Ancient Greek cuisine | cultural beliefs about the role of food

Cultural beliefs about the role of food

Food played an important part in the Greek mode of thought. Classicist John Wilkins notes that "in the Odyssey for example, good men are distinguished from bad and Greeks from foreigners partly in terms of how and what they ate. Herodotus identified people partly in terms of food and eating".[95]

Up to the 3rd century BC, the frugality imposed by the physical and climatic conditions of the country was held as virtuous. The Greeks did not ignore the pleasures of eating, but valued simplicity. The rural writer Hesiod, as cited above, spoke of his "flesh of a heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids" as being the perfect closing to a day. Nonetheless, Chrysippus is quoted as saying that the best meal was a free one.[96]

Culinary and gastronomical research was rejected as a sign of oriental flabbiness: the inhabitants of the Persian Empire were considered decadent due to their luxurious taste, which manifested itself in their cuisine.[97] The Greek authors took pleasure in describing the table of the Achaemenid Great King and his court: Herodotus,[98] Clearchus of Soli,[99] Strabo[100] and Ctesias[101] were unanimous in their descriptions.

Fresh fish, one of the favourite dishes of the Greeks, platter with red figures, c. 350–325 BC, Louvre

In contrast, Greeks as a whole stressed the austerity of their own diet. Plutarch tells how the king of Pontus, eager to try the Spartan "black gruel", bought a Laconian cook; 'but had no sooner tasted it than he found it extremely bad, which the cook observing, told him, "Sir, to make this broth relish, you should have bathed yourself first in the river Eurotas"'.[102] According to Polyaenus,[103] on discovering the dining hall of the Persian royal palace, Alexander the Great mocked their taste and blamed it for their defeat. Pausanias, on discovering the dining habits of the Persian commander Mardonius, equally ridiculed the Persians, "who having so much, came to rob the Greeks of their miserable living".[104]

In consequence of this cult of frugality, and the diminished regard for cuisine it inspired, the kitchen long remained the domain of women, free or enslaved. In the classical period, however, culinary specialists began to enter the written record. Both Aelian[105] and Athenaeus mention the thousand cooks who accompanied Smindyride of Sybaris on his voyage to Athens at the time of Cleisthenes, if only disapprovingly. Plato in Gorgias, mentions "Thearion the cook, Mithaecus the author of a treatise on Sicilian cooking, and Sarambos the wine merchant; three eminent connoisseurs of cake, kitchen and wine."[106] Some chefs also wrote treatises on cuisine.

Over time, more and more Greeks presented themselves as gourmets. From the Hellenistic to the Roman period, the Greeks — at least the rich — no longer appeared to be any more austere than others. The cultivated guests of the feast hosted by Athenaeus in the 2nd or 3rd century devoted a large part of their conversation to wine and gastronomy. They discussed the merits of various wines, vegetables, and meats, mentioning renowned dishes (stuffed cuttlefish, red tuna belly, prawns, lettuce watered with mead) and great cooks such as Soterides, chef to king Nicomedes I of Bithynia (who reigned from the 279 to 250 BC). When his master was inland, he pined for anchovies; Soterides simulated them from carefully carved turnips, oiled, salted and sprinkled with poppy seeds.[107] Suidas (an encyclopaedia from the Byzantine period) mistakenly attributes this exploit to the celebrated Roman gourmet Apicius (1st century BC) —[108] which may be taken as evidence that the Greeks had reached the same level as the Romans.

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