Notes on Cookery of the ancients

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Source British Museum Sloane MS no.1827 Latin original Collected Works of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Simon Wilkin pub. Fletcher and Son Norwich 1835-36

What sauce but hunger that herbivorous age used that went before the flood, would that the Columns of Setho told! Those who take away vinegar, refuse the chief of seasonings. That is what those stern persons do, who say that Noah discovered wine. At the same time it could hardly have been made from apples, dates, grapes, and sour juices without vinegar becoming known even by chance. Yet who that knows the various drinks of the Americans will deny that some sort of intoxicants were made of old from fruits, berries or corn to warm their primitive sternness? So drunkenness was not a vice that came purely and simply from the flood, but from the sins which provoked the catastrophe, even if it was winy without wine. Besides, the Egyptians made very early use of beer, or wine made from corn, and attributed its invention to Osiris. But if as the learned conjecture Osiris was none other than Mizraim, may it not have been handed down from father Ham and not unknown to the drowned world?

I wish we knew more clearly the aids of the ancients, their sauces, flavours, digestives, tasties, slices, cold meats, and all kinds of pickles. Yet I do not know whether they would have surpassed salted sturgeons’ eggs, anchovy sauce, or our royal pickles.

Most of the ancient sauces have a wild and poisonous savour, including privet, rue, fenugreek, green coriander and even cumin. I certainly, who think it torture to endure fat gnats and put far from my table cumin seed that is musty with bugs, would have had my stomach turned by the sausages, tripe, morsels and coarse greens of Apicius. The table of the King of Ceylon who rubs his dishes with asafoetida I would likewise let go, or a country mess which even smells of garlic. Zoroaster’s dinner in the desert was known to the ancients as starvation, for it consisted of honey and cheese. Yet honey and cheese fill the sausages of Parthia and Numidia, the oil-relishes and mixed sauces of Apicius, besides Homer’s barley-brew and the famous fivefold cup of the Athenian champion.

When Empedocles won the horse race at Olympia, being a Pythagorean who abstained from animal food, he distributed to all who came to the gathering beef made of myrrh, incense and aromatics. I am sure that at the race-feast few of those who enjoy feeding their stomachs rather than their noses, stretched a hand to this.

Who would not prefer Bologna sausages to a paste of cuttle-fish and squid, or Spanish olla podrida to Apicius’ mince-meat? Beans and all kind of pease, the Stoics’ dinner, our yeoman would put in the cattle-trough. Hesiod promises much from asphodel; rather than such underworld dishes, we prefer to eat parsnips and potatoes. Platina and Apicius bring in ostriches, cranes, storks, swallows in great style, but our gourmets would hardly touch them with their lips. Duck’s offal, much sought after of old, is today a pauper’s dish. And while every December brings in boar’s head, the tripes, udders and braised teats of breeding sows are thrown to the dogs.

Who would bear roasted eels, or eggs on the spit? Our appetites today would fail at the first course given by Metellus the priest. If the vilest glutton laid before us cocks’ combs, parrots’ heads, mules’ hooves, not even a starving man would taste them. What is madder than appetite? Aesop hungered for a hundred small birds compacted in one dish, Epicurus was satisfied with cabbage and cheese. Bring food to soothe appetite and satisfy nature; we are fools to await what the Trojan hog produces.

We are impatient today of the boned chicken Apicius praises and think it food for the toothless. For us a baron of beef is the crown of the feast, as was regular with Homer’s heroes. This, Agamemnon sent to Ajax after his contest with Hector; this too Telemachus set before Menelaeus. Alcinous too, a man of fastidious living, dined on beef; the suitors likewise, and Antonius in his anger snatched a beef-bone from the table and threw it at Ulysses standing near. Homer showed meat almost always, and beef at that, but fish or fruit never, brought in to the feasts of his heroes; though he speaks of the sea full of fish and nobly praises the gardens of Alcinous. And the wanton suitors of Penelope, lost in extravagance, eat no fish, fowl or sweetmeats.

Pig’s brain was forbidden on the tables of the ancients, and they thought it as bad to eat that as to gnaw beans. They abstained from all heads in which the senses flourish, while yet they called any delicacy ‘Jove’s brain’; meanwhile in our day piglet’s brain with salt and sage is a rare savoury, and we do not conscientiously await Hippocrates’ date, who did not serve sucking-pig till it was old enough for sacrifice. We often read of birds’ brains chopped and dried, from the ostrich to the sparrow, laid on the Turks’ tables, but very few fishes’ brains, since after cooking they are hardly worth looking at. Rabbits’ brains we think a delicacy, though less recommended by some physicians. When French inn-keepers serve this long-legged and yellow-skinned animal, the teeth and spine will clearly show the cheat if it is a cat. The ancients took great care to keep octopus-head from their tables, while no one in our day would touch it. Whether the head and part of the liver is friendly or hostile is for the sooth-sayer not the cook to decide, for gourmets do not distinguish that in the foie-gras or fig-stuffed liver. Absurd are all things suited to the wanton mind more greedy for victuals than for the pleasure of the senses, as is told of Philoxenus and Melanthius and the crane’s neck, tongues and toes, covered in cases and boxes, which they devoured as the hottest victuals. Worthless beyond doubt and utterly abandoned was the greed of Apicius which brought the largest most far-sought lobsters at the highest price. The ordinary kind is more edible and more easily cooked. But most ridiculous of all was the appetite of Nicomedes, King of Bithynia, who lived far from the sea and yet his cook served as a fish a turnip cut open and cooked with oil, salt and black peppercorns.

The nymphs washing the newborn Bacchus is a pretty hint that wine should be tempered with water. Certainly the heroes in Homer diluted it greatly, and Hector when he went out to battle and when he came back refused wine altogether. Agamemnon was called wine-sodden by Achilles as a great reproach. Whether the wines of the ancients were much better than ours we leave in uncertainty. In age however and time for drinking they were very different. Among the ancients Falernian was fit to drink from the fifteenth to the twentieth year; Alban was at its best from the tenth year; Sorrentine begins to be drinkable after the twenty-fifth. Horace’s favourite cask, born with himself in the consulate of Manlius, was far older. Now our wine is called old at three years. Oil, too, half as old as Ulysses’ dog was called ancient. Nowadays certain physicians’ drugs call for oil a hundred years old. Let the pharmacists see if this can be found anywhere but in the tombs of the ancients.

What nectar and ambrosia are, the vaunted meals of the gods, Vulcan never told when he came down from heaven. Father Homer describes heavenly nectar as something to drink, Alcman with Alexandris learnedly asserts that it is eaten. But when Ibycus in Athenaeus says that ambrosia was nine times sweeter than honey, let the palates of heaven keep their sweet, I prefer a fig from Chios.