Ancient Greek cuisine

Kylix, the most common drinking vessel in ancient Greece, c. 500 BC, British Museum

Ancient Greek cuisine was characterized by its frugality, reflecting agricultural hardship. It was founded on the "Mediterranean triad": wheat, olive oil, and wine.[1]

Modern knowledge of ancient Greek cuisine and eating habits is derived from literary and artistic evidence. The literary evidence comes mostly from Aristophanes' comedies and quotes preserved by 2nd–3rd century AD grammarian Athenaeus, while artistic information is provided by black- and red-figure vase-painting and terracotta figurines.

Meals

Terracotta model representing a lion's paw tripod table, 2nd–1st century BC, from Myrina, Louvre

At home

The Greeks had three to four meals a day. Breakfast (ἀκρατισμός akratismos) consisted of barley bread dipped in wine (ἄκρατος akratos), sometimes complemented by figs or olives.[2] They also ate pancakes called τηγανίτης (tēganitēs), ταγηνίτης(tagēnitēs)[3] or ταγηνίας (tagēnias),[4] all words deriving from τάγηνον (tagēnon), "frying pan".[5] The earliest attested references on tagenias are in the works of the 5th century BC poets Cratinus[6] and Magnes.[7]

Tagenites were made with wheat flour, olive oil, honey and curdled milk, and were served for breakfast.[8][9][10] Another kind of pancake was σταιτίτης (staititēs), from σταίτινος (staitinos), "of flour or dough of spelt",[11] derived from σταῖς (stais), "flour of spelt".[12] Athenaeus in his Deipnosophistae mentions staititas topped with honey, sesame and cheese.[13][14][15]

A quick lunch (ἄριστον ariston[16]) was taken around noon or early afternoon.[17] Dinner (δεῖπνον deipnon), the most important meal of the day, was generally taken at nightfall.[17] An additional light meal (ἑσπέρισμα hesperisma) was sometimes taken in the late afternoon.[17] Ἀριστόδειπνον / aristodeipnon, literally "lunch-dinner", was served in the late afternoon instead of dinner.[18]

Men and women took their meals separately.[19] When the house was too small, the men ate first, the women afterwards.[20] Slaves waited at dinners. Aristotle notes that "the poor, having no slaves, would ask their wives or children to serve food." Respect for the father who was the breadwinner was obvious.[21]

The ancient Greek custom of placing terra cotta miniatures of their furniture in children's graves gives us a good idea of its style and design. The Greeks normally ate while seated on chairs; benches were used for banquets.[22] The tables, high for normal meals and low for banquets, were initially rectangular in shape. By the 4th century BC, the usual table was round, often with animal-shaped legs (for example lion's paws). Loaves of flat bread could be used as plates, but terra cotta bowls were more common.[23]

Dishes became more refined over time, and by the Roman period plates were sometimes made out of precious metals or glass. Cutlery was not often used at the table: use of the fork was unknown; people ate with their fingers.[24] Knives were used to cut the meat.[23] Spoons were used for soups and broths.[23] Pieces of bread (ἀπομαγδαλία apomagdalia) could be used to spoon the food[24] or as napkins to wipe the fingers.[25]

Social dining

Banqueter playing the kottabos, a playful subversion of the libation, ca. 510 BC, Louvre

As with modern dinner parties, the host could simply invite friends or family; but two other forms of social dining were well documented in ancient Greece: the entertainment of the all-male symposium, and the obligatory, regimental syssitia.

Symposium

The symposium (συμπόσιον symposion), traditionally translated as "banquet", but more literally "gathering of drinkers",[26] was one of the preferred pastimes for the Greeks. It consisted of two parts: the first dedicated to food, generally rather simple, and a second part dedicated to drinking.[26] However, wine was consumed with the food, and the beverages were accompanied by snacks (τραγήματα tragēmata) such as chestnuts, beans, toasted wheat, or honey cakes, all intended to absorb alcohol and extend the drinking spree.[27]

The second part was inaugurated with a libation, most often in honor of Dionysus,[28] followed by conversation or table games, such as kottabos. The guests would recline on couches (κλίναι klinai); low tables held the food or game boards. Dancers, acrobats, and musicians would entertain the wealthy banqueters. A "king of the banquet" was drawn by lots; he had the task of directing the slaves as to how strong to mix the wine.[28]

With the exception of courtesans, the banquet was strictly reserved for men. It was an essential element of Greek social life. Great feasts could only be afforded by the rich; in most Greek homes, religious feasts or family events were the occasion of more modest banquets. The banquet became the setting of a specific genre of literature, giving birth to Plato's Symposium, Xenophon's work of the same name, the Table Talk of Plutarch's Moralia, and the Deipnosophists (Banquet of the Learned) of Athenaeus.

Syssitia

The syssitia (τὰ συσσίτια ta syssitia) were mandatory meals shared by social or religious groups for men and youths, especially in Crete and Sparta. They were referred to variously as hetairia, pheiditia, or andreia (literally, "belonging to men"). They served as both a kind of aristocratic club and as a military mess. Like the symposium, the syssitia was the exclusive domain of men — although some references have been found to all-female syssitia. Unlike the symposium, these meals were hallmarked by simplicity and temperance.

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