato, claims to be a humble cake intended to feed slaves. Still, it’s a honey cake, and it struck me as not so humble, since it asks for a dough wrapper (flour, egg, water) to be first decorated with bay leaves, then filled with a second dough made of cooked couscous and flour shaped into balls. The whole thing gets topped with a ricotta mixture and baked. I’d never come across such a technique in all my years of cooking and thought it couldn’t possibly be right. What size are these balls? (No idea.) Will that dough shape easily? (No.) Will it actually cook? (It did!)
Fresh out of the oven, the cake was divine, with a crispy golden exterior, a chewy, melting, and barely sweet interior, and a fragrance that had me returning again and again to hang my face over it and inhale its sweet bay magic. I’m not sure “originally made for slaves” will ever have the same ring as “sustainable and handcrafted,” but weirder excesses have happened—in Brooklyn and in ancient Rome.
Quail Eggs in Pine Nut Sauce
Adapted from Around the Roman Table, by Patrick Faas.
4 quail eggs
120 g pine nuts
1 tsp ground pepper
1/2 tsp honey
2 tbs garum (fish sauce)
Soak the pine nuts overnight in water.
Put the eggs in a pan of cold water, and bring to a boil. Let them cook for three and a half minutes, then plunge the eggs into cold water to stop the cooking. Peel.
Drain the pine nuts, reserving the water. Grind them finely in the blender (adding reserved water by the tablespoon, if necessary). Remove to a small bowl, add honey, fish sauce, and pepper, and mix thoroughly.
Spoon the sauce into a shallow serving dish. Garnish with the eggs, left whole, and some extra pine nuts if you have any.
Adapted from Apicius 164 and A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa.
2 large quinces, ripe
1 tbs honey
2 tbs defructum (pomegranate molasses)
2 eggs, beaten
Preheat the oven to 350.
Peel the quinces, cut them into large pieces, and boil until soft. Drain, reserving about a cup of the water. Meanwhile, wash and chop the leeks, and boil them in another pot, until tender.
When both are done, puree them together in a blender, adding reserved water as necessary. Mix with honey and molasses, then add the eggs.
Bake in a greased baking dish for twenty minutes, until it begins to golden.
Meatballs with Fava Beans
Adapted from A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa.
a slice of white bread, crust removed
high-quality red wine, for soaking
4–5 pitted myrtle berries (or the following substitution: 4 juniper berries, 1/8 tsp dried rosemary, 1/4 tsp orange peel granules)
3/4 lb ground pork
pepper, to taste
1 tbs garum (fish sauce)
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 cup bread crumbs
oil, for frying
2 lbs unshelled fava beans
Put the bread in a small dish, and add red wine by the tablespoon until the bread is soaked. Mash, and set aside.
Grind the myrtle berries (or the substitution of juniper, rosemary, and orange peel) in a mortar and pestle.
Place the meat in a medium-size bowl. Add ground spice, pepper (to taste), egg, fish sauce, and the wine-soaked bread mash. Mix with your hands until thoroughly combined. Set aside.
Finely chop pine nuts, or grind in a mortar and pestle, until they form a moldable paste. Roll the paste into small balls, about the size of a blueberry.
Using moistened hands, roll the pork mixture into meatballs, about an inch and a half in diameter. Make a hollow in each one, stuff with a ball of pine nut paste, and close. Roll in bread crumbs.
Fry the meatballs in hot oil, turning frequently, until browned on all sides and cooked through, about twenty minutes.
In the meantime, set a large pot of water to boil. Clean the fava beans, removing both the outer pod and the inner shell. Boil the beans until bright-green and tender, about five minutes, tasting frequently for doneness.
Serve the meatballs with a side of beans.
Adapted from Apicius 399 and A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa.
1 large lobster, or 2 small ones, gutted and chopped in half by your fishmonger
1 tbs ground coriander
1/3 cup fish sauce
pepper, to taste
2/3 cup vinegar
Combine coriander, fish sauce, pepper, and vinegar in a large bowl. Add the lobster, and marinate for twenty to forty minutes before grilling, but no longer, as the vinegar could overtenderize the meat.
Grill according to your method of choice.
“Placenta” Cake With Cheese and Honey
Adapted from Cato 76 and A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa.
4 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup couscous, cooked
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbs vegetable shortening
800 g fresh ricotta cheese
6 tbs honey
10 bay leaves, bright-green and of good quality
1 egg, beaten
Preheat the oven to 350.
Make the first dough. Put a cup and a half of flour in a medium-size bowl and form a well in the middle. Add half a cup of water and the beaten egg, mix together, and then knead in the bowl until a soft dough has formed. Set aside.
Make the second dough. In a large mixing bowl, combine cooked couscous with half a teaspoon of salt, two tablespoons of vegetable shortening, and the remaining three cups of flour. Mix with your hands until thoroughly combined.
Combine the ricotta cheese with six tablespoons of honey. Mix thoroughly.
Begin to assemble the “placenta.” Coat the inside of a nine-inch round baking pan with olive oil. Arrange the bay leaves in a decorative pattern on the bottom of the pan.
Roll out the dough on a floured surface until it is about a quarter inch thick and large enough to drape comfortably over the sides of the pan in all directions. Place the dough on top of the bay leaves, aligning it to the sides of the pan as neatly as possible and allowing it to drape over the edges.
Using your hands, roll the couscous mixture into rough “balls” of dough, less than an inch wide. As you go along, put the balls in the pan on top of the first dough. Do this until about half of the mixture is gone. Spread the dough balls with half the ricotta mixture, nudging the mixture into the crevices between the balls of dough as much as possible. Repeat with the second half of the couscous mixture and the second half of the ricotta.
Fold the overhanging dough up over the filling, forming a rustic-looking pie. It’s okay if the dough doesn’t entirely meet in the center. Bake for an hour, until golden and puffy. Let cool slightly, invert, and serve warm.
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.