Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Culinary Reality of Roman Upper-Class Convivia

American Council of Learned Societies

"For more than 600 years (from the early second century b.c.e. into the fifth century
c.e.), written texts describing table luxury (luxus mensae) at the banquets
of the rich and powerful corroborate, for the most part, the components of Roman
haute cuisine that were summarily noticed by Goody. Our literary sources
are explicit about the dishes that the Roman elite considered to be special delicacies,
about the ways in which these could be prepared and elaborately combined,
and about their ceremonial?and often spectacular?presentation. In the
last years of the Republic, Cicero, attacking crude Epicurean hedonism, makes
clear that those who regarded themselves as the most discriminating gourmets
looked to fishermen, to fowlers, and to hunters to provide the choicest and most
exotic provender.7 A contemporary member of the senatorial elite, Varro, confirms
this in detail, in a passage on villa husbandry ( pastio villatica) for the purposes
of both pleasure and profit: he observes that fish can and should be raised
in both the villa?s saltwater and freshwater ponds ( piscinae), that the products
of aviaries, too, come in two subdivisions: the peafowl ( pavones), turtle doves
(turtures), and thrushes (turdi) that are land-based; and the geese, teal and ducks
(anseres, querquedulae, anates) that all require water. The products of the hunt, Varro continues, need to be further divided between large game (boar, roe, and
hare), and the bees, snails, and dormice (glires) that are also to be found outside
the villa (De Re Rustica 3.3.1?4).

As I have argued elsewhere, nearly all of these comestibles appear among
the foods on offer at the most elaborate Roman private banquet in the record,
the cena aditialis (inaugural dinner) hosted by the Pontifex Maximus (Chief
Priest) Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius in August of 70 b.c.e., to celebrate the installation
of a new flamen Martialis (Priest of Mars), the young patrician L.
Cornelius Lentulus Niger.8 The menu, which the high priest himself scrupulously
recorded ?in the fourth register of his pontifical records,? and which has
been preserved and transmitted by the late-antique scholar Macrobius (Saturnalia
3.13.12), also featured notable quantities of fresh shellfish, including ?as
many oysters as the guests desired,? haunches of venison and wild boar (lumbos
capruginos aprugnos), and fattened fowls cooked in pastry (altilia ex farina

By providing fattened fowls at this inaugural dinner, Metellus was flagrantly
defying a provision that had been repeated in every piece of Roman sumptuary
legislation from the lex Fannia onwards: the stipulation that any dinner
be limited to only a single winged creature ?and that one not fattened? (by cramming:
Pliny Historia Naturalis [HN] 10.139). To be sure, these inaugural dinners
became and remained notorious for the high degree of their culinary experimentation,
for their exotic refinements, and for their astronomically high
costs: it was at one of these, about the same time as Metellus? dinner, that the
orator Hortensius first served a peacock.9 The solitary item on Metellus? entire
menu that derived from a domestically bred mammal were two dishes of sows?
udders (sumina, and a patina suminis): further evidence that at this banquet the
pontifex maximus was parading the culinary privileges restricted to the members
of this highly exclusive feasting group, while flagrantly defying prevailing
social and cultural norms. For sows? udders, too, were among the dishes
proscribed by the sumptuary laws (as must be inferred from Pliny HN 8.209).
Indeed, that they were considered to occupy an exalted place among elite culinary
delicacies is already clear by 191 b.c.e., when Plautus? comedy Pseudolus
was produced. In this play the pimp Ballio, intent on making a good impression
on certain grandees (viros summos) whom he has invited to dinner,
orders a kitchen slave to take special pains with the preparation of the ham (perna),
the pork rind (callum), the sweetbreads (glandium), and the sows? udders (sumen).10 If sumen had not by this time come to count as a delicacy at the tables
of the Roman rich, neither of these passages would have made sense to any
members of Plautus? audience."
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