The early Romans were proud of the simplicity of their diet. As their conquests expanded into other parts of the world, the wealthier Romans acquired more expensive tastes from the new populations.
Although their first two meals of the day were eaten at a table with chairs, the evening meals were eaten from semicircular couches that accommodated as many as three reclining diners. Diners ate with their fingers or spoons from plates served from a table containing all the dishes. Napkins and water for washing were available but shells and bones usually landed on the floor. Prayers and libations (wine) were offered to the presiding gods at the beginning and end of the meal.
Bread with salt was the main staple for breakfast, though wealthier Romans might add eggs and fruit. Lunch consisted of leftovers from the night before and fruit. Dinner was served in the late afternoon and could last until late into the night.
The most famous gourmand of his time was Marcus Gavius Apicius, a rich merchant who lived in Rome during the first century AD. According to Pliny, Apicius was “the greatest spendthrift of all.” He hosted legendary banquets, reported to cost in the current day equivalent of millions of dollars. He is credited with the authorship of one of the earliest cookbooks.
What dishes might be served at dinner? First, a note on liquemen and garum. These two fish sauces were used on almost everything the Romans ate as a salt substitute. Both are made from fermented fish blood and tripe to which salt is added. Over time, the mixture which was stored in amphora would putrefy into a liquid. The liquemen would be stored and the contents that fell to the bottom would be processed as garum.
The more difficult a food was to obtain, the more valuable it was considered. A wealthy table might include jellyfish, sow’s udders stuffed with salted sea urchins, brains cooked with milk and eggs, and boiled tree fungi as appetizers. Ostriches, peacocks, parrots, doves, dormice, hummingbird tongues and flamingos in a variety of sauces would be served as a main course. Desserts included roses in pastry, stuffed dates, honey cakes and fresh fruit.
Here’s an urban legend for you: Vomitoria were available to Romans at feasts so they could vomit as needed in a binge and purge cycle. NOT TRUE! Vomitoria were the passageways in amphitheaters from which the audiences could exit after the show is over.
BTW, Apicius’ entire book with commentary is available at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Apicius/home.html.
Tomorrow, Royal Moments Rita Bay