Saturday 9 May 2015

Food for Thought by Caroline Lawrence

I've been thinking about food a lot recently because I'm going to be talking about Roman cuisine at the end of this month as part of an exhibition called Food For Thought at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester. 

The exhibition came out of the research of Zena Kamash, Lecturer in Roman Archaeology and Art, Royal Holloway, University of London. Long fascinated by the relationship of food and memory, she recently took part in a project called Memoria Romana. As I understand it, this is an ongoing attempt to look at Classical history in a more intuitive way. 

That's what we authors of historical fiction do every day: we take the facts from archaeology and primary sources, then go into our imaginations and try to construct a version of the past that feels real. 

For example, modern sources about food in ancient Rome usually trot out the same old 'facts': 

1. Romans reclined to dine
2. There were three courses
3. Slaves waited on you
4. Romans ate basic food like bread, olive oil and wine
5. And disgusting food like stuffed dormice and flamingo tongues
6. Not to mention fish-gut sauce
7. When you’d eaten too much you vomited

Some of these are mainly false, some true and some partly true.
It’s a bit like saying all Americans have cornflakes for breakfast, supersize hamburgers for lunch and turf'n'surf for dinner. Or that all French eat croissants and café au lait for breakfast, a Gauloise cigarette for lunch and steak frites for dinner. Remember the 80s in the UK, when we scoffed prawn cocktails, fondue, chicken kiev and Angel Delight? Those foods already seem bizarrely retro, but a future historian might have us eating them for decades. 

What scholars like Zena Kamash realise is that you can’t sum up a thousand years of Roman history into such a simple formula. 

Food varies in time and place. One of the fascinating aspects of first century British cooking is the number of new foods introduced by the Romans. And it's fun to think about the British equivalents of Mediterranean foods: butter for oil and beer instead of wine. These are some of the topics addressed by Zena and other experts in conjunction with the Corinium Museum in Food for Thought.

But as well as looking at the physical evidence, Zena has gone creative. She knows that every Roman must have had their own way of eating, their own preferences, their own habits, their own cuisine, just as we do today. On her Not Just Dormice - Food for Thought blog she has shared her 'first food memory' and her favourite cuisine, and she has encouraged the other contributors and guest bloggers to do the same.

Accordingly, Zena notes that her 'earliest food memory' is going to her village shop to buy sweets and her favourite cuisine is Middle Eastern. 

One of the contributors to the exhibition is Lisa Lodwick, an archaeobotanist who studies plant remains from Roman sites. Her earliest food memory is 'a dinosaur shaped birthday cake' and her favourite cuisine is '(modern) Italian'. 

Dan Stansbie specialises in Iron Age and Roman Britain; he is especially interested in the relationship between food and ceramics. His earliest food memory is a chocolate birthday cake and his favourite cuisine is Modern British/Anglo Indian. 

Miranda Creswell is also involved with the project. Her best food would be 'a simple Italian tomato sauce, and chestnuts'. Her earliest food memory is crunchy bread and unsalted butter, from when she lived in France. Doesn't the idea of unsalted butter on a baguette make you think of France, too?

My own earliest memory of food is probably the kosher dill pickles my Jewish father used to buy. Whenever I had an upset stomach, I would nibble one and immediately feel better. If I had to eschew all other cuisines and settle for just one, it would be Tex-Mex. That way, I’d still be able to enjoy chocolate, corn tortillas, chilli peppers, sour cream, avocado, cheese, beans, rice, beer and margaritas. Can you guess I grew up in California?

My English husband Richard says his first 'food memory' is of white bread soaked in warm milk with sugar sprinkled on top. His preferred cuisine is modern Italian. 

See how much these two simple questions hint at a person's age, ethnicity and even racial background?

Amanda Hart, director of the Corinium Museum chipped in, too: 'Probably vegemite toast 1st memory and tuna avocado sandwich fave food. This is making me hungry!' she tweeted.
Guest blogger Martyn Allen's favourite food is curry. It makes him happy. His earliest food memory is 'sprinkling the salt sachet into a packet of Smith's Salt'n'Shake whilst standing under a tree in a pub garden. Crisps, trees and pubs all continue to make me happy!' he adds.

(To see more examples from the guest bloggers, go HERE.)

Notice how emotion has crept in. We know from Proust's famous madeleine episode how powerfully evocative the sense of taste can be. 

All this food memory talk got me thinking about the characters in my new series of books set in Roman Britain. One writing exercise I often do to flesh out a character is to have them 'pack a suitcase for the weekend'. Or I imagine my character in the nude, as recommended by Sol Stein in his book Solutions for Writers

It occurred to me that Zena's two questions are ones I could ask my characters as I develop them and help them 'come alive'.
Juba, the twelve-year-old hero of my work in progress, is dutiful and diligent. Aeneas is his hero and, like Aeneas, Juba is of a melancholy disposition. Romans believed that people of a melancholic temperament were cool and dry, and that they needed hot, moist foods to balance these humours. So Juba will like moist roast chicken, a dish often prescribed in Roman times for melancholy.  He comes from a rich Roman mixed-race family, so maybe his first memory could be of an exotic and expensive food like flamingo tongues, clichéd though it is. Or – counterintuitively – something comforting like the Roman equivalent of French toast

Fronto, Juba's 14-year-old brother, is slightly OCD and of a phlegmatic temperament, i.e. easy-going and with 'cold, wet' humours. According to the Roman medical writer Galen, he should eat bread, roast meat and fish. My intuition tells me he loves 'white foods'. So high-quality bread, roast chicken breast and oat porridge with a dollop of cream are his faves. Maybe his first food memory is of Roman libum or honey-cake, a scrumptious combination of ricotta-type cheese, flour, egg and honey with the unexpected addition of a bay leaf for flavour.

Sally Grainger's recipe for Libum or Honey-cake & my husband's effort

I had the idea of a younger sister named Ursula who like me is choleric (hot and dry) and will find herself perfectly at home in cool Britannia. Galen tells me that she should eat cold, moist food like soft cereals, lettuce, cabbage and green beans. Like me, one of her favourite foods could be bitter salad with an oenogarum (wine vinegar, olive-oil and fish-gut) dressing.

How about your characters? What is the first 'food memory' of each? And what is their preferred cuisine? 

And what about YOU? 

Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries, spoke about Roman Food: Disgusting and Delicious at the Corinium Museum at 1pm on Saturday 30 May 2015 as part of their Roman Food Festival. Her new series, featuring three Roman children refugees in Britannia, is called The Roman Quests


Spade and Dagger said...

I clearly remember going to a birthday party as a small child in the 1960's and being served Baked Alaska as the birthday cake - which was such a novelty back then.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Heinz Baked Beans on white sliced toast is an early and rather disturbing memory for me, Caroline.
May I also say something olive oil and the Roman Empire? When I was travelling through Italy for the films of The Olive Route I learnt from am olive oil and Ancient Roma specialist that in fact the astounding tons of olive oil shipped from all over the Empire to Rome was for lighting the streets. Very little olive oil was consumed. Oil as a food produce came later.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Baked Alaska and Baked Beans! :-) Thanks for note about olive oil used for street lights, Carol! I'll mention that to experts at Corinium Museum later this month.

Sue Purkiss said...

Feeling hungry now!