Sunday, May 17, 2009

Ovidian Snack Time

In the stories of Apollo and Daphne (Met. 1) and Cycnus (Met. 12), Ovid's system of poetics is quite clear. Ovid's version of nature is fluid, human (or human-like) forms melt into other natural forms, limbs stiffening into branches or flapping into wings, becoming adorned with leaves or feathers and resulting in very convincing (to me, anyway) etiologies. Apollo chases Daphne into spicing up the Delphic oracle and crowns of the triumphal commanders. She morphs just in time to avoid rape and Apollo becomes the first-ever tree-hugger ("If you cannot be my wife, you will be my tree!").

In Met. 12, Achilles is trying to kill the impenetrable Cycnus. Since a sword or spear won't do, he is forced to smother and crush him. Poor Cycnus. And naturally, he gets changed into a swan and thus we have the etiology of the swan.

A few weeks ago (when I was still a New York resident!), Amy helped me make the savory cheesecake from The Classical Cookbook that is based upon Cato's recipe (On Agriculture 75). The recipe is very simple and only calls for feta, all-purpose flour, an egg and some leaves of Daphne ... bay leaves!

Tossing all the ingredients except the Daphne into the food processor made a super quick and slightly sticky dough, which we shaped into an ancient-looking loaf. Following Dalby and
Grainger's recipe, we placed the bay leaves under the loaf and these imparted a lovely, spicy aroma to the resulting cake.

It was good. Salty, but not overwhelmingly so, and relatively light in texture -- kind of like an Olive Garden breadstick but really cheesy.

Since it was a Sunday and Sundays call for Bloody Marys, we made Bloody Marys with the box of Kyknos brand tomato juice I bought at Titan. They complimented the salty cheesecake
nicely. The all-knowing wikipedia states that "Kyknos S.A. is a Greek tomato company and it is one of the major tomato paste brands in the country." Wikipedia also helpfully informs us that the color of the tomato paste is red.

Dalby, A. and Grainger, S. The Classical Cookbook. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996

Monday, May 4, 2009

I found Actaeon in my fridge.

"Diana gives to the sprinkled head the horns of the lively stag, she gives length to the neck and sharpens the tips of his ears, she gives feet instead of hands, changes his arms to long legs and covers his body with a spotted hide; fear is added: Autonoe's heroic son flees and marvels at the swiftness in his course" (Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.194-9).

I'm not exactly sure what else to say except that when I opened the freezer this morning, there was Actaeon. He was dismembered, frozen and packed into at least twenty neat little plastic baggies and labeled "Wild Game." 

Friday, May 1, 2009

Ode to Astoria, continued.

Just a little bit more on Astoria to prove that I did indeed live amongst the Olympians. And I already miss it. However, given that I have moved to Middle of Nowhere, PA, with its strange laws on alcohol consumption (goodbye six-packs from the corner store), I had to buy a whole case of Dogfish's Midas Touch today (PA is no place for the beer commitment-phobe) and it set me back 71 bucks!

Ode to Astoria

I have lived in Astoria, home to the largest Greek population outside of Greece, for the past three and a half years. This means that I shopped at Titan Foods, ate at the Neptune Diner regularly, got my eyes checked at Odyssey Optical and Zeus took out my trash.

At the Aphrodite Restaurant (part of the Acropolis Apartment complex), I could get tzaziki to dunk my chicken nuggets into (it's a really good combination) while my boyfriend made dirty jokes about sea foam and smiles.

I have cooked with Minerva olive oil these past few years (yes, it was extra virgin), did my Homer homework on a stoop a block away from Hermes International Movers, ate cereal as I translated the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and essentially, lived amongst the Olympians.

And just as my odyssey in eating old food has recently acquired an Odyssean tone, I am accompanying my boyfriend on his own nostos. We are moving to the country, to his hometown. I suppose you could say that I'm going bucolic.

But first, a toast, with the Ithaca Beer Company's Apricot Wheat Ale, which somehow escaped Ancient Beer Drinking Night. Admittedly, it is from the Ithaca that is Gorges but I still think it suits us nicely today. Cheers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ancient Beer Drinking Night!

I was sitting around one night, grading mythology midterms and drinking a Mythos when the greatest idea of all time came to me: Ancient Beer Drinking Night!

It took me a few weeks to collect enough specimens, but at last I had an enviable (and very ancient) array:

Mythos (obviously ... the Hellenic Lager Beer)
Marathon (the Greek Lager Beer)
Black Sheep Ale (it had a picture of a black ram on it and Odysseus sacrifices one to Tiresias in Odyssey 11)
Aventinus (Mel spotted this one at Whole Foods, a wheat doppelbock from Germany. It made her think of the Aventine Hill ... I didn't have the heart to tell her that it was named for someone named Aventinus, whose picture was on the label.)
Kingfisher (Indian lager ... OR the metamorphic result of Alcyone in Ovid's Met. 11)
Optimator (Spaten from Munich ... nice)
Bard's Beer (made from sorghum) to be enjoyed with Harp Lager (to my fiendish delight)
Midas Touch (an ACTUAL ancient beer made by Dogfish from Delaware and based on "an ancient Turkish recipe using the original ingredients discovered in the tomb of King Midas." I have been looking for this one for almost a year after seeing it featured on the Discovery Channel and then two lonely bottles appeared in my Key Foods, two days shy of Ancient Beer Drinking Night. A miracle.)
Elysian, The Immortal IPA (This glory of mythology gone wrong hails from Seattle. The label is too awesome for words. A muscle-bound Zeus ... yes, Zeus, since he is clutching a lightning bolt and cuddling a cloud. And it's not like the Elysian Fields are in the Underworld or anything...)

It didn't take too much convincing to get sister, boyfriend, Mel and Coco together to drink it all. The costumes did take a little bit of convincing, however.

My sister, in her words, had a stroke of genius and put two ancient things together to form one innovative idea no one has ever thought of before. BEER AND TOGAS!

So we sheepishly donned bed sheets (I happen to be one badass toga-tie-er thanks to sixth grade Latin and too much time with Ecce Romani!) but were soon too drunk to care about dignity (a lot of those beers boasted alcohol contents of around 9%).

The Aventinus was absurdly delicious (perhaps something to do with it being un-pasteurized and un-filtered, ancient style), the Midas Touch was the star of the evening (it was something in between beer and champagne, such grapey, fizzy, honeyed goodness), the lagers all tasted like lagers and well, I don't remember much else.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Circe's potion kind of worked

"She led them in and sat them on couches and chairs and stirred cheese, barley and pale honey with Pramnian wine for them, and she mixed evil drugs into the food, so that they would forget their fatherland entirely. Immediately after she struck them with her wand, she confined them to pigsties. They had the heads, voices, bristles and bodies of swine, but their human minds remained as they were before" (Odyssey 10.233-240).

Bolstered by my success with Hecamede's kykeon, I finally decided to try my hand at Circe's potion. Odysseus' comrades drink it down willingly, so it must have been familiar to their palates, and Homer treats it as beautifully as the other food described in the Odyssey. But somehow the mixture does not sound delicious to me. Barley, cheese, honey and wine? Seriously? The constituent parts all sound good but ... all mixed together?

A couple of years ago, several students from my Great Books class took it upon themselves to cook up versions of the potion and bring them to class. Being the teacher, I felt morally obligated to taste the concoctions made from oatmeal, various types of cheese (whatever they had lying around -- usually cheddar), grape juice (so they wouldn't get in trouble for bringing alcohol to school). They were nasty, even though the some went through the trouble of decorating their containers with glitter to make the potion somewhat more appealing. One bottle of their Circe's potion is still displayed on my bookshelf (in my collection of classically themed liquids, alongside Ajax dish detergent and Ethos water). I like to think of it as inspirational.

Thus inspired, Amy and I made two batches of potion, one using ricotta and the other feta. I had used semolina for Hecamede's kykeon, but Circe's called for barley. I had found a bag of peeled barley at m2m on Third Ave., cooked it as I would rice and mixed it, still hot, with cheese. Meanwhile, Amy heated up the kosher wine I had lying around from a tasting I did a few weeks ago (I figured the heat would negated any need for the wine to have Pramnian origins) and stirred in some honey (I didn't have any ancient Greek honey nor do I keep bees, so we had to use the kind that comes out of the plastic bear). Mixing honeyed wine with cheesy barley was impossible; they could not be incorporated, even when put through the food processor (which Homer does not mention).

Both potions were by now a sickly pink color. The one made with feta was closer to the baby food consistency of Hecamede's kykeon, but far lumpier. The ricotta potion was much like bubble tea -- the barley sank to the bottom like tapioca pearls in liquid. We left out the evil drugs because I couldn't decide what modern equivalent I could substitute in. Tylenol? Not nearly evil enough. Not evil at all, actually.

Amy and I tasted both potions and decided that neither was revolting and if we were hungry enough from sailing around Greece and being shipwrecked, we would probably go ahead and eat them. But they really weren't good; they tasted sickly pink.

We didn't forget our fatherlands and we didn't turn into pigs, but being female, we decided that we weren't the best guinea pigs for this experiment, so we forced a bit down my boyfriend's throat. He declared the potion gross but not that gross and ultimately, nothing happened.

...Until about five hours later when I found him on the bathroom floor vomiting up every last trace of the potion and shouting, "Circe got me!"

It was horrendous; he was sick for two whole days. He didn't turn into a pig but he only seemed a little shy of total metamorphosis. I guess I should have discovered what moly was before I inflicted the power of Circe upon him.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Charybdis Picnic

"You will see the other cliff, lower down than the other, Odysseus: they are near one another and you could even shoot an arrow between them. On it is a giant fig tree, sprouting many leaves, and below it, Charybdis swallows down the black water. Three times a day, she vomits it up and three times she sucks it back down. Don't go there when she swallows it back down for no one could save you from disaster, not even the Earth-shaker. But rather, sailing close to the rock of Scylla, drive your ship swiftly by, for it is much better to lose six comrades from a ship than everyone together" (Od. 12.101-110).

I laugh in the face of danger (or speedily away from it as it throws rocks at me). If my middle name were not very long and Hawaiian, surely it would be "Danger" or "Man of Pain." Also, I live on the edge.

It is up to me then, to find out why Charybdis Playground in Astoria Park is named, well, Charybdis Playground. It seems a little odd that a public playground would be named after a scary sea monster in Greek mythology, especially in a predominantly Greek neighborhood. And monstrous name or no monstrous name, it is a lovely spot for a picnic on a sunny springtime afternoon.
I set to work packing a lunch: the previously mentioned Honeyed Mushrooms (the nasty ones, since I did use a whole box of white button mushrooms and had plenty of leftovers), kykeon
(porridge) made according to Dalby and Grainger's recipe in The Classical Cookbook (which is based upon a recipe from Cato's On Agriculture), Ceres brand guava juice (I drank gallons of this stuff when in South Africa and managed to find a tetra-pak of it at JAS Mart on St. Mark's), Ion almond chocolate and some modern egg salad sandwiches and white-bean-and-leek soup so the boyfriend and I wouldn't starve.

I tried making The Classical Cookbook's kykeon as a precursor to Circe's magic potion (still gearing up for that one) since it is remarkably similar, calling for semolina, ricotta, honey and a bit of beaten egg. All that was lacking were the Pramnian wine and evil drugs. Dalby and Grainger cite the kykeon that Hecamede prepares in the Iliad, which requires Pramnian wine, goat's cheese, and barley  (Il. II.638-41). It had symbolic and perhaps ritualistic significance as well, "As a mixture of wine and cereal, it brings together the gifts of Dionysus, the wine god, and of Demeter, the goddess who gave us wheat and barley" (40). Dalby and Grainger declare their search for a precise kykeon recipe an "impossible quest" but its "first clue comes from the name itself, for kykan means to churn or clot or thicken by stirring. This suggests something like a soup or even a porridge."

Cato's recipe, or Hecamede's sans wine and with semolina instead of barley, really was quite good. It was lightly sweetened by the honey and had the consistency of baby food. When my sister tried it before the picnic, she said it would be terrific with bacon. Perhaps if I added some wine and evil drugs, the stuff would produce its own bacon. My sandwiches and soup were pretty damn good, too, and we even managed to avoid losing comrades.
After the very lovely (and totally badass) picnic, I finally bothered to google Charybdis Playground. While the New York City Parks Department calls it a "magical spot along the East River that serves Astoria's children," it also explains that the name comes from the playground's proximity to Hell Gate in the East River, where ships have crashed and treasure still lies sunken.

Dalby, A. and Grainger, S. The Classical Cookbook. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996
New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. "Astoria Park: Charybdis Plaground."

Monday, April 20, 2009

Garum Experiment #1

Garum time! Fermented fish guts... Yum!

Patrick Faas calls garum (also known as liquamen) a "highly salted fish sauce, comparable with and related to soy sauce, made from fermented fish. Rotten fish smells disgusting and in ancient Rome, garum factories stank." Well, duh. Faas continues, "That ancient Romans used garum in nearly every dish gave later historians the impressions that Roman cuisine must have been disgusting... In the Far East the ancient sauce is still popular: in Thailand it is called nam pla, in Cambodia tuk trey and in Vietnam nuos nam" (Faas 143). This I found encouraging. Perhaps my Asian taste buds are well-suited to dishes flavored with garum.

Garum was important and widespread in the ancient world, since "tanks for the processing of garum have been found particularly on the northern coast of the Black Sea, in Spain and Morocco, and in Pompeii. Preservation not only extended the life of the food. It also extended the range of its distribution, and modified tastes, so that added flavour was brought to pork meat, and fish juices after fermentation no longer tasted fishy" (Wilkins and Hill 143).

Wilkins and Hill explain that garum "was made in much the same way as Nam Pla, by fermenting small fish, and it's interesting to note that the results are quite delicate, not the stinker that the idea of rotting fish conjures up at all" (3). My confidence increased.
I would be making the Honeyed Mushrooms of Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger's chapter "The Wealth of Empire" in their Classical Cookbook, which in addition to fish sauce, called for pepper, lovage (or celery leaf, which I used as a substitute), olive oil, honey and of course, mushrooms (113).

Specimen A was Tiparos, a bottle of Thai fish sauce that I had picked up at my local Korean grocer because it contained the shortest and simplest (and thus I hoped, most ancient) list of ingredients: water, anchovy extract, salt and sugar. Opening the bottle, the sauce smelled musty and definitely fishy, not exactly "delicate."
I chopped up an entire box of white button mushrooms and tossed them into a pan simmering with the liquid ingredients. The frying Tiparos mushrooms quickly filled up the apartment with the stench of rotten fish. It was foul, and I'm not just being dramatic. Eventually, the odor dissipated (somewhat) and it was time to taste. At first bite, I thought everything would be okay, it tasted just like a mushroom dipped in a bit of honey. But the aftertaste conjured up memories of my childhood in Hong Kong, smelling the stinky tofu vendor in Wan Chai from three blocks away, angry with my mother for dragging me to it (apparently it smells like hell but tastes like heaven), and having to sit around with tissues crammed into my nostrils while she consumed that horror of horrendous stink. The smell of stinky tofu is regularly compared to year-old sweatsocks and rotten sewage, and in 2000, a stinky tofu vendor in Mongkok was actually fined on account of air pollution, yes it's really that bad... and the stench was creeping its way from my tongue to my nostrils. A whole gutter of a Chinese wet market was unleashed in my mouth by one damned mushroom and oh god, the taste lingered.

My boyfriend (who has the digestive system of a trash compactor and lacks the childhood trauma inflicted by stinky tofu since he grew up in boring places) tried the Tiparos mushrooms and he actually ate several, mystified but not entirely turned off by the aftertaste.

After the Tiparos mushroom disaster, I was understandably very apprehensive about trying Honeyed Mushrooms made with the Italian Delfino brand garum (it was actually labeled "garum"!) that I found at Buon Italia in the Chelsea Food Market. Its ingredient list included extract of salt anchovies (whatever that meant) and salt.
The Delfino garum was far more viscous than the Tiparos and opening the bottle, I found the smell quite pungent and intensely salty. I was scared. Amy sniffed the Delfino and declared it "turkey-like." It did have something turkey-ish about it, but it wasn't good.

I was only willing to sacrifice three mushrooms to this enterprise. Using baby bellas this time, I combined the liquid ingredients, then added the dry ones and stir-fried everything for about four minutes.

Somehow the Delfino mushrooms were absolutely magical, with no trace of fish, rot, rotten fish, sewage, turkey or whatever. They didn't stink at all! They were the kind of savory that coats your palate and leaves your mouth watering for more. The aftertaste was of honey and crisp celery. If ancient garum was anything like Delfino garum then Wilkins and Hill are in no way full of crap and Dalby and Grainger are not trying to poison me. I want to go Roman and put the stuff on everything, too -- my pasta, my waffles, my musubi, my hair.

Dalby, A. and Grainger, S. The Classical Cookbook. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996
Faas, P. Around the Roman Table. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994
Wilkins, J.M. and Hill, S. Food in the Ancient World. Blackwell, 2006

Friday, April 17, 2009

Helios' Cheeseburger Mac and Cheese

"... Neither was any remedy able to be found, the cattle were already dead. The gods straightaway revealed portents to the men: the hides crawled, the meat mooed on the spits, both the roasted and the raw, just as in the voices of living cows. Then for six days, my faithful comrades feasted, destroying the best of the cattle of the sun" (Odyssey XII.392-98).

None of my mythology students ever seem to fully appreciate the sun cattle barbecue in the Odyssey when they first come across the scene. I wonder why. I always have to pause and pose the question, "How would you feel if the cheeseburger you were eating suddenly began to moo?"

I usually get blank stares and a few giggles.

I have always wanted to have a Homeric barbecue replete with five-year-old bulls, sloppy butchery and fat-burning... and especially, one with mooing burgers, so I decided to start with a pseudo-Homeric dinner. Baby steps.

I am a great admirer of cows. They are useful and yummy. Going without fresh milk for more than three hours gives me great anxiety. I obviously adore cheese, except when I bake it into pies. I love a good, rare steak and I also often wake up in the middle of the night craving country fried steak smothered in sausage gravy. But wouldn't it be kind of fun if just once in a while, my beloved food source acknowledged me?

Inspired by a super intense macaroni-and-cheese-fest with Rebecca, I was determined to make something -- perhaps not strictly ancient, I admit -- that involved both the cattle of the sun and some cheesy goodness. I became fixated upon and even obsessed with the idea of Helios' Cheeseburger Mac and Cheese. It would be dinner and a show!

To my great dismay, none of the nearby butchers carried any version of ground sun cow. I found holy cows -- kosher, halal and so on, but those would just not do.

But miraculously, Titan Foods does carry Helios' elbow pasta.

Perhaps not all was lost.

And so I set to work. I lightly sauteed my seasoned hamburger patties and broke them into little chunks. I boiled Helios' elbow pasta in salted water and mixed it with a cup each of cheddar, Monterey jack and milk. Then I sprinkled the top with a mixture of cheddar and breadcrumbs and baked the whole dish. I was, admittedly, a little apprehensive. What if I burn the crust? What if I lose my way home?

The results were meaty, gooey, crusty and absolutely divine, although sadly, silent.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Erebinthoi syn Xeroi Tyroi, Oi!

Chickpeas are good and cheese is good, thus I decided to test Mark Grant's recipe for Erebinthoi syn Xeroi Tyroi (Chickpeas with cheese). The recipe is wonderfully simple: chickpeas (soaked overnight) are boiled in salted water and then covered with grated cheese, either Parmesan or Pecorino Romano (Grant 148). Grant also promises a "glistening effect" that the cheese has on the chickpeas. 

In the ancient world, grated hard cheese was recognized for its versatility and nutrition. "Hard cheese was a practical, easily portable, and nourishing foodstuff on campaign to carry with him. It could have been broken into hunks and eaten with bread, though this combination, so familiar to us, is rarely mentioned by ancient sources. With a grater to hand, it could be grated into dough, or over fish or meat as available" (West 191).

I, too, carry hard cheese around with me, although I have never been a soldier on campaign. I get bonus points for this particular dish because the Parmesan I used was grated from the 1kg hunk that I brought back this summer from Rome (via Israel. The airport security officers were not amused). 

On chickpeas, Joan Alcock informs us, "the Greeks served them as part of tragemata eaten fresh, roasted, or dried, and served them at symposia. When boiled they were used in soup; in Rome this was a cheap food, bought from street sellers" (Alcock 36). Alcock also provides two very helpful citations: Aristophanes in The Peace (1136) "mocked the name, giving it a double meaning as 'glans penis,' and noted its tendency to cause flatulence." Alcock also cites Anthimus (De Observatione Ciborum Theodoricum Regem Francorum Epistula 66) who "warned that, when eaten raw, they caused violent flatulence, bad indigestion, and diarrhea, but they were diuretic and hence food for the kidneys."

Wonderful. I regret that I did not save any chickpeas to eat raw as a test. Oh well, next time. I find flatulence fascinating. Scatological humor in comedy is often recognized as representative of fertility and fecundity. The bomoloxeuma of Strepsiades in The Clouds -- his delight in hearing and making references to farting and defecating -- degrades both himself and Socrates, thereby destroying sanctimonious atmospheres in a similar way to how Jeffery Henderson views the function of cathartic sexual obscenity on the stage. Henderson sees "presentation of uninhibited sexuality, frequent reference to excretion" etc. as both the comic hero and the audience's "self-assertion against authority."

In Old Comedy, farts rival thunder. When in The Clouds, the cloud chorus appears, Socrates says, "August Clouds, you have clearly heard me calling, (to Strepsiades) did you perceive the voice together with the divine roaring thunder?" (292) and Strepsiades replies, "I revere you, much-honorable ones, and I want to fart back to the thunder, so much do I shiver and fear you, and now, whether or not it is permitted, I will shit!" (293-5).

Perhaps Strepsiades ate too many chickpeas.

Yet in The Clouds, there is no actual defecation -- only the urge to do so and resulting farts. The lack of dung and remaining flatulence eliminates any representation of fertility and focuses on character debasement and a sort of cathartic grossness.

Now that I have made chickpeas with cheese thoroughly appetizing, I highly recommend them as a side dish. They do indeed glisten, the chickpeas themselves are firm and nutty and would pair well with perhaps a bit of steak and green salad. If nothing else, its gaseous results can at least induce comedic catharsis.

Alcock, J.P. Food in the Ancient World. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2006
Henderson, J. The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy. Oxford, 1991
Grant, M. Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens, London 1999
West, M.L. "Grated Cheese Fit for Heroes," The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 18.190-191, 1998

Monday, April 6, 2009

Poseidon vs. Neptune: Battle Chicken of the Sea

I love kitsch. I love cheesiness. I also love the strange. One can never underestimate the power of Hello Kitty's appeal to the young Japanese male population, a wine that compels you to buy it with a weird but adorable little animal on its label or the glory of resurrected and reincarnated Greek deities, especially as savvy restaurateurs.

The god of the sea seems to have done quite well on the international dining scene.

I have been going to the Neptune Diner for years. When my genius boyfriend forgot to pay our utility bills for several months and our power was cut off, sometimes we ate there three meals a day (that was a low point in my graduate career).

And yet we have always been troubled -- no, seriously disturbed -- by the fact that although the Neptune Diner is smack dab in the middle of a Greek neighborhood, somehow it is not called the Poseidon Diner.

Yesterday, I decided to investigate. I brought my camera, a pen and my sweetest smile. But still, the head waiter only laughed when I asked why Neptune wasn't called Poseidon and said, "A lot of people ask that question and you're asking the wrong person."

Whatever. They do make really good fried chicken, though, all crunchy on the outside and piping hot and tender meat inside.

Good chicken seems to be constantly associated with the sea god's various restaurants.

For Spring Break, Mel and I decided that it was about time we got away from studying, got away from Classics and our everyday lives in general. We were determined to make everyone we knew insane with jealousy. We went to Jamaica.

Little did we suspect that the Grand Palladium of Montego Bay would actually attempt to be something of a Grand Palladium. Kind of. We went sailing and pedal-boating, we walked the marble, colonnaded halls barefoot, we got tans (well, I got a tan, she got some weird pink splotches). We laughed at the Spring Breakers well into their fifties who begged for bathroom breaks on bus rides after double-fisting margaritas straight off the plane. We marveled at the swim-up bar. We also stuffed ourselves silly at the most un-Jamaican, all-inclusive hotel restaurants: the Pastafarian and Poseidon's Sunset Cove (where we did not get shipwrecked, to my great surprise and disappointment).

But Poseidon sure does make a mean jerk chicken. I devoured half a plate of it before it even occurred to me to photodocument the occasion.

Well done, god of the sea, on both accounts.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Wrap Stars: Placenta (as in Cheese and Pastry Pie, not the other kind)

It would take much more than a blog or even a book to detail all there is to know or consider
when it comes to the primary ingredients of the recipe for Placenta: flour, cheese and honey, so for this entry, I will only address one aspect of this pie in terms of symbolic significance.
Grant notes that while "the Athenians of the fifth century BC loved their bars," Roman bars (popinae) were "sleazy" (Grant 84). I was therefore going to make a sleazy cheese pie. Awesome.

He calls the pie an ancient form of tyropitakia (Grant 104-5) and indeed there was quite a bit of wrapping and layering involved in the process, although my finished product would never be referred to as light or fluffy. I first slapped two types of dough together, one made from wheat flour and one from white. I creamed honey with feta (sliced from the two pound... well, loaf that I had picked up from the Mediterranean Foods store in Agora Plaza. I like to be prepared with lots of cheese at hand. Also I did not realize how much feta two pounds of feta was when I asked the cheese man to slice me off a hunk.).
I painstakingly rolled the balls of dough as thin as I could (not terribly thin). I had to dust flour on the white dough constantly as it stuck to everything -- the table, my hands, the rolling pin. My honey and cheese filling looked somewhat chunky, but I figured it would even out as it melted in the oven. The little bits of cold filling I tasted seemed really good. Cheese mixed with honey. Genius.

In a nice and swift overview of the history of cheese, The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge (always helpful) provides the following: "the production of cheese seems to have first taken root in the Middle East, specifically Mesopotamia... When the art of cheese making finally made its way to Europe, the cooler climate meant less of a need for salting and more of a chance for microbes and molds to grow on the cheese; these are what give aged varieties their stronger and more distinctive flavors. By the time of the Romans, cheese making had become a refined art and various cheese types were developed using different storage and aging conditions. Indeed, cheese was so important to the Roman diet that houses had a separate cheese kitchen (called a caseale) as well as a special area where it could mature" (NYT 1263).

My loaf of feta was not one of those matured Roman cheeses. It was salted. Somehow my taste buds initially missed this fact. I wish I had read this blurb in the New York Times Guide before beginning to make the pies.

The combination of cheese and honey held particular significance to the Romans as marriage food (Apuleius recognizes this in the Golden Ass in his references to cheese and by extension, Circe's potion, cheese and witches [Oates 208, Etienne 303]). Caroline Oates also traces the implication that cheese refers to women (and therefore, sex) throughout European folklore from when "in Apuleius' Golden Ass it signifies women as sexual partners" (Oates 206). Thus we have yet another angle to this cheese pie being sleazy.

My sister and I decided to make spam musubi at the same time (I still didn't totally trust those ancient recipes to provide a satisfying dinner), since we are always homesick for Hawaiian food anyway. I wrapped layers of dough around the cheesy mixture, alternating white dough and cheese spread, while my sister wrapped nori around rice and spam, which I had marinated in soy sauce and sugar, then fried.

The apartment smelled amazing, all honeyed and warm (with undertones of salty, spammy goodness).

The pies turned out rustic looking with a few cheese bubbles spilling through holes I left in their centers and the crust (which I had labored to make as thin as possible) was fantastic, like a toasty, crunchy cracker. I started off by picking off bits of crust to eat first. Very satisfying. But the cheese filling, pretty good at first bite, became horrendously salty by the third. My sister and I choked down most of our pies (we were raised to never waste food) until we just couldn't anymore. Salt was a fairly precious commodity to the Romans, so something went horribly wrong. I did not take into account how inherently salted the feta was so I did not skip the requisite teaspoon of salt that Grant's recipe called for. I paid for this oversight; my tongue tingled for at least an hour after I gave up on the pie -- even after two bottles of Mythos (Mythoi?).

And I had flour everywhere -- in my hair, on my pants, between my toes.

So for dinner I ended up mournfully eating the flour-dusted, back-up spam musubi. We had managed to not screw that up. I will just have to keep the two remaining pies in my ancient fridge until I can throw them at someone I hate.

Etienne, R. "Fromages et alimentation a Rome," In Histoire et geographie des fromages, ed. Pierre Brunet. 299-304. Caen: Universite de Caen, 1987
Grant, M. Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens, London 1999
The New York Times. The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind. New York: Macmillan, 2007
Oates, C. "Cheese Gives You Nightmares: Old Hags and Heartburn," Folklore, Vol. 114:2, Aug. 2003

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Etnos: Hercules' Pea Soup

I picked up Mark Grant's Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens quite a while back, on the dollar shelf of a county library outside of Pottstown, PA (of all places). Grant states in his Introduction that "the theme of this book is everyday Roman food" and provides recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner at the bar and dinner in the dining room. None of his recipes call for ground peacock or even dormice, which is why it has taken me so long to actually try any of them (I like a challenge), but I do feel that this is an excellent place to start. I scoured the shelves of my neighborhood supermarket, Titan Foods (yes, exactly), for authentically ancient ingredients. On the menu: Etnos, Hercules' Pea Soup.

I had to start with the Pea Soup. How delightful is it to think of Aristophanes' version of Hercules, indeed a lion-skin bearing, musclebound man, but also a glutton who longs for Pea Soup? Aristophanes' Hercules reminds me of my boyfriend.

In the Frogs, a comic Dionysus attempts to explain to the somewhat thick-skulled Hercules his longing for Euripides:

Dionysus: I cannot explain it... nevertheless I will try to tell you through riddles. Have you ever felt a sudden craving for pea soup?

Hercules: Soup? Oh my, thousands of times in my life!

Dionysus: Have I made this clear or should I tell it again?

Hercules: Not about the soup -- I get that.

(Frogs 61-65)

Lise Manniche's ancient Egyptian herbal guide provides some good pea information. Peas (Pisum sativum L. or pisos Gk. -- sorry, I don't know how to blog in a Greek font) "were cultivated for human consumption. In Egypt they have been found in tombs from the Middle Kingdom onwards, but on sites in Anatolia and Greece dating to the sixth millennium BC and earlier remains prove their use even earlier" (Manniche 136). In her 1999 article, Kimberly Flint-Hamilton explains the necessity of legumes (often made into thick soups) in the ancient world: "Because of their high albumen content, legumes are a critical dietary supplement in warmer countries where meat is in short supply and difficult to store. Because people in the Graeco-Roman world probably consumed far less meat than we do today, in some cases adhering to a largely vegetarian diet except at festival times, legumes were a necessary source of protein. At the very least, legumes were a necessary protein supplement" (Flint-Hamilton 374). She also observes that legumes in literature are reserved as food for the lower classes, as in Petronius (Sat. 14).

Thus Aristophanes' Hercules is not just funny because of his gluttony; he is debased by the specific craving he has been assigned in Old Comedy.

Whatever classical implications my own preferences may carry, Pea Soup sounds a heck of a lot better than the stereotypical impoverished student meal of ramen noodles. If my soup turned out to be gross, I figured I could always use it as some bastardized form of pharaonic medicine or skin cream (Manniche 136).

Grant's recipe calls for the following: 150g/5oz dried peas, 1 leek, 1 tbsp olive oil, dried dill tops (or a variety of other herbs. I went for mint. I like mint) and sea salt. As per his instructions, I soaked the dried peas overnight, drained and rinsed them and put them in a pot with the leek, finely sliced, olive oil and 2 pints of water (Grant 68). I used Pegasus brand olive oil (it seemed somewhat appropriate). I seasoned with the sea salt and the mint, blended the whole mixture and then reheated it, all the while tempted to slip in some chicken broth or a few chunks of ham. I had to restrain myself. I was already cheating, with the stove, the stainless steel pot and the blender. I would have built a fire, but I could already envision my eviction notice.

Anyway, Grant suggests serving the soup with bread or lagana (fried pasta), but those are still a little too advanced for me and I was too hungry to knead any ancient dough. I poured the light green, speckled mixture into some bowls and opened up a couple of bottles of Mythos to wash the mixture down (just in case).
Good lord, the soup was delicious. I am not kidding. My sister tried it. She affirmed its deliciousness. I am going to put it on my modern day food menu. It was silky, with just a touch of mint and weirdly, chicken. I swear I didn't touch the chicken stock but the flavor was there. It was a leek, pea and salt miracle. Hercules, I'm sorry I called you a glutton.

Flint-Hamilton, K.B., "Legumes in Ancient Greece and Rome: Food, Medicine, or Poison?", Hesperia, Vol. 68.3, 1999
Grant, M., Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens, London 1999
Manniche, L., An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, Texas 1989

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mission Statement

Petronius' description of Trimalchio's banquet in the Satyricon surpasses all modern versions of food porn, whether televised, photographed or lovingly described. I want to try dormice dipped in honey and sprinkled with poppy seeds. I want flour eggs baked in oil to come rolling onto my plate, having been hatched from a wooden hen. I would walk across a desert to taste hundred-year-old Falernian wine, however ridiculous and utterly false the label. Give me food representative of each sign of the zodiac, even if Virgo is matched with a barren sow's womb. Give me a pig overstuffed with sausages and blood pudding, quivering and about to burst -- that is the kind of packaged meat I want to eat.

And so begins my quest: I want to eat ancient food. I will experiment with recipes, eat anything with a Greco-Roman theme (although if you give me an ancient empanada, chances are I will take a little bite), eat anywhere with an ancient-looking bust as its mascot. If anyone out there has a pot sherd that may have been part of a wine amphora, I will happily lick it. I will try every kind of fish sauce that may approximate garum. I may not be able to replicate the savage meal of the Cyclops or find the evil drugs that Circe mixed into her swine-inducing potion, and perhaps my lack of squeamishness may stop there, but I will explore the issues that surround these famous meals and concoctions. What was repulsive? What was exotic? What was ordinary? I will wonder about the silly and the impossible, all of which I may very well attempt to nibble.

Some of what I eat may have no ancient roots, just clever advertising to lure me into a taste, but I shall not discriminate against Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, my beloved Neptune Diner in Astoria or any product with a cutesy toga-ed cartoon character. This is the best part about studying Classics -- finding the quirky, strange and oftentimes completely absurd classical references in random places.

What will I seek to find? Well, what does anyone invested in Classics hope to find, ever? We will never have definite answers to most questions in this field. We cannot resurrect the dead. We will never un-burn the library at Alexandria. Did Homer really exist and was he really blind? Does the croak of an ancient Greek frog really sound like brekekekex koax koax? Was Cleopatra actually hot? Scholarship will never cease to wonder, as "definitive" answers are renewed with every fresh crop of doctorate-waving classicists. I am not looking for answers (really, just something to do with the time I am not studying, teaching or sleeping). Armed with some handy research skills honed in graduate school and Mark Grant's Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens (and its very helpful bibliography), I will seek to never discover what has already been eaten before.