Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.39

Phyllis Pray Bober, Art, Culture and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy.   Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1999.  Pp. xix + 442.  ISBN 0-226-06253-8.  

Reviewed by Veronika Grimm, Yale University
Word count: 1799 words

Since without food there is no life, many historians recognize that understanding of how any given society secures and distributes its food supplies may contribute important facets to the understanding of that society. As a consequence, there is an ever increasing and rich library of archaeological, historical, philological and interdisciplinary studies on food in ancient societies. Many researchers in the field also realize the help that highly sophisticated scientific analysis can contribute to the investigation of ancient food and food production.

The author of the present volume, Phyllis Pray Bober (B.) is professor emeritus of Art History and Archaeology with an enthusiastic and enduring interest and expertise in food and food history. In this book she combines her three fields of interest in order to demonstrate her central thesis that there exists an "essential community of expression in any given era between the culinary arts and other arts more regularly termed 'fine'" (p. 3). While this thesis is reasonable on the surface, as a hypothesis it is rather difficult to prove, especially when it comes to long past ages, from which art, artifacts and other signifiers of ancient life only survive in fragments and foodways need to be reconstructed from carbonized remains of seeds, bone and shell deposits, the contents of ancient rubbish pits on the one hand, literary and pictorial art work, on the other. Both kinds of source pose some serious difficulties in trying to decide who ate what in the ancient world and how it tasted. Despite the difficulties, this book is a valiant attempt to do just that, to give the reader an extensive review of the research concerning ancient foodways and, in an appendix, to provide imaginative recipes, the author's interpretation of the savor and aroma of ancient cuisine, from the neolithic cave dwellers to the waning of the Middle Ages.

Starting with prehistory, a long period that left very little evidence of either 'fine arts' or cuisine, B. reviews the increasingly sophisticated archaeological, paleobotanical and other scientific evidence, that throws light on the development of early societies, putting to rest earlier hypotheses that rested on sheer speculation, often driven by political ideological agendas. B.'s description of prehistoric diet is also mostly speculation, but it is based on deposits of shell, bone, nut, acorn and seed remains around ancient human settlement sites, showing that from the earliest times, humans evolved as opportunistic, omnivorous creatures, eating what they could find or catch. (She sometimes forgets this in later chapters, where she suggests that early man lived on acorns and chestnuts!) B.'s own view of prehistoric life is not entirely free of ideology, for example when she talks about the 'Neolithic housewife' (p. 22), or when she so firmly establishes a prehistoric division of labor: "women gathering nuts, fruits, roots and seeds as well as insects, snails and, opportunistic, small animals and honey; and men fishing and hunting birds and larger prey" (p. 17). The review of evidence of prehistoric life, especially of the excavations at Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia is vivid and informative, and any reader would readily share B's expressed belief that "there were already creative cooks who could make something delicious" from the store of foodstuff available (p. 26). The evidence, however, is not available to verify the belief.

A richer vein is struck in the chapter that covers ancient Egypt, a civilization that maintained itself through three millennia and left posterity a wealth of spectacular cultural achievements. There is no lack of evidence here either for artistic sensibilities or for the components of diet; there is architectural, pictorial and written evidence in abundance: "we know everything there is to know about the foodstuffs of ancient Egypt, the processes that made them ready for the kitchen, but almost nothing about cookery and gastronomy" (p. 29). The writer, to remedy this, puts forth her own theory about how foods were prepared and how they tasted, freely admitting that this theory is based on sheer speculation. When one aims to prove that there is a commonality to the visual and the culinary arts and uses the visual arts to reproduce the culinary, then one runs into serious logical problems. Without independent evidence for the culinary arts, one can only deduce that the painted food on the painted dish is in harmony with the rest of the artistic expressions of the culture, but nothing about its actual cuisine. B. finds it inconceivable that the Egyptians who created an art "so attuned to the individual and specific, so conscious of the need to itemize each aspect of the human body" (p. 34) would develop a cuisine that is at variance with their art. B. envisions Egyptian cuisine as "discrete, pure and relatively simple," French, rather than Chinese! Despite the highly fanciful hypothesis, the chapter is a rich and informative review of food, wine and beer production in this ancient culture.

The next chapter covers ancient Mesopotamia in the pattern we have seen already established in the previous chapters and followed throughout the book: a description, in rather general and simplistic terms, of society, a short characterization of its art, and speculations about cuisine as it would fit in with the rest of the arts. Again, the review of available evidence concerning Mesopotamian foodways is extensive. As a boon to food historians, ancient Mesopotamia left us the first written recipes, albeit without specifying quantities or cooking methods. These may aid the creative imagination of modern cooks but do not yield proof of the author's thesis. As she points out, the raw materials of Mesopotamian cuisine are substantially the same as those of the Egyptian; their art, however, is different. Would the Mesopotamian architecture's reliance on bricks to make complex structures really inspire a cuisine of stews made up of many small ingredients?

The next ancient civilization treated is that of the Greeks, to whom two chapters are devoted; the first covers the Minoan/Mycenaean period and classical Athens and Sparta, the second the Hellenistic age. These chapters again provide a wealth of information about the art and archaeology of food and wine. An increasingly rich and varied literature in which food and drink play a large and often complex and ambiguous role adds new facets to the sources. The evidence from the literary arts concerning food practices and eating habits has to be interpreted carefully. Since food and sex are so basic to survival, they give pleasure but often generate competition, greed and envy. As our Greek and, later Roman, literary sources amply testify, appetite, either for food or sex, and most often for both, provided rich material for gossip-mongers for people always worried about their fellow human beings having more access than they to these basic commodities. Philosophers preached encrateia, the control of the passions, and dreamed of a long past 'Golden Age' of vegetarian paradise (which B. seems to take seriously); the 'divine man' was made famous by his amazingly frugal diet and sexual restraint. Ancient physicians supported the philosophers by spelling out the way rich 'heating' foods increased lewd and lascivious conduct. The ancient historians were not immune to the lure of cheap and easy means of character sketching: good, successful leaders were usually frugal eaters and refrained from sexual misconduct while failures or tyrants were famous for gluttony and lasciviousness. Food descriptions in Greek and Roman literature are often used as metaphor, seldom, if ever as objective reports of ordinary everyday life.

The best chapter, in this reviewer's opinion, deals with Rome. Rome provides rich material, from actual kitchens, with variety of utensils and even foodstuffs excavated at Pompeii, mosaics and wall-paintings of dishes, copious variety of literary works and finally a true cookbook! Unfortunately one cannot taste the mosaics and wall-paintings; the literature is of the nature to which the above-mentioned caveats should be carefully applied and the unique Roman cookbook gives no quantities with the exception of a few recipes that are thought to be not Roman but Greek! Despite all, B. provides here an eloquent, forceful and long needed defence of Roman foodways. By a careful and thorough analysis of all the available evidence, she refutes such often repeated misconceptions as that the Romans used rotten fish sauce to flavor their food, and that they endeavored to disguise the natural taste of food by smothering everything in heavy sauces made out of an enormous number of ingredients. She argues convincingly that Roman poetry and visual art amply testify to a sensitivity of palate and a cultivated taste, which is implicit also in the Romans' concern for good farm management and in the pleasure they seem to have taken in horticulture and animal husbandry. This fine chapter suffers like the others when the author tries to fit the cuisine to the arts to prove her thesis. As B. sees it, all aspects of Roman culture were characterized by the gift of rhetoric which distinguished them from the Greeks, whose gift was philosophy (p. 190). Consequently Roman cuisine participated "in the arts of persuasion and manipulation." Aside from the simplistic comparison, which does justice neither to Roman nor to Greek, how does rhetoric look, smell or taste on the dinner plate?

The last chapters cover the Medieval period, one on the early Middle Ages and Carolingian period, another on the waning of the Middle Ages, in art the Late Gothic International style. There is an ever increasing documentation from these periods of food production, beer brewing and other important aspects of foodways. Famous cooks appear in aristocratic courts and they write cookbooks. Scholastic systematization, influenced by the transmission of Aristotelian science and Galenic medicine that characterizes the culture, marks, as B. argues, the cuisine also.

The book as a whole reflects formidable scholarly erudition based on wide ranging research literature. Its basic thesis, the coherence of cuisine and 'fine arts,' remains on the whole a statement of belief, possible but not proven. The cuisine described is that of the elite, while often the food of the common people is dismissed with gross generalization suggesting the simplest and poorest vegetarian subsistence. Human history is abundant in periods of famine, but during good years this characterization is grossly inaccurate. The various 'ethnic' cuisines we love today, the French, Italian, Hungarian, Polish and others come not from chefs to royalty but more often from peasant cooking. All these objections aside, the book provides a lot of interesting information and is very good reading. To add to this, if one night you feel in a mood to eat Choiros Hemiephtos kai Hemioptos (half-boiled, half-roasted whole pig) as an ancient Greek, or if you prefer to eat as a baron in the high Middle Ages or as an Egyptian of the pharaonic age, you can turn to this book for imaginative recipes, with quantities and method of cooking provided!

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