“Now the best [flour] to get ahold of and the finest of all, cleanly bolted from barley with a good grain, is in Lesbos…it is whiter than snow from the sky. If the gods eat barley groats, then Hermes must come and buy it for them there. In seven-gated Thebes too it is reasonably good, and in Thasos and some other cities, but it is like grape pips compared with that of Lesbos.” ~Archilochus, Hedypatheia
Ancient Greek history is divided into a number of different periods, which represent a cultural flowering between periods of shift and disruption. The Greeks as a recognizable culture emerge around 1600 BCE, the Mycenaean Period. After the unknown catastrophes of the Greek Dark Ages, the Greeks reemerge in the Archaic Period. Another great disruption (the Persian Wars) at the dawn of the fifth century BCE brings about the Classical Age.
Every period of Greek history has its famous writers: Homer, Sappho, Aristotle, etc, etc. Yet alongside these poets and philosophers is another writer whose work is less well-known, but whose influence is no less great: Archestratus. Contemporaries nicknamed him “Daedalus” after the mythological figure, but Archestratus was no genius inventor; he was a food critic. In fact, he is the earliest known.
Archestratus was from Syracuse in modern Sicily, part of a region that has long been famous for its cuisine. The food of the Greek cities of southern Italy was so well-known that they are credited with establishing the first patents, protecting the recipes of master chefs as intellectual property. We don’t know whether Archestratus ever trained as a chef, but he certainly would have grown up in an environment that cherished and celebrated the power of good food.
Archestratus’ greatest work is the Hedypatheia or “Life of Luxury”, a poem that tells readers where to find the best food in Greece. The surviving fragments of his work reveal Archestratus as a highly educated, somewhat cantankerous man; someone with a love for hyperbole and strong opinions about everything. Just take the quote above about comparative flour-shopping, or the recipe below:
“Now the kitharos [a type of fish], provided it is white and firm, I order you to stew in clean salt water with a few green leaves. If it has a reddish/yellow appearance and is not too big, then you must bake it, having pricked its body with a straight and newly sharpened knife. And anoint it with plenty of cheese and oil, for it takes pleasure in big spenders and is unchecked in extravagance.”
Like many Greek writers, we don’t actually know much about Archestratus’s life, but his unique sensibilities ensured him a great but not entirely flattering legacy. To the Ancient Greeks, especially those of the mainland, diet was viewed as a signifier of character. Decent, honest Greeks ate simple, hearty meals. The Greeks of southern Italy, with their highly-developed culinary traditions, developed a reputation among other Greeks for being “soft” and unmanly. A famous joke has a native of the Italian city of Sybaris gagging at the plainness of Spartan cuisine and remarking, “now I know why the Spartans do not fear death.”
Archestratus, with his love of comparing different foods and reveling in “unchecked extravagance”, was often regarded as a morally suspect glutton, on par with the worst stereotypes of his native city and even foreign “barbarians” like the Carthaginians or the Persians, who were also mocked by the Greeks for their obsession with food. A stock character in Greek comic theater–the snooty professional chef whose opinions on food are as elitist as they are unshakeable–is almost certainly meant to lampoon him. Critics compared Life of Luxury with a controversial sex manual written by the courtesan Philaenis. The connection? Both texts that might corrupt readers into naughty, indulgent behavior (the Greeks were, after all, the people who invented the saying “everything in moderation“).
That Archestratus should even be interested in the “best food in Greece” hints at the great diversity surrounding him. Not least among the differences between Greek cities was their taste in food. In the fish recipe quoted above, Archestratus alludes to the fact that he and other Greeks of the western colonies put melted cheese on fish; a custom which mainland Greeks lamented as ruining the flavor. These cultural divisions within Greece go back a long time, to the development of Greek cities as independent nations back in the Mycenaean Period. The constant battle for resources in the harsh environment of Bronze Age Greece led the first Greeks to turn inwards. Each city bristled against its neighbors and worked to bind its own population together, encouraging communal rituals like dining that helped the people work as a unit and support one another. From a basic need for stability grew elaborate ritualized meals, like the lively entertainments of the symposium, or the syssitia, the mandatory shared “military mess” of Spartan men. And the more the people of a Greek city ate together, the more they developed a shared culture unique to themselves.
By Archestratus’ lifetime, the encroaching predations of the Persian Empire had long-since forced the Greeks to band together politically, but the old differences were still there. Well beyond the Classical Period, they are a prominent source of comedic material in a text called the Deipnosophistae (“The Philosopher’s Dinner”). In this culinary text dating some seven hundred years after Archestratus’ death, many jokes are made about the differing vocabulary across dialects and the varied culinary tastes of the Greeks. When one Greek proclaims ray the tastiest fish, another replies “yes, if you like eating a boiled cloak.” Through the lens of food culture, Archestratus captured the cultural spirit of his time.