Author: Patrick Faas
Translator: Shaun Whiteside
Hardcover, 304 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Publication date: November 2002
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Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome, written by Dutch food historian and chef, Patrick Faas and translated into English by Shaun Whiteside, is a fascinating look at the food history and customs of Ancient Rome.
Off the bat, let me state that my area of interest is Ancient Greece rather than Ancient Rome, so my qualifications to review a book on Ancient Rome are not what I would like. However, I got this book not for its historical accuracy so much as for its broad view of Roman food traditions and recipes. Because of this, Around the Roman Table was both a difficult review and an enlightening read.
From the author's perspective, this book is not intended as an historical treatise and he is upfront about this. His area of knowledge is as a food historian/chef, not as a classicist or anthropologist. Sadly, this does show in the first section of the book, which is devoted to history and is unaccompanied by footnotes. So while there are some downright fascinating details within the pages, it's difficult to check their accuracy.
This problem is compounded by his bibliography (at least for English-only readers). The bibliography is rather short and contains mainly Italian and French references. Of the English works, only two deal with topics other than cooking. You'll want to keep these issues in mind when looking at the historical section because there are words that show up where they shouldn't. For instance, Faas uses the word "pumpkin" rather liberally which is, I understand, a mistranslation of Vehling's "Apicius, Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome", which is referenced in his bibliography. Another odd one crops up when the term "plastic" is used to describe a goblet from Caesar's time. I'm sure readers conversant in Roman history will find other problem areas, but if one keeps the scope and slant of the work (and the author's background) in mind, I think he or she will find the book enjoyable.
To redeem the lack of footnotes and limited bibliography, however, the author has made liberal use of primary source works throughout the book. I can't vouch for the translations of the works, but they add a great deal to the book and will give a reader who wants to delve more in-depth in this area places to look.
The book is divided into two parts, History and Recipes and I'll review them separately here.
The History portion of the book is divided into four sections: "Culinary History," "The Meal," "Wine and Other Drinks" and "The Cook and His Condiments." Each section is further divided which makes for a fairly easy read.
The first section, "Culinary History" covers from 753 BCE to 476 CE and is rather sketchy, but as the author points out, Roman cuisine spans more than 1000 years, so a book could be written on that alone. This is a broad overview that includes information on the Etruscan, Greek and African influences on Roman food. Some information is given on the role of religion and the sumptuary laws. Of this section, the Empire Period (listed as 2 BCE to 476 CE) is given the most time and includes a look at early Christian dietary practices.
Of the four sections in the first part of the book, I found "The Meal" to be the most interesting since it covered not just what might be served at each meal, but also how (physically) the diners ate, how the meals were served and what the diners wore. Table manners and etiquette-related information is also a welcome addition. Faas has given quite a bit of detail and thought to this section and has come up with information that leaves me wanting to do more research. While this was my favorite section in the History division, I will say that the layout seems to suffer. The topics discussed could have been a bit better organized for a more cohesive read.
Section three, "Wine and Other Drinks" is, unfortunately, where the author's lack of scholastic sources suffers the most. Faas attempts to work in the mythos of the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and Christians (specifically the wine deities) and does so rather poorly. However, that is a small portion of this section and once he moves on to wine (production, additives etc.) and other available beverages, it improves. Of all the sections, this is the one that gave me the most serious problems, but again, if you keep in mind the author's area of expertise and read his mythology with skepticism, the rest of this section is worth looking at.
Section four was my second favorite and is entitled "The Cook and His Condiments." Faas covers the actual cooking implements and kitchen information here, as well as an interesting section on Greek and Roman medicinal theory. The most in-depth coverage is given over to flavors -- sour, salt, sweet and bitter -- as well as the herbs utilized most in Ancient Roman cooking. The author also touches on other ingredients including the all-important olive oil as well as perfumes. This section of the book is not as detailed as I would wish for, but it does provide a good introduction.
The second portion of this book is devoted to actual recipes, which Faas breaks down into four sections: from the land, from the fire, from the air and from the water.
For those of you who are uneasy with unusual ingredients, a word of warning, the Romans (as with other ancient cultures) included some ingredients, which we would find very objectionable (puppies) as well as very strange (stuffed womb). The reader needs to keep the culture and era in mind while sorting through this part of the book. There are also herbs included that would be warned against today (pennyroyal), but if these issues are kept in mind and care is taken, it would be possible to recreate many of the recipes given.
While the recipe section is varied and fascinating, the author does warn that some of the recipes would be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate. Obviously, the lack of ingredient measurements makes for a challenge, but for an accomplished cook, experimentation should produce edible results. Other recipes include measurements and should be much easier to recreate.
All in all, Around the Roman Table is a delightful look at Roman culinary history, customs and recipes. It should make for a good library addition for anyone who is interested in recreating traditional recipes, as well as a nice introduction for those who are simply wanting to learn more about ancient Roman culinary history.
Reviewed by LyricFox