The Archaeologist and Food

Food, forever food

One of my sons is an archaeologist. His younger brother started out as a naturalist. Both ended up involved with wild boars.

My older archaeologist son is also into cooking. Particularly the “archaeological” aspect. Years ago he tried making beer the original Egyptian way, sprouting and roasting hops (using a friend’s pottery kiln), grinding them, and I don’t remember what else. I’m afraid the result was not what he had hoped for.

He was more successful with ancient Roman recipes. For libum or liba as described by Cato in his De Agri Cultura, you need ricotta, flour, an egg, bay or laurel leaves on which to bake the buns, and honey which the hot buns must absorb. It was considered a “non blood” offering, made to the household gods and once the fragrance had gone to them, they could be eaten.

I also tried to make them as offerings to the gods when my son was struggling with his last exam (ancient Greek) at the university. I’m afraid my offering wasn’t accepted though, for he had to take the exam over again. We did, however, eat the buns.

His other recipe for roast pig with figs in a crust was also excellent. For the roast pig, as I remember it, in a recipe from Apicius, you boil the pork tenderloin with dried figs, then score it and cover with honey and more figs. Wrap it in dough, forming it into the shape of a piglet, and bake till done.  His did resemble a pig, but the first time I tried, it came out looking like a fish.

Talking about fish, he also made garum, a fermented fish condiment, which some of his students were brave enough to try.

And then there was his wild boar stew. The meat was marinated in red wine, with various herbs and spices. His brother’s involvement with wild boars was of a rather different nature. While both used the freezer to preserve “parts” of the wild boar, one had to distinguish between the two. A hunk of wild boar gifted by hunter friends had to wait for the right occasion. Freezing was the ideal solution. On the other hand, my other son was writing his thesis on the habits of the wild boar, tracking them in the mountains, collecting what they left behind, asking the hunter for the skull so he could boil it down and remove the meat to get at the bones. All this, too, went into the freezer, including sample packages of boar  – guess we could call it excrement – to be analyzed for their diet. They were carefully labeled so as not to be confused with anything else.

A particularly archaeological offering was the birthday cake Claudio’s daughter once made for him. It was in the form of an Etruscan tomb with his name and birthday greetings in Etruscan letters in chocolate. A tomb for a birthday cake? Quite acceptable since the birthday boy was an archaeologist.

To be remembered is that Claudio’s father was also an archaeologist, who saw the “porchetta”, the pig roasted whole, not just as an especially delectable food to be eaten on special occasions. In one of his letters to me, he describes a get together centered around a porchetta, where what mattered was the “epidermic pleasure of being in company, of being with friends. Of drinking together the new wine, the still cloudy must”. This, in his words was “the kind of archaeology I prefer.”

As an art historian and with an art historian friend specialized in medieval and renaissance cooking, we also made occasional forays into other periods. It was fun, but we often found the recipes used too much garlic or too many unfamiliar spices. We also had to remember that sweet corn, potatoes, or tomatoes, all came later from the New World and were completely unknown at the time. The Romans, and the medieval peasant, at least the common people, seem to have survived quite well on pulses, such as chickpeas and fava beans, with meat appearing only on special festive days, for a wedding or to celebrate the harvest.

4 thoughts on “The Archaeologist and Food

  1. Hi Erika. You have improved my appetite for protein with this one. Brava. So much fun and adventure.

    Feeling stronger each day. Still have a couple more tests to do, but I think it will be all right. Thinking of you in that tremendous heat! Stay cool and hydrated. Give Teah an extra bowl of water and a pat for me. Love to all.


    Sent from my iPhone



    1. I’m afraid the Egyptian beerwas used to watertheplants -I think I was the only one brave enough to try it. The Roman liba however were very good and were eaten by us mortals on various occasions.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Erika
    How did I miss so many of the ancient delicacies you describe here? I love Mario’s (your dear husband’s) description of living the food of antiquity—roast boar—as part feast, with a sense of archeology, and part the timelessness of comradeship with friends. Lovely writing. Next year, cingale alla Claudio🙏 And perhaps it is time for an ancient recipes cook book!


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