The last time I browsed the cookbook section of a bookstore, the options were dizzying. The present day culinary record of our habits and inclinations is diverse. It reflects the need to both speed up and slow down, have quick meals and lingering dinner parties, and preserve the tried and true and dabble with the exotic. Collections—at least in this metropolitan area—demonstrate a myriad of cultural fusions. What portion of this chronicle will be preserved remains to be seen but it will certainly shape the future understanding of our present relationship to food.
Why is this important? Cookbooks illustrate specific views of foods. When they have been recovered as historical documents, they provide insights into how people ate—or rather, how specific people ate. The sheer volume of health-oriented cookbooks might suggest that we are all health conscious, while actual analysis of our bones might reveal higher instances of diabetes or cholesterol among some members of the population. A recent paper by Kristina Killgrove and Robert Tykot (1) reveal this to be the case with our understanding of the Roman diet: that is, the view we have of Roman diets from the middle Imperial period represents a snapshot of a specific portion of the population. Our primary sources for this period—which include a few cookbooks, as well as mosaics and frescos—were developed primarily for an upper-class audience. For example, the recipes in de re Coquinaria, a cookbook dating to the 4th-century AD, is an exotic mix of recipes that includes the meat from birds, mammals, and fish, in addition to legumes, and fruits and vegetables, most of which would have been costly to acquire and prepare for most of the Roman population.. Coquinaria can be used to paint a rather romanticized version of Roman culinary history when the truth is that 98% of the Roman population was comprised of commoners, slaves, and freedpeople who likely would have had limited access to many food resources (2).
Slaves, for example, lived on rations: about 26 kg of wheat, half a liter of olive oil, and olives, salt, or pickled fish as condiments on a monthly basis, and 42 gallons of wine per year (3). Poor male citizens received a supplement of wheat from the Empire which they would have probably shared with their families, but freedmen and slaves would not have been eligible for this form of state welfare. Domestic slaves probable had different dietary status from agricultural slaves, with the former sharing the same foodstuffs as their owners and the latter having to make do on meagre provisions. Beyond this group, the pattern of variation continues with the common population whose diet included a variety of fruits, vegetables, and meats depending on what was locally and economically available.
But you truly are what you eat: beyond what is written about food consumption in the middle Imperial period, the physical remains of people can add testament to what they ate. Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis on the skeletal remains from individuals from two cemeteries dating to the middle Imperial period of Rome present a picture of culinary stratification, confirming considerable variety in the quality of foods consumed. Killgrove and Tykot found that people living in the outlying areas of Rome had greater degrees of millet in their diets than the samples analyzed. Millet is easy to grow and maintain, but has a lower status as a grain because it was believed to be used in animal feed or to leaven bread. Yet people for people in an agricultural context, it would have been readily within reach for meal preparation.
The story of the basic Roman diet is told in terms of cereals, wine, and olives. But just as money, time, social pressure and overall access to resources can drive our food choices today, not everyone had the opportunity to participate in the convivium where dinner was as much a show as it was a meal intended to provide sustenance. The emphasis on exotic ingredients were meant to confirm the hosts’ social status. For example, in Petronius Arbiter’s Cene Trimalchionis, the guests are served sumptuous fictional dishes such as roasted pig stuffed with sausages and foods arranged in the shape of the signs of the zodiac (4). Though this idea of feasting has become a popular image in relation to Roman dining, we know that it was not the norm.
This emerging picture of Roman diet tells a story that is repeated: not all access to foods is equal and that the record we create, when further refined through time, may not necessarily reflect this access. The overall cost of healthy eating can be prohibitive. Killgrove and Tycot note that while there was heavy trade in foods from different parts of the Empire, the majority of people in this period likely created dishes based on what was locally available to them. In today’s world, this story plays out in neighborhood where access to fresh produce is limited and fast food options are plenty—and are viewed as more economical when you consider the shelf life of fresh produce and the time required for preparation.
Legends maintain Marie Antoinette proclaimed in an offhand way that the starving citizens of France should eat cake to sate their appetites. While historians disagree the phrase can accurately be attributed to Antoinette, it’s been taken as an example of the attitudes of the French aristocracy of the period. French peasants were most certainly not eating cake: they were starving. But the lifestyles of the elite contained little evidence of these hardships. Our food records today could suggest the same sort of flippancy: with their glossy, hi-res photos of “food porn” depicting fresh vegetables arranged in vibrant dishes there is little recognition that not everyone is eating this way.
The disparity in the diets between people of different social means has long been a social and political point. What story will our cookbooks tell centuries from now? Will it capture the rise of fast foods? Or will it paint a picture of high-end foodies?
(1) Killgrove, Kristina and Robert Tykot (2013). “Food for Rome: A Stable Isotope Investigation of Diet in the Imperial period (1st – 3rd centuries AD)” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (32): pp 28-38.
(2) pp 28, 34
(3) pp 28
(4) The Roman Banquet,” The Met Museum
Get 6 bi-monthly digital issues
+ 1yr of archive access for just $9.99