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

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