[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.