It’s amazing the sort of questions I have had to think about working on my Roman period novel. I’ve said before that I don’t want to be a stickler for every little detail, but I want to make sure I have the basics right. Food is so important in defining and presenting a culture, and when describing a market in any setting, you want an appropriate ambience. To some people, food and attitudes to it, can define the culture.
The Romans Had Fast Food and Street Food?
Larks’ tongues, otters’ noses, ocelot spleens, wrens’ livers, badgers’ spleens.
It is generally believed that they ate some silly stuff, but this humorous list is not a menu, it comes from the film The Life of Brian. The ill-fated titular character and his mother attend a stoning and are confronted with a street vendor trying to sell them snacks. At any public event we now expect to see street food vendors – typically today these are hot dogs and burgers. The Romans had a rather healthy mix of meat, vegetables and cheese in their daily diet just as most people do today. But they also ate fast food and there were many places – street vendors and shops – where they could buy it.
Many people don’t realise that fast food is not a modern phenomenon. Thanks to the extensive remains at Pompeii and Herculaneum – having been buried under metres of ash – ongoing digging work has uncovered buildings that look remarkably like what we might today identify as diners. We call these Thermopolium – this example is from Herculaneum.
Thermopolium were small shops with the curious counters you see above. They might look like communal toilets, but they were actually for the storage of food – both hot and cold. Though some of these Thermopolium shops were large enough to be sit-in diners, there are far more examples of much smaller units with no space for tables and chairs. This means that they could only have been selling street food. I was interested in one particular type of street food for the scene I wanted to write – the sort of thing that would bring back childhood memories, and that can only be a sweet.
But what sweet food did the Romans eat? What were their guilty pleasures and indulgent snacks? The Romans didn’t have sugar and they didn’t have a lot of things we would traditionally put in sweet bread, cakes and pastries either. They did, however, have honey, pistachios and almonds. A typical Roman cake would be a sweet bread covered in nuts and then soaked or drizzled with honey. After finding a few recipes for traditional Roman honey cakes, I decided I might try to make some soon (hey, I have to get into the spirit of the time!). I also like the look of this nut tart. I love honey and often find it more diverse as a sweetener and better for flavour than a lot of sugars.
What you would have got walking up to a market stall that sold sweets, would have been something maybe like modern baklava – small, sweet, nut and honey pastries. Baklava itself seems to have an Ottoman-Turk origin, but the method of making and the ingredients seem similar to the sort of pastries the Romans would have eaten. Offer a baklava to a Roman and he’ll probably assume it was a Parthian or Syrian equivalent of a Roman delicacy.
It is important when writing period pieces that you get the available foods right. Check the areas where certain foodstuffs grow. Would it have been available either directly or through trade with immediate neighbours? By the time of the period my book is set, Rome was firmly in control of Turkey and parts of the Middle East (modern Israel, Syria and Iraq-Iran) so pistachios and almonds would have been freely available – and as they appear to have been later grown in Greece, cheaper for the capital to acquire. The farther away a province or a trading partner was, the harder it would be to acquire and the more expensive to import – and Rome had a complex and well-organised trade network.
I didn’t want to spend too much time on this because my research on the subject was limited to one (albeit important) early scene and I did not want to get too caught up in the minutiae. Still, like death, food (and often the rituals that go with it) is one of the fascinating aspects of the past that we like to understand – mostly because it is one aspect of the past that we can recreate.