Apicius was such an over-the-top foodie, even by the grand standards of the Roman Empire, that his name not only became synonymous with the culinary high life but, so scholars believe, also the popular title for a cookbook formally known as "De re coquinaria" (On cooking). This work, the only known cookbook to have survived from the ancient Greco-Roman world, has for centuries intrigued scholars and cooks with its glimpse of Roman life.
"I think if people look into Roman cooking at all, they go to 'Apicius' first," said Rosemary L. Moore, lecturer in history and classics at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. That's why the book still counts, she noted. "What I tell my students is, the way we choose to eat talks about social structures and who we are as people. The study of history, in general, is learning about other people."
"Apicius" the cookbook shows what mattered to Romans of a certain income and status. "It's doable for people with lots of money," wrote Moore in a follow-up email. And what mattered then in food isn't necessarily what matters now. "It's notable that a recent foodie trend, i.e. locally sourced ingredients, really had no cachet for Romans, since most food would have been locally sourced. What brought prestige was what came from a distance and what was expensive."
Marcus Gavius Apicius was certainly hungry for that prestige. He lived in the 1st century during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius and became famed for his love of food. A contemporary biography, "On the Luxury of Apicius," is now lost; most of the surviving anecdotes from the time tend toward the censorious. "One almost feels he was too bad to be true," write Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger in the introduction to their 2006 translation of "Apicius."
Apicius gained lasting notoriety, wrote the late historian Phyllis Pray Bober in her book "Art, Culture & Cuisine: Ancient & Medieval Gastronomy," by killing himself when he realized there wasn't enough money left to keep him in the culinary style to which he was accustomed. That style, she wrote, included creating a dish "from the crests of living cocks," parboiling poultry before cleaning and plucking to "seal in the full savor of fat and juices" and killing pigs with doses of honeyed wine. Apicius also fed dried figs to pigs in order to fatten their livers for foie gras.
"The special flavor imparted to pork liver as a result of being 'figged' (ficatum) ultimately came to be applied generically to all liver (fegato in Italian)," Bober added.
Yet, despite his critics, Apicius clearly had his supporters and admirers. (Pliny, no fan, pinned a fad for flamingo tongues on him.) That may explain why a cookbook created 300 years later bore his name. (Of the roughly 500 recipes, seven are believed to have links to Apicius himself, write Grocock and Grainger.)
"By associating his compilation with the name of Apicius, the editor endowed it with a certain credibility that no doubt helped to ensure its survival to the present day," wrote Carol Dery in an essay, "The Art of Apicius," published in "Cooks & Other People," the proceedings of the 1995 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.
Two 9th-century copies of the cookbook are known to have survived. One is in the Vatican; the other is at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City. For centuries after their rediscovery in the Renaissance, it was believed Marcus Gavius Apicius actually wrote the book. But modern scholars believe the cookbook was compiled later from various sources.
Paul Freedman, a Yale history professor and editor of "Food: The History of Taste," says the complexity of some dishes in "Apicius" has led to debate on whether the recipes should be taken seriously. He compares "Apicius" not to a practical book like "Joy of Cooking" but the more conceptual books published in recent years by such famous chefs as Ferran Adria of the former El Bulli in Spain and Rene Redzepi of Noma in Denmark.
"This book was not meant for home cooks but other professionals. He was probably addressing the other chefs of wealthy people," Freedman says. "What the recipes in Apicius share with El Bulli and Noma is a cutting-edge quality and the assumption there's a lot of labor available."
Recipes in "Apicius" have been panned for being overspiced, overflavored and as over-the-top as the real man. That criticism is unfair, wrote Grainger in her book, "Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today," because "Apicius" is a book for cooks, by a cook. Prior knowledge and training is assumed.
"The numerous spices were used with considerable restraint and in fact the very subtlety of their use is easy to misinterpret, and the results of such misinterpretation would support modern criticism," Grainger wrote, "but with care, the flavours of the various ingredients can be balanced … and the results are stunning."
Roast lamb with coriander
Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 8 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
Adapted from "Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today" by Sally Grainger, who based this version on a recipe from the book "Apicius." She suggests using a spice grinder for the coriander seed. Grainger recommends serving the lamb with a sweet "oenogarum," made with fish sauce and white wine, but any light vinaigrette will do.
1/2 cup coriander seed
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 double-loin lamb steaks or lamb chops or diced lamb meat
1. Grind the coriander to a medium grain texture, neither too fine nor too coarse. It should be like breadcrumbs. Season with the salt and pepper. Brush the lamb with olive oil; press the steaks into the coriander on all sides as if it were breadcrumbs. If you wish, dice the meat first and thread it onto a skewer.
2. Grill, not too close to the fire, until crusty and well done, about 4 minutes per side. Alternatively, roast in the oven at 400 degrees, about 5 minutes.
Nutrition information per serving: 426 calories, 30 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 118 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 32 g protein, 448 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
Chicken livers and cucumber salad
Prep: 40 minutes
Cook: 8 minutes
Chill: 2 hours
Makes: 4-6 servings
This "sala cattabia," or composed salad, in the style of Apicius is one of seven recipes believed to have a specific link to the legendary Roman gourmet, according to Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger in their translation of "Apicius," the ancient cookbook. The original recipe does not include measurements, calls for chicken and goats' sweetbreads and directs the cook to "stand (the pot) in snow for an hour" before serving. Grainger adapted the recipe for her book, "Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today," using chicken livers and a refrigerator. Raw eggs are called for; a little mayonnaise may be substituted, she writes.
3 1/2 ounces chicken livers, 2 to 3 large livers
1 tablespoon olive oil
Half a cucumber
2 tablespoons capers, chopped
1 ounce pine nuts, a generous 1/4 cup
1 to 2 large ciabatta loaves
1/2 cup each: water, white wine vinegar
1 3/4 cups grated Parmesan cheese, about 2 ounces
Freshly ground black pepper
1 level teaspoon celery seeds, toasted, see note
3 heaping teaspoons fresh chopped mint
1 ounce pine nuts, a generous 1/4 cup
1 1/2 ounces full-fat cream cheese, softened
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon each: honey, vinegar, fish sauce
5 tablespoons water
1. Prepare the salad ingredients: Cook chicken livers by frying in a little olive oil, then cool and chop them into small pieces; peel and slice the cucumber thinly; drain and chop the capers finely. Cut the ciabatta into thin slices and lay them out on a large tray. Combine water and vinegar; dribble over the bread slices and allow the fluid to be absorbed. Repeat occasionally while you prepare the dressing.
2. For the dressing, grind the pepper and roasted celery seeds in a mortar or spice grinder. Add the mint and the pine nuts; grind to a fine paste. Add the cream cheese, egg yolks and the honey; blend again. Then dilute the paste with the vinegar and the fish sauce. Gradually add the water and blend.
3. Take a two-pint pudding bowl (4-cup mixing bowl); lay a piece of bread, gently squeezed and cut to fit, in the bottom. Sprinkle a little of the liver, capers, pine nuts and Parmesan over the bread; press down gently. Finish with the cucumber, but do not let the slices overlay each other. Add layer of bread and repeat until all the ingredients have been used up. Always finish with a layer of bread. (Alternatively, you can line the inside of the bowl with bread slices, then proceed.) Pour the dressing over the salad; press down gently. Cover with plastic wrap; chill for 2 hours. Turn out onto a plate; decorate with more cucumber slices.
Note: Toast the celery seed in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring to prevent scorching, until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
Nutrition information per serving: 409 calories, 19 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 135 mg cholesterol, 44 g carbohydrates, 16 g protein, 961 mg sodium, 3 g fiber