Sunday, February 19, 2006

Cooking with the ancients

This meal hails from last week, actually. A minor section of Charles Pellegrino's Ghosts of Vesuvius (which I'm currently reading) includes the line, "Romans living on the Bay of Naples in A.D. 79 enjoyed pizza, hamburgers, and chili dogs." That summoned up an image of a Roman predecessor of Perfect Tommy raving about the chili dogs at Iachus' stall near the baths and dragging his bemused friends off to sample them. After The Lurker wondered if the line was just a rhetorical flourish, I started thinking about ancient food and what we know about it. I found some sites with Roman chef Apicius' recipes but have yet to track down the chili dog recipe. I'm tempted to do a series of posts about researching the food alluded to by Pellegrino, but I suspect that it's old news to others. Heck, Slice touched on the ancient pizza issue not long ago, so I think this ground has already been covered by others better than I could do it.

This historical reverie led me back to The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines, which includes Roman recipes. Interestingly, the recipes he gives are not as timeless as "pizza, hamburgers, and chili dogs" might indicate; after all, garum or fish sauce was a favorite Roman condiment, and according to Apicius, it went into the so-called "hamburgers." On the other hand, the most off-putting recipes I've come across in a Frugal Gourmet cookbook are the ones from colonial America in The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American, which is much nearer to us in time (and to some of us in geography and culture) than ancient Rome. Go figure.

After all of that, I cooked an ancient Greek shrimp recipe from the Frug. "Shrimp Ananius" goes back to a poet whose work survives only in fragments. He may have invented the "satyric iambic verse called Scazon," or maybe his contemporary Hipponax did instead. In any case, I guess one of his surviving fragments is a shrimp recipe that the Frug likens to "yuppie food from the Upper East Side of Manhattan." Now there's timeless food for you.

This is one of those pathetically easy recipes. Boil a pound of shrimp in one cup each of dry white wine (or beer) and water for two minutes; the water-wine mixture should have half a teaspoon each of marjoram and salt added. I used frozen shrimp, so I boiled it a little longer. I also used Shao Xing rice wine since I had it on hand. The result was rather subtle in flavor; perhaps I would've gotten more of it if I had shelled the shrimp before boiling them instead of leaving the shells on. I would've preferred a stronger flavor from the dish, but it's hard to complain too much about a shrimp dinner, either. It might not make a bad appetizer, like shrimp cocktail.


Queen Bee said...

No need to shell the shrimp; the flavor is in the shell ! For a not so subtle flavor, I would add olive oil and a good amount of garlic (to your taste),and serve with a lemon wedge.Would it still be ancient--??

Winslow said...

Hi Queen Bee,

I'm not sure if it would still be ancient, but olive oil, garlic and lemons were all known to the Greeks and it wouldn't surprise me if some ancient cook didn't prepare shrimp that way. I suppose one could always weasel out of the question by pointing to all of the lost manuscripts of antiquity and suggesting that such a recipe might have appeared in one of those scrolls. :)

Thanks for the tip; I'll have to try that. I think it suits the spirit of the dish. And thanks for stopping by, too.