BMCR 2007.06.26

Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece. Translated by Ruth Anne Lotero

, Meals and recipes from ancient Greece. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007. 122 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780892368761 $24.95.

Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece is a book in two parts, the first a summary of information about food in ancient Greece, and the second 56 recipes for foods from breads through appetizers, meats, fish, and desserts. Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti (SPR) has based most of her recipes on foods that appear in Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae, with an admixture of other authors, both Roman and Greek, where needed to flesh out recipes or menus. It is a translation of L’arte del convito nella grecia antica (L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2004) but is quite unlike SPR’s 1983 L’arte del convito nella roma antica, in that the recipes here are adaptations for the modern kitchen, and this book is barely illustrated (it has only line drawings that have nothing to do with the text).

SPR, mostly through stories from Athenaeus, presents in the introduction a brief overview of Greek dining in Homer, banquets, domestic dining, menus, regional cuisine, expenses, and wine. This introductory section is odd and unsatisfying. It is a work neither for a scholarly nor a general audience. SPR barely introduces Athenaeus or the Deipnosophistae : Athenaeus is identified as having “moved to Rome in the second century B.C. to become the librarian of P. Livy Larensis” (1). The mistake of B.C. for A.D. may replicate an editorial problem of the Italian edition, but it is not a promising start, nor is the identification of Athenaeus as Larensis’s librarian. The non-specialist is not given enough information to understand what the Deipnosophistae is, and since citations are often inconsistent or missing, the book is not a collection of texts that will be of use to scholars. In the section on Homer, Athenaeus is sometimes cited, as are passages from the Iliad or Odyssey, but it is unclear whether the Homeric passages cited are only those included in Athenaeus. SPR also makes almost no distinction between literature and reality.

SPR sticks quite closely to the stories in the Deipnosophistae. But where she breaks from paraphrasing Athenaeus, the text feels perfunctory and uninformative, sometimes verging on offensive (the discussion of the role of hetaerae). Current scholarship plays no role in this book. The very short bibliography contains a few editions of ancient texts; no modern literature is mentioned and SPR’s text betrays no awareness of current work on Athenaeus, or more seriously, the many recent works on food and dining in antiquity. Nor are current editions of Greek or Roman texts used: SPR quotes Archestratus frequently, for example (although not always with citations to Athenaeus), but does not refer to the Olson and Sens Oxford edition (2000), which includes a translation. (The translations given are mostly taken from the old Loeb edition.) SPR is an archaeologist, yet discussion of archaeological evidence is all but nonexistent, apart from a couple of inaccurate references to Mycenaean palaces, e.g., “doloi” (sic) at Pylos for oil storage (4). On Dionysos and his arrival in Greece: “Archaeologists have unearthed a beautiful ceramic cup from the sixth century B.C. representing this myth” (28). This is presumably the kylix of Exekias in Munich, but why mention it if there is no illustration?

The second section, the recipes, is more appealing. The choice of recipes is inspired by foods mentioned in Athenaeus; the recipes themselves are frequently taken from more complete recipes in Cato or Apicius (with, of course, the implicit and explicit assumption that recipes remained unchanged for centuries). I did not try any of the recipes, but I enjoyed reading many of them, especially where she is clear about her sources and explains the reasons behind her adaptations. Many recipes include brief introductions with interesting quotations from the Deipnosophistae and other texts. The recipes are sometimes practical and sound quite good (some of the bread recipes and fish preparations in particular), and are sometimes provided “for completeness rather than practicality” (recipe 23, “Rose and Brain Pudding”).

But the problems of the introductory section reappear in the second part of the book. Citations are often missing. The aforementioned “Rose and Brain Pudding” is a detailed ancient recipe for which SPR provides a translation from the Epitome of Athenaeus, yet no citation is provided. As in the introductory section of the book, ancient sources are sometimes incorrectly or inconsistently cited (for example, recipe 13 for barley soup is credited correctly to Apicius, but to Athenaeus in recipe 14). A recipe for sauce for sea urchins is attributed to Archippus’s Fishes, with no more specific citation; I was unable to find the text that inspired SPR’s recipe.

SPR often quotes an ancient text for a recipe, but it can be unclear how her choice of ingredients was made, and even whether there is an ancient precedent—sometimes, as in the case of “Wild Greens” (recipe 17), which is boiled greens with salt, olive oil, and vinegar, the reason for its presence in this book seems to be as much that boiled greens are now eaten in Italy and Greece as anything else; no ancient text accompanies this recipe. Editing mistakes perhaps derive from the Italian original. Aristophanes’ tisana (recipe 13) is not tisane but ptisane (the recipe provided is from Apicius). There are odd transliterations, like “chippura” for Turkish “çipura” (97) or worse, “taynvia” for Greek “tagenia,” (111) as well as mistakes like Hipponex for Hipponax (105 and index). The translation could have used a heavier hand in adaption and editing for an English-language, or at least American, audience. SPR does not identify silphium at all beyond saying it was famous, grew in Africa, and is extinct. In the one recipe where it appears, she substitutes garlic. But silphium’s replacement, if not equivalent, asafoetida, is easy to come by (online, if not locally); I wondered why she did not explain why she chose not to use asafoetida, especially since she recommends nuoc mam for garum. She notes of cilantro that “a certain proportion of the population has an almost allergic reaction to cilantro, swearing that it tastes as bad as, or worse than, soap” (118) and that it is not commonly found in Italy. But it is a common herb and a common flavor in the US.

All in all, this is a frustrating book that ranges from interesting and well-written to vague or even incorrect too much of the time. For those interested in reading or attempting Greek recipes, the Getty also publishes, in the U.S., The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger; of similar length and scope as this book, although more heavily Roman in emphasis, it is a superior option.