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Ancient Roman street food? - Input Junkie
March 12th, 2011
08:47 pm

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Ancient Roman street food?
This discussion of food and fantasy left me wondering-- I've heard that in ancient Rome, a lot of people didn't cook, they bought street food.

cheloya said that you wouldn't get meat on a stick unless there was industrial meat production to make the meat cheap enough. This doesn't sound implausible to me, but I'm curious about historical evidence. Drifting away from ancient Rome, how old is the shish-ka-bob? Did it used to be a luxury?

Fantasy food reference: The Stars Dispose by Michaela-Roessner has traditional Renaissance cooking (recipes included in the book) with magic mixed in. Offhand, I can't think of much fantasy where the magic influences the cooking.

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From:kgbooklog
Date:March 13th, 2011 02:09 am (UTC)
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Offhand, I can't think of much fantasy where the magic influences the cooking.

That's because it's usually too expensive and dangerous to use for cooking. Though it is surprising that Brust hasn't provided any counter-examples.
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From:thnidu
Date:March 13th, 2011 03:41 am (UTC)
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We see Vlad using magic to start fires and chill wine.
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From:agrumer
Date:March 13th, 2011 06:42 am (UTC)
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But I would think that Dragaeran society -- the upper classes, at least -- would have developed a few sorcerous techniques for doing things that can't readily be done mundanely, at their level of mundane technology. Like sorcerous sous-vide, say.
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From:caper_est
Date:March 13th, 2011 02:08 pm (UTC)
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Given the very unusual and tractable nature of modern Dragaeran sorcery, well, fair play. I don't know either. It's not even like it's something Vlad could plausibly be ignorant of.

In general... yes, I'm given furiously to think about this. Another possibility that occurs to me is that magic is so often fundamentally conservative.

Typically, you Will something, and you speak the True Words for it in one sense or another, and it happens. "Meat-pie!" you say. "Boil!" you say. "Turn that over the spit until it's done!" you say.

The intermediate mundane steps that give you the idea to vary the procedure seldom seem to exist, or when they do, they're not in the magician's hands, but in some daemon's or process's. "Sous-vide!" you don't say - not at very best until somebody's done sous-vide already, and more than likely by mundane means at that.

Other reasons: magic typically capability of only a few, therefore pool of magical cooks to make culinary advances is tiny. Magical research often difficult, expensive, and dangerous: not worth doing for the small stuff.

So, thinking about this: in my WIP, it wouldn't occur to the Good Witch to play about with magic cooking. She might cook by magic given a really good reason, but she's a peasant made good and she just doesn't play with her food. Her adopted son the Flashy Wizard, on the other hand... he does play magically with his food when he cooks it, though more like a showman than a chef. If he ever settled down with somebody sensible... yeah. I could see that playful, hyperanalytical mind coming up with breakdowns nobody had ever done before, sort of like the (excellent) stuff my Dad used to come up with when he was finally pushed into regular cookery.

Should I ever write about a society in which magic is typically more sciencey than singy, I'm going to have to think about that!
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From:redaxe
Date:March 13th, 2011 02:11 am (UTC)
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If the Marcus Didius Falco series by Lindsey Davis is historically accurate, street food in Rome was common, but some people did cook, either instead of or in addition to the street. (Much like the modern situation, at least in cities.)
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From:trinker
Date:March 13th, 2011 02:25 am (UTC)
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There are Roman culture experts hidden all over the 'net.

I don't have any current contacts there, but I'd check with Nova Roma. (www.novaroma.org)
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From:nancylebov
Date:March 13th, 2011 02:49 am (UTC)
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Thanks for the reminder that I'm living in the future.

Meanwhile, I found this intriguing ancient Roman recipe for turnips, though I can't figure out (and this time I did google) what the Parthenian laser might be, though I hope it goes well with rocket.

Edited at 2011-03-13 02:50 am (UTC)
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From:nancylebov
Date:March 13th, 2011 01:54 pm (UTC)
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Reading the recipe more carefully, the laser seems to be asafoetida. My mind boogie woogies at the idea of that smell made coherent and projected for great distances.
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From:trinker
Date:March 13th, 2011 11:03 pm (UTC)
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Light carrier stink bomb? Aiee.
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From:xanath
Date:March 13th, 2011 03:07 am (UTC)
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Well, no, meat isn't cheap, but the Romans weren't dealing with a population the size of the U.S. Checking this site, Rome and the Roman Empire: Encyclopedia of Food & Culture, a list of popular "street food" runs thus: cakes and sweets (flavored with honey, dates, or grape syrup), mulled wine, hot sausages, chickpea soup (although whole boiled chickepeas were also popular), and porridge.
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From:nancylebov
Date:March 13th, 2011 04:24 am (UTC)
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Thank you. That's more like what I expected, and chickpea soup sounds like a good idea.
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From:womzilla
Date:March 13th, 2011 05:57 am (UTC)
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Sausages have the advantage that you can make them from poor cuts of meat, including the offal, and they can still taste pretty good.

I've encountered before the idea that most city* homes wouldn't have been equipped with kitchens until relatively recently, say around the Renaissance. So eating out was de facto necessary.

*And town, though "towns" as such are mostly a late medieval invention in Europe.

(Sorry we didn't get your call earlier. I really should be in bed--in 3 minutes, it will be over an hour from now.)
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From:richardthinks
Date:March 13th, 2011 07:31 am (UTC)
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Since you say "fantasy" I'll cite Like Water For Chocolate (which I recall spawning a bunch of imitators, though titles elude me now), and Harry Potter, which has sorcerer's apprentice type animated kitchen equipment and casual potion use. But yes, it's often overlooked.
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From:chickenfeet2003
Date:March 13th, 2011 11:02 am (UTC)
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Meat on skewers is mentioned again and again and again in the Iliad.
From:henrytroup
Date:March 13th, 2011 12:43 pm (UTC)
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Everyday Roman food was high-carb semi vegetarian. They imported grain from Egypt, but without refrigeration, as you said, no industrial scale meat. What meat there was had frequently been sacrificed to some god at a temple, as St. Paul warned early Christians.
Since there was a significant Jewish population, there would have been a kosher butcher somewhere!

By our standards, it would be pretty poor quality meat, not aged and tender.
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From:nancylebov
Date:March 13th, 2011 01:55 pm (UTC)
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Even without refrigeration, meat can be salted or dried. However, it might not have been worth it for the ancient Romans.
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From:caper_est
Date:March 13th, 2011 01:43 pm (UTC)
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Yes, but considering the very specific sort of people the Iliad is about, who was it that actually got to eat it?

In the right sort of society, even suspicious bits of meat on sticks can be a status-defining luxury.
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From:captain_button
Date:March 14th, 2011 05:37 am (UTC)
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If we are doing fantasy fast food, we must mention the gourmet offerings of CMOT Dibbler and his many imitators.

In the second Amber series, Merlin's half-brother Mandor is big into real gourmet culinary magic.

Slightly more seriously I think Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's St Germain novel set in Ancient Rome mentions a sort of meat baked in a roll sort of fast food. And in the fore/afterword she says that yes, they really did have that (and also sunglasses) back then.
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From:agrumer
Date:March 13th, 2011 09:56 pm (UTC)
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Meat on skewers is mentioned again and again and again in the Iliad.

An early form of product-placement advertising. Homer got a lot of money from the skewered-meat industry.
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