[Cooked] gourds with fowl: [add] hard-fleshed peaches, truffles, pepper, caraway, cumin, silphium, green herbs – mint, celery, coriander, pennyroyal, mentuccia –, honey, wine, liquamen, oil and vinegar. (The Latin text is here).
turkey drumsticks (about 750 g)
sugar pumpkin or butternut squash, cubed
apple, peeled, cored and diced
1/4 tsp. asafoetida
(1/2 tsp. fennel seeds will do)
For the sauce
dry white wine
chicken or vegetable stock
fish-sauce or MSG
herbs to taste (mint, celery, coriander, pennyroyal, oregano)
shaved (to taste)
1. Season the turkey legs with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in deep pan over high heat. Add turkey legs and cook, skin-side down, until crispy and golden brown (8 minutes or so). Flip legs and cook until the other side is browned, another 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
2. Return pan to heat with a bit more oil,
and when it’s hot, add the pumpkin or squash and asafoetida. Cook until the
pumpkin just begins brown, about 5 minutes. Add the apple, caraway, cumin and
fennel seeds and cook for another few minutes until browned.
3. Add wine to the pan and reduce by half.
Add stock, honey, fish-sauce and herbs. Return the drumsticks to the pan, cover
and let simmer for an hour until drumsticks are fall-apart tender. Add water or
more stock if it begins to look too dry. Alternatively, place in an oven
preheated to 375 F / 190 C. Serve drumsticks with roasted sweet potatoes,
drizzle on some of the sauce with some shaved truffle.
I’ve recently become obsesessed with
cucurbits thanks to a question from Peter Singer. This resulted in a discussion
with Laurence Totelin that took place this summer during
a workshop at the Humboldt-Universität as part of SFB 980, project
A03, “The Transfer of Medical Episteme in the ‘Encyclopaedic’ Compilations of
Late Antiquity”, with Philip van der Eijk. The subject was our forthcoming
translations of Books I and II of Aetius of Amida’s Medical Collections.
“We” are Sean Coughlin, Eric Gowling, Christine Salazar, and Piero Tassinari.
Many thanks to our guests Alessia Guardasole, Matteo Martelli, and of course
Laurence for attending. The translation of Book I was completed by Eric Gowling
as a doctoral dissertation and was in the process of being revised by Piero
Tassinari and myself when he passed away last year. I hope Piero would
appreciate this little essay. He is dearly missed.
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’sMedical 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.
“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
This includes zucchini, courgettes,
squashes, decorative gourds, and even those 1000
kg monsters at fall fairs. None of them were known in Europe before
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.
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
Here is the
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.
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,
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.
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.
This post is about two sort-of-recipe-books published in the first decade of the eighteenth century. When I say sort-of-recipe-books, I mean that although both of them are full of culinary precepts, neither is likely to have been used in the kitchen. But taken together, the two books give an insight into the cultural tensions of the early eighteenth century.
In 1705, Martin Lister published an edition of the recipes of the Roman cook Apicius. Subscribers to the volume included Isaac Newton, Hans Sloane, Christopher Wren, and the Archbishop of Canterbury; this was a work destined for the shelves of the great and the good. Lister was, as the title page makes clear, a medical man – chief physician to Queen Anne. Apicius on the other hand was, on the other hand, largely associated with gluttony and intemperance. In his lengthy Latin introduction, Lister tries to rescue Apicius from the charge of gluttony—and indeed to stress the health-giving properties of his recipes. Generations of moralizing historians had argued that the fall of Rome was at least partly down to excessive gourmandising. Lister takes the opposite view: the barbarian sack of Rome halted the Romans’ development of healthy, nourishing seasonings and sauces.
Lister was, in the parlance of the time, a ‘Modern’. That is to say, he believed in the continuing progress of human learning since antiquity. He also believed in the application of modern scholarly techniques to ancient texts, and in studying a broader range of texts and topics than the fairly narrow classical canon than had traditionally been taught in schools and universities. His edition of Apicius is thoroughly informed by these principles: it presents one of the most neglected and marginal classical texts with all the apparatus of modern scholarship, and it also builds on the knowledge of that text – bringing Lister’s scientific knowledge to bear on Apicius’ recipes.
One contemporary reader found such an expenditure of scholarly labour ridiculous: the application of considerable intellectual resources to a book about anchovy sauce and stuffed dormice. William King, a fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, was firmly an ‘Ancient’. He frequently bemoaned the fact that the Moderns were disregarding and denigrating the staples of the canon: above all, the epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Lister’s Apicius was evidence of the skewed priorities of the Moderns, and King hit upon the perfect way of satirizing it.
In 1708, King published a book-length poem called The Art of Cookery. Though the short title indicates a conventional recipe book, the long subtitle points to a more literary origin. The book is, we are told, written ‘in imitation of Horace’s Art of Poetry: with some letters to Dr. Lister, and others: occasion’d principally by the title of a book publish’d by the doctor, being the works of Apicius Coelius, concerning the soups and sauces of the antients.’ One of the strangest works of eighteenth-century satire, King’s Art of Cookery is a rewriting of Horace’s Art of Poetry (the most famous work of classical literary criticism) in which gastronomic instructions take the place of poetic ones at every opportunity.
To give one example, Horace’s insistence that poetry should be charming (or ‘sweet’) as well as beautiful is applied to pastry:
Unless some Sweetness at the Bottom lye,
Who cares for all the crinkling of the Pye? (p. 71)
One of the poem’s satiric targets is the importance attached by people like Lister to material that was previously considered trivial. Horace wrote his poem so that future writers could emulate the great epics of Homer and Virgil; these hallowed precepts were now being applied to mere cookery. In one of the prefatory letters addressed to Lister, King ironically bemoans the fact that gastronomy is not properly taught in schools:
For what hopes can there be of any Progress in Learning, whilst our Gentlemen suffer their Sons at Westminster, Eaton, and Winchester, to eat nothing but Salt with their Mutton, and Vinegar with their Roast Beef upon Holidays? What Extensiveness can there be in their Souls? … and as to Sauces, they are in profound ignorance. (pp. 3-4)
King has another target in his sights. The Art of Cookery records, in its odd way, the huge expansion of English diet at the turn of the eighteenth century. Sometimes, King confronts head-on the increasing diversity of food served in England, as in this passage (which corresponds to Horace’s advice about the use of recently-coined words in poems):
Be cautious how you change old Bills of Fare,
Such alterations should at least be Rare
Fresh Dainties are by Britain’s Traffick known,
And now by constant Use familiar grown;
What Lord of old wou’d bid his Cook prepare,
Mangoes, Potargo, Champignons, Cavare? (p. 61)
Just as a scholarly turn to marginal authors like Apicius is threatening the status of canonical authors such as Homer and Virgil, so the general enthusiasm for such-newfangled delicacies as mushrooms and mangoes is threatening plain, traditional English cookery, as exemplified by roast beef and mutton. That anxiety is frequently encountered in eighteenth-century England; what is interesting about King is that he associates this perceived alteration in diet with a Modernizing tendency to value novelty above all else.
And for King it is the ‘soups and sauces of the Antients’, as encountered in Lister’s edition of Apicius, which are the ultimate symbol of modernity.
Henry Power is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Epic into Novel: Henry Fielding, Scriblerian Satire, and the Consumption of Classical Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015). He is currently editing (with Nicholas McDowell) The Oxford Handbook of English Prose, 1640-1714, to which he is contributing two essays: one on ‘Learned Wit and Mock Scholarship’, and the other on ‘Recipe Books.’
A while ago, Professor Helen King (Open University) offered Dr Patty Baker (University of Kent) and me the opportunity to be involved in an exciting project: a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) on the topic of Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World. We had previously worked together on a pedagogical project (an article on the difficulty of teaching sensitive topics such as the history of abortion), and were prepared for a new collaborative challenge.
Several months down the line, the MOOC is in the final stages of writing. We chose to organise our material in the ‘head-to-toe’ order, which is the structure so often adopted in Greek and Roman medical texts. We cover a huge variety of themes and topics, in what we hope will be an original and informative introduction to ancient medicine.
I was particularly keen to introduce as many recipes as possible into the MOOC material. We did so both in written sections and in video ones. For the film sections, I chose to recreate two ancient recipes: that of a collyrium (an eye remedy) found in Galen’s pharmacological writings and an oxygarum (a recipe supposed to aid digestion) found in Apicius‘ cookery collection.
The wonderful National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon (South Wales) was kind enough to host the filming. They provided us with authentic looking Roman pots to put all the ingredients in, as well as a costume – complete with winged-phallus amulet – for me to wear. I believe being in costume greatly helped me feel slightly less nervous.
For nervous, I certainly was. This was only my second experience of filming: the first had taken place a couple of days before, at the Wellcome Library, where we filmed a piece on manuscript herbals. I had not quite realised that filming a cookery piece usually involves several cameras, as multiple takes are not possible (because ingredients are expensive). I therefore had to pretend to be natural in front of the producer (Lizzy Jones) and three cameramen. Let’s just say that I can’t see an alternative career for me as a TV chef…
We started with the collyrium:
White collyrium, for a persistent flow of tears and other afflictions; it is called ‘delicate’: calamine, 16 drachms; white lead, 8 drachms; starch, 4 drachms; gum, 4 drachms; tragacanth gum, 4 drachms; opium, 2 drachms. Take up with rain water. Use with egg. Galen, Compositions of Medicines according to Places 4.8, 12.757 Kühn
Of course, I could use neither white lead nor opium, which are dangerous substances. I substituted the former with zinc, and the latter with a white powder.
As someone who has experience recreating ancient recipes, I knew exactly what to expect: the ingredients mixed together with water would take on a consistency similar to a very thick shaving foam. But, while photos can illustrate this point, they can’t do so as powerfully as a film.
Like so many ancient eye-remedy recipes, this one omits to state that the preparation has to be left to dry, a process which I discovered takes at least 24 hours… Fortunately, I had tried this at home a few days before the filming! Once the preparation is dried, it can be crumbled, and a small amount is then applied to the eye. But to what part of the eye, and how exactly? I knew that the part of the egg to use is the white (I can now add ‘can separate an egg in a highly stressful situation’ to my CV), but I did not know whether to dip my finger in the crumbled remedy first and the egg second, or vice versa. Helen King and I had a quick chat, and decided that the egg came first!
The second recipe I recreated is named after its main ingredient, garum, the famous Roman sauce made with fermented fish. A purist would have prepared some garum in advance, but I simply went to the supermarket to buy some Nam Pla, also known as Thai fish sauce:
Another oxygarum, for digestion: 1 ounce each of pepper, parsley, caraway, lovage; mix with honey. When done add garum and vinegar. Apicius, De re coquinaria 1.37
Preparing that recipe was very simple. Instead of using an ounce (a relatively large amount), I used a spoonful of each ingredient. I confidently announced to the camera that Roman medicine was ‘all about proportions’ merrily throwing spoonfuls of ingredients into a mortar. I failed to notice that I had been rather heavy handed with the pepper.
Of course, the crew insisted that I should try some of my wonderful aid to digestion. I obliged – the things that one does! The preparation tasted surprisingly sweet, until – that is – the pepper kicked in. I am sure my face pulling will be much appreciated by the MOOC learners!
I was left with a fishy, fiery taste in the mouth for several hours. Perhaps the Romans were wired differently from me, but I suffered from heartburn for the entire afternoon.