Researching Roman Street Food

It’s amazing the sort of questions I have had to think about working on my Roman period novel. I’ve said before that I don’t want to be a stickler for every little detail, but I want to make sure I have the basics right. Food is so important in defining and presenting a culture, and when describing a market in any setting, you want an appropriate ambience. To some people, food and attitudes to it, can define the culture.

The Romans Had Fast Food and Street Food?

Larks’ tongues, otters’ noses, ocelot spleens, wrens’ livers, badgers’ spleens.

It is generally believed that they ate some silly stuff, but this humorous list is not a menu, it comes from the film The Life of Brian. The ill-fated titular character and his mother attend a stoning and are confronted with a street vendor trying to sell them snacks. At any public event we now expect to see street food vendors – typically today these are hot dogs and burgers. The Romans had a rather healthy mix of meat, vegetables and cheese in their daily diet just as most people do today. But they also ate fast food and there were many places – street vendors  and shops – where they could buy it.

Many people don’t realise that fast food is not a modern phenomenon. Thanks to the extensive remains at Pompeii and Herculaneum – having been buried under metres of ash – ongoing digging work has uncovered buildings that look remarkably like what we might today identify as diners. We call these Thermopolium – this example is from Herculaneum.

Thermopolium were small shops with the curious counters you see above. They might look like communal toilets, but they were actually for the storage of food – both hot and cold. Though some of these Thermopolium shops were large enough to be sit-in diners, there are far more examples of much smaller units with no space for tables and chairs. This means that they could only have been selling street food. I was interested in one particular type of street food for the scene I wanted to write – the sort of thing that would bring back childhood memories, and that can only be a sweet.

But what sweet food did the Romans eat? What were their guilty pleasures and indulgent snacks? The Romans didn’t have sugar and they didn’t have a lot of things we would traditionally put in sweet bread, cakes and pastries either. They did, however, have honey, pistachios and almonds. A typical Roman cake would be a sweet bread covered in nuts and then soaked or drizzled with honey. After finding a few recipes for traditional Roman honey cakes, I decided I might try to make some soon (hey, I have to get into the spirit of the time!). I also like the look of this nut tart. I love honey and often find it more diverse as a sweetener and better for flavour than a lot of sugars.

What you would have got walking up to a market stall that sold sweets, would have been something maybe like modern baklava – small, sweet, nut and honey pastries. Baklava itself seems to have an Ottoman-Turk origin, but the method of making and the ingredients seem similar to the sort of pastries the Romans would have eaten. Offer a baklava to a Roman and he’ll probably assume it was a Parthian or Syrian equivalent of a Roman delicacy.

exeter-xmas-market
Copyright: MG Mason 2014

It is important when writing period pieces that you get the available foods right. Check the areas where certain foodstuffs grow. Would it have been available either directly or through trade with immediate neighbours? By the time of the period my book is set, Rome was firmly in control of Turkey and parts of the Middle East (modern Israel, Syria and Iraq-Iran) so pistachios and almonds would have been freely available – and as they appear to have been later grown in Greece, cheaper for the capital to acquire. The farther away a province or a trading partner was, the harder it would be to acquire and the more expensive to import – and Rome had a complex and well-organised trade network.

I didn’t want to spend too much time on this because my research on the subject was limited to one (albeit important) early scene and I did not want to get too caught up in the minutiae. Still, like death, food (and often the rituals that go with it) is one of the fascinating aspects of the past that we like to understand – mostly because it is one aspect of the past that we can recreate.

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18 thoughts on “Researching Roman Street Food

  1. Pickled, dried, and fried snacks for the Romans, of course, as a function of food-storage technologies, and *garum* on everything! Two candidates for the fast food list should be fried pork rinds (cracklings) and marinated (fava?) beans like the present-day cici beans that one eats by squeezing so that the pickled heart pops out of the skin. And then of course there’s the turnip. Virgil introduces at least one character (am I recalling the Georgics?) as contentedly munching on a raw root. That was Virgil’s visual clue for ‘country bumpkin’, a bit like how ‘small-town tourist’ could be shown in FIlm Noir (or maybe by Dos Passos) using the image of a wide-eyed innocent eating cotton candy at Coney Island.

    One of the popular Roman drinks was mulsum. I see Internet threads saying it was a mixture of wine and honey, but believe that’s a mistake: it was semi-fermented grape juice, still sweet from un-fermented sugar. The Romans also used concentrated grape juice–grape syrup so to speak–as a common sweetener. The introduction of lead into the upper-class, partly diet through grape syrup, and the attendant low birth rates for the upper class might make a good sub-plot. Lots was written about this in the 1750-1850 period when the toxicity of lead was just being discovered.

    1. That’s great, thanks for that! I might include some of this if needed.

      Roman military and urban and rural landscapes were more what I studied at uni so there is a big gap in my knowledge about some elements of daily life. It’s fascinating to research nonetheless!

  2. This was a really interesting read. I am seriously tempted to try the honey cakes, especially as I haven’t yet cooked with spelt and it is on my list of ‘baking things to do’. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Thank you very much, I’m glad you enjoyed this one. As an archaeologist, it bothers me when historical fiction writers don’t get simple stuff right and I really enjoy researching finer points that add a dash of authenticity.

      1. It bugs the heck out of me when I read some ‘historically accurate’ fiction which patently isn’t! A little research goes a long way into turning me into a happy reader 😉

  3. You were right in the comment on my blog – I did miss this post! It’s fascinating for me on three levels – the food aspect, the market scenario, and the Roman/Turkish historical side. I understand your need for accuracy, balanced with not becoming too obsessive about it all. I went to Turkey on a holiday in 2013, after not having been for several years, specifically to note both sensory and physical detail for my novel. I focused on foods, landscape and atmosphere, scribbling wildly for two weeks – and I took in a couple of markets too. Since I take my characters to Ephesus, I went myself, a second visit, since my last was over 20 years previously. I laughed at your picture of the Thermopolium, as I immediately assumed them to be communal toilets – of which I had garnered several pictures. Communal toilets, sadly, didn’t make the final edit, but baklava did! Thanks so much for directing me to your post. I’m in awe of the thoroughness of your research.

    1. Well, with an archaeology degree if I didn’t do a bit more research I think my uni mates (and maybe even lectures if they saw it) would drag me over the hot coals. Besides which, when it comes to elements of history and archaeology that are unfamiliar to me, I simply enjoy researching it.

      I’ve never been to Ephesus which is terrible because my brother owns a property near there!

      Thanks for your comment Jules 🙂

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