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Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome.

Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome. By Patrick Faas. (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Pp. 384. $18.00.)

The author of this book is a Dutch chef and food journalist. His enthusiasm for ancient Roman food is demonstrated in Around the Roman Table, published in Dutch in 1994 and now available in an English translation by Shaun Whiteside. The book is divided into two halves. Part one (1-172) is a historical survey with many quotations in translation from Latin sources. Part two (175-348) consists of recipes, mostly rearranged from the culinary text Apicius, with Patrick Faas's commentary and additional relevant quotations.

The recipes and surrounding discussions make this book an important resource for food history classes. The publisher carefully gives "no guarantee that they will suit the modern palate," but Faas has tested them (or most of them), and they really work (vi). For the sake of those who use them, the reviewer inserts a few corrections. As a modern equivalent for apsinthium, absinthe will not do: absinthe is seriously hard liquor, and as such was unknown to ancient Romans, but we may reasonably use the term "vermouth," a flavored wine like its Roman ancestor (118). For ram's peas, whatever they may be, substitute chickpeas (87). For jellyfish read "sea anemone" (337). For the stuffed mouse recipe, be sure to use the edible dormouse Glis glis, which was indeed bred for food in classical Rome, and leave ordinary household mice to cats (290). Faas's flower bulbs, as he hesitatingly admits, are grape hyacinth bulbs, still a popular appetizer in parts of Greece and Italy. The "salted dogberries" served to divine guests by Philemon and Baucis were sorbs or serviceberries, and their "horseradish" was no such thing. It was a big black radish, but this last confusion occurs commonly in dictionaries; Faas and his translator deserve to be forgiven (84). All these are minor matters.

The quotations from sources throughout the book are well chosen, generous, and accurately translated. The remaining text of part one, though engaging and full of fascinating detail on food, wine, dining, and festivity, contains some misunderstandings and questionable assertions, especially where Faas ventures beyond his culinary expertise. Whether because he is not a trained historian, or because the translation fails to render doubts and ironies, he makes dubious assertions without apparent hesitation: that Romulus and Remus "grew up without any noticeable psychological disturbances," notwithstanding that one was to kill the other; that "the first stage of Rome's culinary refinement" is to be dated to 616 BC; that "Christians assumed control" at the accession of Constantine (13, 15, 30). He seems to deduce from an aside by Pliny that "the consumption of pigs at dinner parties had trebled over 140 years," as if marketing surveys were among Pliny's sources (28). Sometimes (on "parasites," for example) he absentmindedly limits himself to early Greek evidence, overlooking its irrelevance to Rome (61-62).

Faas's recipes and quotations are extremely useful. Teachers will find his book an indispensable resource, but will want to recommend additional reading on Roman culture.

Andrew Dalby

Saint-Coutant, France

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Author:Dalby, Andrew
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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