On the Subject of Italian Cooking

Italy recently celebrated it’s 150th anniversary as a unified country. To many Americans it comes as a surprise to learn that Italy is such a “young country,” but of course the regions that make up Italy represent some of the oldest cultures in the World. In fact, Italy is the source of one of the worlds oldest known cookbooks and perhaps the oldest with surviving text. Written in Latin by a Roman four to five hundred years after the birth of Christ, the book is known as Apicius or sometimes by it’s subtitle De re Coquinaria, which translates to “On the Subject of Cooking.” This remarkable text served as the model for all cookbooks for well over a thousand years and provides a fascinating view into ancient diets. Many of the foods we associate with Italian cooking were actually brought back to Italy from the new world by Christopher Columbus, including tomatoes! Still we can see the origins of modern Italian cooking in Apicius. The full text of a translation from the 1930s is available for free at the Project Gutenberg website. Divided into 10 books, it seems that the entire work does not survive, since there are no sections for breads and cakes, even though bread is mentioned as an ingredient throughout.Reading sections of the book, one is struck by how much of it is recognizable as dishes we still eat today, though the flavor combinations are very different. For example, this version of stuffed chicken (or pig) would challenge even the most adventurous modern eater:

STUFFED CHICKEN OR SUCKLING PIG (CONCHICLATUS PULLUS VEL PORCELLUS)

“BONE [either] CHICKEN [or suckling pig] FROM THE CHICKEN REMOVE THE BREAST BONE AND THE [upper joint bones of the] LEGS; HOLD IT TOGETHER BY MEANS OF WOODEN SKEWERS, AND MEANWHILE PREPARE [the following dressing in this manner]: ALTERNATE [inside of the chicken or pig] PEAS WITH THE PODS [washed and cooked], BRAINS, LUCANIAN SAUSAGE, ETC. NOW CRUSH PEPPER, LOVAGE, ORIGANY AND GINGER, MOISTENED WITH BROTH, RAISIN WINE AND WINE TO TASTE, MAKE IT BOIL, WHEN DONE, USE IT MODERATELY FOR SEASONING AND ALTERNATELY WITH THE OTHER DRESSING; WRAP IN CAUL, PLACE IT IN A BAKING DISH AND PUT IT IN THE OVEN TO BE COOKED SLOWLY, AND SERVE.”

Another way that many modern cookbooks are similar to De re Coquinaria is in its focus on the health benefits, risks, and effects of many of the recipes. The curious entry for “Harmless Salad” seems pretty tame when compared with many of the crazy fad diets of today.

“A HARMLESS SALAD (NE LACTUCÆ LÆDANT)

And in order that the lettuce may not hurt you take (with it or after it) the following preparation] 2 OUNCES OF GINGER, 1 OUNCE OF GREEN RUE, 1 OUNCE OF MEATY DATES, 12 SCRUPLES OF GROUND PEPPER, 1 OUNCE OF GOOD HONEY, AND 8 OUNCES OF EITHER ÆTHIOPIAN OR SYRIAN CUMIN. MAKE AN INFUSION OF THIS IN VINEGAR, THE CUMIN CRUSHED, AND STRAIN. OF THIS LIQUOR USE A SMALL SPOONFUL MIX IT WITH STOCK AND A LITTLE VINEGAR: YOU MAY TAKE A SMALL SPOONFUL AFTER THE MEAL.”

This peek into our culinary past makes us wonder about the future. If video from today’s cooking shows, like say “Extra Virgin,” survive for the next fifteen hundred years, what will seem odd vs. familiar to the people of the year 3511?