Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.01.18

María José García Soler, El arte de comer en la antigua Grecia.   Madrid:  Biblioteca Nueva, 2001.  Pp. 462.  ISBN 8470309226.  



Reviewed by Edmund P. Cueva, Xavier University (cueva@xu.edu)
Word count: 1415 words

María José García Soler's El arte de comer en la antigua Grecia is a sweeping examination of Greek cooking and gastronomy. The purpose of this book is to fill any gaps in our knowledge of the ancient Greek culinary arts in an accurate, encyclopedic fashion using archaeological, literary, epigraphical and papyrological evidence. García Soler (hereafter GS) divides the text into a prologue, introduction, five chapters, appendix of recipes, bibliography, index of citations from ancient authors, index of Greek and Latin words, and subject index.

The introduction is divided into three parts: the gastronomic element in Greek literature, gastronomic literature in ancient Greece, and the types of meals in ancient Greece. GS begins with the Homeric texts and what they can tell us about what and how the gods, aristocracy and warrior-class ate. Lyric poetry and its use of wine and banquets as literary themes are then examined before GS moves on to the details that the comedies supply: market prices of comestibles, food preparation, recipes, the uses of wine, symposia, utensils, etc. Comedy, in fact, is the best source for our information on the Athenian diet of the classical period. Prose literature (e.g., Herodotus) supplies important ethnographic data. There are approximately twenty-five cookbooks that we know about, but since, as GS argues, Christianity little valued these texts, most were doomed to oblivion. The ones that did survive were those that dealt with medicine or diet (e.g., Galen and Oribasius). The most well-known representative is the Deipnosophistai by Athenaeus of Naucratis, which, though not primarily a cookbook, nonetheless includes immense amounts of material on all aspects of food. GS also discusses the works of Archestratus of Gela, Philoxenus of Cythera, and Matron of Pitane, since gastronomic poetry is almost always left out of any modern surveys of ancient Greek literature. The introduction comes to a close with an outline of the meals eaten throughout the day, i.e., ἀκράτισμα (or ἄριστον) and δεῖπνον.

The first chapter, "Los alimentos de origen vegetal," sets the structure for most of the following chapters: preliminary observations, subdivisions, and lists of foods based on ancient sources. Each foodstuff has its own entry. The first subdivision comprises "greens" and "legumes." Among the former are cabbage, turnip, radish, mallow, pumpkin/gourd, cucumber, watercress, carrot, artichoke, lettuce, thistle, wild amaranth, orach, beet, nettle, asparagus, onion, white water lily, heart of palm-tree, truffle, mushroom and olive. The latter category includes broad bean, green pea, lentil, chick-pea, lupine, vetch and french bean. The second subdivision, "cereal," is divided into cereals proper (barley, wheat, millet, rice), flour and semolina (those made from wheat and barley), and the uses of cereal. The uses listed are bread baking (noting the quality of the flour and the resultant bread), leavening, and the different types of bread. GS spends considerable time on breads, describing the types (thirty-nine of them), where they were made, and the special use of certain breads. Attention is also given to the use of dough in meat stews and medicine. The third subdivision enumerates the fruits and nuts used in cooking. In the former category are pear, apple, quince, citron, peach, apricot, cherry, plum, pomegranate, melon, fig (a lengthy entry), blackberry, grape, lotus fruit, myrtle berry, strawberry, and date. Among the nuts are walnut, chestnut, hazel-nut, pine kernel, acorn, almond, and pistachio.

The second chapter, "Los alimentos de origen animal," is subdivided into three areas: seafood (a basic food and greatly valued), meat, and other flesh. The seafood subdivision is further divided into shellfish, fish, and salted-fish. In the first subdivision are limpet, abalone, sea-snail, murex, conch, oyster, mussel, wedge shell, nacre, scallop, clam, razor shell, cuttlefish, squid, octopus, acorn barnacle, prawn, shrimp, spring lobster, lobster, bear crab, crab, sea urchin, and sea nettle. Among the fish are considered (a lengthy entry), ray, skate, sting ray, manta ray, sturgeon, catfish, carp, sardine, eel ("la Helena de los banquetes" according to Athenaeus [163]), conger eel, moray eel, garfish, mullet, swordfish, mackerel, tuna, striped tunny (a length entry), saurel, pilotfish, sea bass, grouper, sargo, sea bream, red porgy, sardine, sea mullet, peacock fish, tern, scorpion fish, gudgeon, and turbot (various types). References to salted-fish (limited to sturgeon, mackerel, and tuna) begin in the fifth century BC, with possible origins in the Black Sea, from where the salting industry headed west to such places as the Iberian peninsula, Magna Graecia, and the Nile Delta. GS discusses in depth the processes and particulars involved in the salting, such as the fat content of the fish, the amount of salt, the cut of the fish, the color of the salt, and the use of roe. The subdivision on meat is arranged according to the flesh of mammals and birds, and then comestibles from those two groups. The meat of mammals had a prominent place in the ancient Greek kitchen, but in literature it is usually associated with gluttony (if eaten with too much bread and wine), heroes, and sacrifices. The four major types of meat consumed were caprine, ovine, porcine, and bovine, and they were roasted, cooked with liquids, stuffed, stewed, made into sausages, salted, smoked, or dried. Citing the seventy-eight types of birds mentioned in Aristophanes' Birds, GS elaborates on the different preparations of such birds as goose, hen, rooster, pigeon, pheasant, peacock, parrot, swan, duck, quail, partridge, crane, bustard, wood pigeon, turtle-dove, lark, sandpiper, jay, starling, sparrow, and chaffinch. Eggs, milk, and cheese make up the last section of this subdivision. The meat from other animals include crocodile, cicada, and grasshopper.

Chapter three, "Las bebidas," focuses on alcoholic beverages (wine and other fermented drinks) and water. The section on wine reviews what we know about wine: types, when it was drunk, incidents of excessive drinking, color, and the words associated with it. GS also discusses in exacting detail the ways in which wine was drunk (neat, diluted, and the ratios of water to wine) and the names of the wines based on their geographical provenance. Last addressed is the issue of the use of wine in cooking bread and pastries, and in macerating and marinating meats. The other fermented beverages GS comments on are beer, fruit, and honey-based drinks. Water, which was the most important liquid, was regarded in two extremes: sign of poverty or the best of all drinks.

Chapter four, "Condimentos, plantas, aromáticas y especias," follows the basic arrangement of the previous chapters; it is divided into sections on salt and its derivatives, fat-based dressings, wine and its derivatives, aromatic plants and spices, and sauces. Salt, vinegar, oil, aromatic herbs and spices, eggs, dried fruit, raisins, rose petals, brine, garum, cheese, and pepper were the most common condiments in ancient Greece. Salt in particular was widely used, and was considered indispensible for the advancement of civilized peoples. It also was seen as a symbol of friendship, fidelity and hospitality (327). The primary function of course was to season food, most often fish, but it was also used in the seasoning and curing of meats and the baking of bread. Olive oil, animal fat (in limited amounts), and oils from the acanthus, rose, walnut, and almond were used as fat-based flavorings. Olive oil from Attica was the most widely consumed and the most expensive. Wine and its main derivative, vinegar, were also extensively used in the preparation of food, as were aromatic plants and spices. The latter category can be traced back as far as Mycenaean times. GS has entries on hemp, laurel, poppy, caper, mustard, cardamon, flax seeds, rue, sumac, celery, fennel, coriander, cumin, dill, sage, thyme, oregano, safflower, garlic, onion, leek, pepper, and silphium. The sauces were made from the above listed seasons.

Chapter five, "La miel y la repostería," focuses on the importance of honey for Greek cooking and society. It was not only a theme for poets, but also served as the basis for numerous desserts; it could be served along with cheese, milk, nuts, sesame seed, and toasted flax seeds. Honey also served as an essential ingredient in the dough used to make the sixty-six types of bread that GS lists.

An appendix offers thirty-seven recipes, which are quoted directly from the Greek texts. They range from Archestratus of Gela's roasted shark, to Nicander of Colophon's pumpkin preserve, to Athenaeus of Naucratis' rose casserole.

El arte de comer en la antigua Grecia is an excellent book recommended to all interested in this area of Greek culture. The up-to-date and comprehensive bibliography, extensive and accurate footnotes and elegant prose style make this a ver fine reference tool.

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