Thanksgiving with Galen and Apicius

By Sean Coughlin

For Thanksgiving, I thought I’d come up with a new English translation of a seasonal recipe from the Roman cook-book of Apicius. It comes from the third book of De re coquinaria. The Latin is cucurbitas cum gallina. In Joseph Vehling’s English translation: “Pumpkin and Chicken”.

If only the Romans had turkeys. And pumpkins.

I first learned that the Greeks and Romans were pumpkinless from Laurence Totelin earlier this year and it left me utterly confounded.

I had been revising a translation and commentary of the first book of the sixth-century CE physician Aetius of Amida’s Medical Collections, and a question came up about how to identify different kinds of cucurbits, that immense botanical family of vines which produce comically-large-berries, like cucumbers, melons, watermelons, pumpkins, squashes, gourds, and luffa sponges.

Naively, I thought it would help to look at how authors like Aetius or Galen say cucurbits are prepared. And, since Galen (On the Properties of Foodstuffs, 2.3) tells us that people always ate their cucurbits cooked, I figured that Greco-Roman cucurbits must be something like zucchini.  After all, who on earth would cook a melon?

“But,” Laurence told me, “zucchinis are new world.”

Now, before going into why I found this so shocking, I want to bring everyone up to speed.

“Old world” cucurbits include a lot of different genera: Cucumis, the cucumbers and melons; Citrullus, the watermelons and colocynths; Lageneria, the bottle gourd or calabash; and a few others like Luffa and Bryonia. No one is quite sure where in the old world they first evolved, but the recent consensus is somewhere in Africa. In other words, they could have existed in the Greco-Roman world.

Various old world cucurbits: cucumbers and melons. Photo from the author.

“New world” cucurbits, however, are the vines descended from plants native to the Americas. They almost certainly could not have been known in antiquity, and the group includes all species of the genus Cucurbita. This includes zucchini, courgettes, pumpkins, squashes, decorative gourds, and even those 1000 kg monsters at fall fairs. None of them were known in Europe before Columbus.

I would like to imagine that there is at least one other kindred reader of classics in English who feels a bit anxious at this news. It’s not just a problem for Apicius’ Thanksgiving casserole or my rehearsal of Epicrates’ lampoon of Plato’s Academy.

What about the “Pumpkin Pirates” of Lucian’s True History (2.37)? Or Psyche’s sister’s husband who Apuleius says is “bald as a pumpkin” (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 5.9)? And what will become of Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii – the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius?

English translations are unusually problematic in the case of cucurbits. Pumpkins show up all over the place. And this isn’t merely because of translators’ license, or a confusion of names.

As far as I’ve been able to sort out, it’s mainly the result of an unfortunate coincidence between the rise of an influential but erroneous botanical hypothesis, and the publication of two influential Greek and Latin English dictionaries.

Here is the story:

Before the mid-19th century, the evidence about the origins of Cucurbita was mixed. The names of the plants suggested they came from the “old world”, but depictions of Cucurbita species don’t show up before the mid-1500s.

For instance, in Leonhart Fuchs’ 1542 herbal, De Historia Stirpium, we get one of the first European depictions of the pumpkin plant, the species Cucurbita pepo L. Fuchs, however, calls it cucumis turcicus, the Turkish cucumber, a name which might lead one to think the plant was native to the “old world”.

Not long after Fuchs, in an herbal of Matthiolus from 1586, the same plant appears again, but with a different name: cucurbita indica – the Indian gourd. And “Indian,” Matthiolus tells us, means American: “they say these [new gourds] came into Italy from the West Indies, whence they are called by many ‘Indian’” (Matthiolus of Padua, Commentary on Dioscorides 1559, p. 292, my emphasis).

“He has a pumpkin” (ipse cucurbita habet). Using pumpkins as camouflage. Woodcut, late 16th century, Netherlands. CCBY

Both Fuchs and Matthiolus agree that these cucurbits are foreign (and probably even recent) imports to European markets. They disagree about where they came from: were they indigenous to the old or the new world?

This continued until the 1850s, when the hypothesis that Cucurbita species were indigenous to the old world reached its most articulated form. It happened as part of a public debate between two great 19th century botanists: Alphonse de Candolle and Asa Gray.

De Candolle argued that because people had used the same names for cucurbits since ancient times, the plants with those names must have come from the old world.

In response, Gray argued that new and ‘foreign’ cucurbits only start showing up in 16th century herbals like those of Fuchs and Matthiolus. That, along with documentary evidence from the first European explorers, suggests a new world origin.

The debate continued for over thirty years, only coming to an end in 1883 after a devastating two-part review of De Candolle’s last book, The Origin of Cultivated Plants. In this review, Gray, along his colleague J. Hammond Turnball, presented almost documentary evidence from European explorers that cucurbits were cultivated in the Americas before European explorers ever reached it in 1492.

These explorers recorded indigenous names for the plants they encountered, but they also used European ones, and these are the names that stuck: in Latin, cucurbitae and cucumeres; in Spanish, calabaças, melones, pepinos and cogombros; in French, melons, concombres, citrouilles, and courges; in Italian, zucca; and in English, musk-melons, cowcumbers, and, — most importantly — the pompion, the source of our word, ‘pumpkin’. Only the name “squash” from the Algonquin vernacular made its way into English.

Gray and Turnball’s review, however, appeared only after the work on the great Greek and Latin lexica had finished up – A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddel and Scott, and A Latin Dictionary by Lewis and Short. Both dictionaries identify some Greco-Roman cucurbits with American pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo L. or Cucurbita maxima L.), and pumpkins have shown up in English translations ever since.

So for this recipe, I figure, why fight it?

Tune in tomorrow for Apicius’ recipe!

The author with pumpkins, sometime in the late 2000s. Photo from the author.

Sean Coughlin is Research Fellow in the history of philosophy, science and medicine at Excellence Cluster Topoi and the Institute for Classical Philology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He is completing a revised translation and commentary on Aetius of Amida, Medical Collections, Book I, an edition and translation fragments of the 1st century Pneumatist physician, Athenaeus of Attalia, and co-editing a volume on the concept of pneuma after Aristotle.

Searching for Something Special in Northeastern China’s Cuisine

By Loretta E. Kim

Mixed noodles with broth and sauce. Credit: Loretta Kim.

The “eight major cuisines” (ba da caixi) of China, a culinary taxonomy sometimes reduced to four types and at most expanded to sixteen, reflects Chinese pride in the diversity of ingredients and flavor palettes that are associated with historical variations in material culture developed from differences in topography, climate, and biota. However, the Chinese word caixi, which translates to the English term “cuisine”, generally refers to foods that are attributed to the Han people who constitute the ethnic majority group in the past and present. Foods of non-Han peoples are also consumed by Han people, but are often considered part of “food and beverage culture” (yinshi wenhua) or “folk customs” (minjian xisu). The exclusion of non-Han foods from the cuisine classification and attribution of them instead to geographical regions and culture serves to reinforce the conception of non-Han peoples as marginal members of Chinese society.

Natives of Northeastern China, customarily defined as Jilin, Liaoning, and Heilongjiang provinces, are proud of their food, but people in other parts of the country often remark that Northeastern food (Dongbei cai) is not an authentic type of “cuisine” because it is “simple” (lacking complex flavors), “tasteless” (or “too salty”), and “monotonous” (most dishes are made of the same ingredients). Most of these uncomplimentary stereotypes of Northeastern China’s food are based on the staples and homemade favorites of Han households in the region, such as “three fresh flavors of the earth” (di san xian), a dish made by sautéing potatoes, eggplants, and green peppers with garlic, green onions, and peanut oil, and dishes cooked by stewing an assortment of ingredients (dun cai).

Although they are generally not explicitly cited in criticisms of Northeastern food, several attributes of the region influence how Chinese in other areas develop these prejudices. Northeastern China is a borderland and socio-cultural frontier between China and neighboring countries, so it is not considered as a distinct culinary region like other borderlands such as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Yunnan and Guizhou provinces.

Another characteristic of Northeastern China is that its ethnic minority (non-Han) populations are not well-known to people in other areas of China, either by group name or distinguishing characteristics. Chinese in central and eastern China may know of Manchus and Mongols, two of China’s largest ethnic minority groups, but struggle to name or describe any others. So unlike Xinjiang, Yunnan, and Guizhou, which are known as the homes of ethnic minorities that produce food which is very different from Han food and therefore quite appealing to Chinese consumers who seek epicurean novelty, the culinary reputation of Northeastern China does not benefit from its ethnic diversity.

Most ethnic minority people in contemporary Northeastern China are fluent and literate in Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) but do not actively translate or otherwise bridge knowledge from their heritage languages into China’s Sinophone mainstream society. Moreover, most ethnic minority recipes in Northeastern China are not documented and standardized, and few people can read or write texts produced in these languages so there is no substantial audience for such records.

Despite these disadvantages to changing popular attitudes towards Northeastern China’s cuisines, pre-twentieth century sources reveal that non-Northeastern people formerly associated certain foodways with places and peoples of the Northeast. One such source is the section about food in the Classified Anecdotes of the Qing Dynasty (Qingbai leichao). The author, Xu Ke (1869-1928), was a native of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province and a member of the literati class who earned an official examination degree.

Unlike many of his fellow southern-born cultural doyens, Xu included references to the north, including the northeast, in his writings. About the people of Ningguta, a place now known as Ning’an, in Heilongjiang province, he observed “The da gao [a cake usually made of glutinous rice (nuomi 糯米), honey and/or white sugar] is made of glutinous millet (huangmi 黃米) in Ningguta (emphasis mine).”[1] Xu Ke  also observed that Ningguta people like “yellow pickled vegetables” (huangji). “Yellow pickled vegetables” are ubiquitous throughout China to the southernmost region of Guangdong, where huangji is pronounced  wong zai) and the vegetable in question is a cucumber that is served minced. How the Ningguta pickle was eaten, and in fact what is, goes unexplained, but Xu’s reference to it piques the imagination about what made it unique.

Xu also discusses the foods of non-Han peoples in Northeastern China in his miscellany, such as the two ways in which Mongols eat meat: “(Mongols) boil beef and lamb slightly in plain water, or roast (these meats) directly over bovine manure. When the pieces (of meat) are roasted, the left hand is used to hold the meat, while the right hand holds a small knife to cut (the meat), a little salt is added and the meat is eaten without being chewed.”[2] Roast meat is not a sophisticated dish, if sophistication is appraised by the number of ingredients or required steps to cook it. But the mental image of a Mongol diner holding and cutting his meat inspires us to think about how culinary sophistication and tradition as only defined by Han people or by ethnic minorities who are commonly known for being “exotic” inhibits a more inclusive and potentially more interesting interpretation of “cuisine” in China.


[1] Xu, Qingbai leichao, 6248.
[2] Xu Ke, Qingbai leichao (Classified anecdotes of the Qing dynasty)(Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1917, reprint, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2010), 6247.



Recipes: Reading Between the Lines

In today’s post, Lisa Myers describes the possibilities in using recipes as a teaching tool to explore ideas about power, social relationships, and connection.

Lisa Myers

During breakfast at the gas station/restaurant in Shawanaga, the reserve where my mother was born, my family’s conversation revolved around food memories. The soup and skaan special roused a discussion of how our Granny made the best skaan (pronounced “skawn,” also known as bannock or fry bread). That skaan was so good, I almost convinced myself that I would never be able to make it that well. My sister explained that her own skaan always came out hard as a rock. Uncle Sonny piped up, “I know how to make scone,” and started listing off measurements: “three cups of flour, three heaping teaspoons of baking powder, some salt, then you add some water, and don’t mix it too much.” My sister turned to me and responded by asking me to show her how to make it because she needs to do it with someone to get the feel of it.[1] Confirming food’s capacity to connect people with places, history, and a sense of cultural identity, the common understanding of this simple food was enriching.

There is a tension in recipes that written instructions are not enough or that somehow the maker will miss something or not do something integral but omitted from the text. Seeing someone make it carries more nuance and offers reassurance. This simple recipe represents ingredients from mere rations, and the preparation of such ingredients show the resilience of Indigenous people across North America, but also as traces of colonization since there are simple breads like these across the globe.

Beyond personal likes and dislikes, food symbolizes visceral connections to the past and stands in as a cultural affirmation that people need to reclaim as their own.  Embedded in even the most simplistic recipes are the tensions between land, food, and culture. Taking a recipe and doing an analysis of one of the ingredients or the context in which it was made reveals so much about power relations and social conditions. This is the assignment I give to a graduate class I teach called Food, Land and Culture in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. As a writing response to the weekly readings I ask students to use the convention of a written recipe as a literary device to respond to the week’s readings. The following are two examples of these brief recipe/responses:

Tzazna Miranda Leal, Masters of Environmental Studies Student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University:

"Pipian Recipe." Courtesy of the author.
“Pipian Recipe.” Courtesy of the author.

Rabia Ahmed, Masters of Environmental Studies Student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University:

(PDF version here).

"Recipe for Resistance." Courtesy of the author.
“Recipe for Resistance.” Courtesy of the author.

[1] A section of this text is from: Lisa Myers, “Serving it Up,” The Senses and Society 7:2 (2012): 173-195.

Mixed Message: A Student Perspective

In today’s post, graduate student Samantha Eadie discusses her experiences developing the recent University of Toronto exhibit Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada, which we featured here on the Recipes Project in May 2018.

Samantha Eadie

At the conclusion of my first year of graduate studies at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, I was invited to be a student contributor for the exhibition Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada. Having previously served as a Research Assistant for the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Irina Mihalache, I knew this would be a wonderful opportunity to expand my understanding of interpretation and exhibition development. I did not realize at the outset of this project that my participation would teach me about so much more than museological work; most notably about the value of recipes within cultural and historical analysis and their power as interpretive objects.

Figure 2 Ration coupon booklets and Ration tokens. The Ration Administration, Canada 194-. Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
Ration coupon booklets and Ration tokens. The Ration Administration, Canada 194-. Image Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

As one of the graduate research assistants, I undertook a variety of activities in the development of the exhibition, from contributing object interpretation, to designing display case layouts, to managing the projects of the undergraduate research assistants. When working with the undergraduate research assistants, I helped to organize and conduct several interviews (known as oral histories within the heritage field) focused on the history of two well-known Canadian cookbooks. Although the interviews were intended to focus on the cookbooks and the related historic experiences of the authors and their audiences, the personal stories of the narrators came to the fore. Though the cookbooks were discussed in measure, the stories I found most interesting focused on their own diverse culinary experiences, such as the continuation of family food traditions, the thrill of trying new ingredients and recipes, and the simple enjoyment of eating a favorite food. Hearing the words of the narrators left me with a feeling of connectedness, as, regardless of the generational gap that existed between us, I have shared their experiences as food holds deep meaning within my personal memories. Since food and cookbooks are part of our everyday experiences and social interactions, hearing these stories can ignite meaning and memory-making in a wide audience.

Establishing connections and developing meaning are important features of many contemporary museum exhibitions. This is achieved through the interpretation of museum objects (in this instance, cookbooks and ephemera) and archival records (including photographs and written documents), which intentionally draw on past experiences to create these memorable moments for audience members within the exhibition space. The inclusion of the aforementioned culinary stories in Mixed Messages, which were presented as both textual and oral content, served as one element of meaningful engagement. By focusing on the shared experiences of the narrators and utilizing the well-recognized medium of the cookbook, the curators were able to discuss the challenging topic of women’s agency in historic Canada, thus, critically reframing those memories and our engagement with the culinary content.

Having participated in this exhibition project has changed my understanding of Canadian cuisine. It has encouraged me to reflect upon my own use of cookbooks, recipes and ingredients, as well as the role family traditions serve within my own culinary experience. Moving forward in my career I will incorporate learned museological techniques into my practice, while the culinary and historical knowledge will continue to influence my personal life.

Mixed Message: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canadawas on display at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto from May 22nd, – August 17th, 2018. You can learn more about the exhibition by reading curator Liz Ridolfo’s blog post.