ANCIENT FISH TALES by Paulette Licitra
Gastrology or Life of Pleasure or Study of the Belly or Inquiry into Dinner
Translated by Gian Lombardo
Quale Press, December 2009
Paperback 86 pp., ISBN: 9780979299964
I’m a big fan of archaeology. I love looking at ancient stuff that people from thousands of years ago actually had their hands on. It’s hard to fathom. How can you capture ancient in your mind? Stand in front of the Roman Coliseum and let your head spin. I’ve done that a few dozen times. Still can’t really feel the years.
As far as what they were all eating back then you can look to a few sources. Of course, the Roman Apicius tantalizes your culinary imagination with flamingo tongues and everything bathed in fish sauce, but here’s another interesting blast from the past: Archestratos.
His reflections and recipes come to us from the mid-4th century BCE. He wrote for his fellow Greeks about the food ways of Sicily where he traveled through ancient Greek port towns. Despite the long circuitous title of the work, the pieces inside are short and ultra-pithy, sometimes just a sentence is a chapter: “To hell with side dishes of purse-tassel bulbs and silphium stalks, as well as any other appetizer of the same ilk.”
Gian Lombardo’s translation makes the ancient Greek especially accessible and entertainingly fun. We get the feeling we’re hanging out with a curmudgeon-y fussy eater who also has a broad culinary knowledge and pretty good taste.
Archestratos gives us recipes: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you twice: Eat braised ray in the depths of winter. Give it some cheese and silphium. This is the only way to cook up any of the sea’s progeny that has flesh that’s not fatty. Got it?”
Much of the food talked about comes from the sea—Karystian dolphin fish, sand sharks, grey mullet, and Siracusan tombarello are among the swimming menagerie. Archestratos instructs on where to find lobster colonies, how in Sikyon you must have their conger eel, and to buy scorpion fish and octopus in Thasos. He also has some opinions about the natives: “Don’t let any Siracusan, or Italian for that matter, get near when you’re cooking.”
Opinionated and brutally to the point, he doesn’t mince words (but probably herbs): “Siracusans call foxfish dogfish. That’s thresher shark in Rhodes. If no one’s willing to sell you one by any name, steal one—even if you wind up strung up by the neck. One taste and I guarantee you’ll gladly suffer whatever fate throws at you.”
The book is a slim pocket paperback, easy to carry around. Read the short passages on the bus or train or even at a stop light. Not only will each entry get you giggling, it’ll also transport you to the table of the ancients, where, apparently, eaters were just as obsessed about food as we are.