Ancient Recipe: Snails with Pepper and Cumin (Roman, ca. 5th century CE)

“They need little food, and require no one to feed them…the cook usually doesn’t know whether they are alive or dead when he is cooking them.”
~ Marcus Terentius Varro, De re agricultura (On Matters of Agriculture)IMG_5532

If you’ve ever eaten land snails in the form of French escargots, rich with butter, parsley and garlic, I have upsetting news: depending on where you live, there’s a good chance those snails arrived at the restaurant dead, in a can.

There are a few reasons why. First, the importation of live land snails is highly regulated in many countries because the animals can become serious agricultural pests. As snails are hermaphrodites, just one escapee is enough for a population explosion. Another reason canned snails are commonly used in restaurants is that snail-farming is a daunting task, requiring a great deal of time, money, and space. Snails have a remarkable adaptation to prevent overpopulation: there are chemicals in their slime trails that inhibit reproduction in other snails. If one snail slimes across the trail of another, it becomes less likely to breed. The more snails sharing a tight space, the more likely they are to cross each other’s trails, meaning fewer baby snails and less profit for the aspiring heliciculturist (try saying that three times fast).

Despite the challenges of snail-farming, the Ancient Romans seem to have had it pretty well-figured out. The Roman snail-pen was called a cochleariumthe Latin word for snail being cochlea (a Greek loanword that can also mean “spiral”, hence the spiral cochlea in your inner ear). Cochlearia were a common sight on the grounds of Roman villas, alongside apiaria (beehives) and gliraria (dormouse hutches). The Roman scholar Varro, who lived in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, describes how to set up your own snail farm, including a pre-Industrial sprinkler system to keep the little molluscs hydrated:

“You must take a place fitted for snails, in the open, and enclose it entirely with water…The best place is one which the sun does not parch, and where the dew falls. If there is no such natural place…you should make an artificially dewy one. This can be done if you run a pipe and attach to it small teats, to squirt out the water in such a way that it will strike a stone and be scattered widely in a mist.”

Romans fed snails on milk, bran, and bay leaves. One disturbing recipe in the Roman cookbook Apicius (which has a whole chapter on snails) describes the force-feeding of snails for the table. The chef is instructed to remove the operculum, the flat, hard “door” that snails use to seal their shells, before placing the snails in a shallow layer of milk. Without the operculum, the snail can no longer withdraw into its shell, and its body will hang outside and grow unnaturally fat.

IMG_5504The Romans ate many species of snail. Archaeologists have uncovered the shells of Otala lactea (the milk or Spanish snail) in the Roman city of Volubilis in modern Morocco. Helix pomatia, the snail most commonly served as escargots, is still known as the “Roman snail” in the UK because it was introduced there from mainland Europe during the Roman period (43-410 CE). Varro names others whose species is difficult to guess; the “small white snails” of Reate in central Italy, medium snails from Africa, large ones from the Balkan province of Illyricum. The very largest snail, which Varro calls the solitanna, also came from Africa. Varro claims that a shell from one of these whoppers had a volume of 80 quadrantes; around 2.5 gallons. This is almost certainly a member of the Achatinidae family, several African species known for being the largest land snails in the world, but no snail recorded in modern times matches the size of Varro’s solitanna. Perhaps a comparison can be made to another historical mollusc: the oysters of New York City. For centuries, humans scoured the East and Hudson Rivers for the largest oysters they could find, so that they gradually dwindled in size from dinner plates to pennies before disappearing altogether.

The recipe below is adapted from Apicius 324 (Book VII, Chapter XVI: Snails). As Apicius often lacks serving suggestions, I followed the example of Pliny the Younger, pairing the snails with bread and lettuce.

THE RECIPE

-1 can of land snails (mine contained 24, which is about two servings. I bought it at Hong Kong Supermarket in Manhattan’s Chinatown.)
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-2 tablespoons fish sauce (Asian fish sauce is a close substitute for Roman liquamen and garumThree Crabs is my favorite.)
-1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
-2 teaspoons ground cumin
-crusty Italian or French bread, sliced
(whole wheat is more authentically Roman)
-butter lettuce

Remove snails from the can, rinse in cold water, and pat dry.

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the snails and stir for 2-3 minutes.

Add fish sauce, pepper, and cumin. Mix thoroughly and cook a little longer (total cooking time should be 7-10 minutes; too long and the snails will get rubbery).

Serve hot, with sliced bread and lettuce.IMG_5541

THE VERDICT

The snails are tender, very flavorful and salty, and the bread and lettuce balance them out nicely. I’ve eaten French, Vietnamese, and Korean-style snails and whelks, and this is the first time I’ve had them without garlic. I feel like garlic might have taken this recipe to the next level, but I’m pleased with it overall. Try it at your next Roman dinner party! IX out of X.

Dinner Date: Lady Xoc (Mayan, 8th century CE)

img_5458.jpg“Take this sweet dew from the earth,
Take this honey.
It will help you on your way.
It will give you strength on your path.”
~ A modern Tzotzil Mayan prayer for the dead, to accompany a food offering

The door-lintels of Yaxchilan, depicting Xoc on the right and her husband Shield Jaguar on the left, are now in the collections of the British Museum. An inscription gives a precise date for the event depicted: October 28th, 709.

Deep in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, in the crumbling 8th-century ruins of Yaxchilan (Yash-chee-lan), two figures are carved into the stone lintel of a doorframe, a kneeling woman and a standing man. They are richly dressed in fringed mantles and jade jewelry, with plumes cascading from their cone-shaped skulls. The man holds a long feathered fan protectively over the woman, whose mouth is open wide as she performs a grisly ritual: yanking a thorn-covered rope through her tongue. The blood drips into a bowl of paper strips which will later be burned as sacrifice, part of the endless offerings of human flesh and blood that the Mayans gave their gods. Individual Mayan women were rarely depicted in art, but this was no ordinary woman. This was Lady Xoc.

WHO SHE WAS

Xoc or xok (pronounced “shoke”) is the Yucatec Maya word for “fish” and possibly the origin of the English word shark. The Lady Fish depicted in the stone carving was queen of the city-state of Yaxchilan in the late 600s and early 700s CE. The man beside her was her king, husband, and nephew: Itzamnaaj B’alam*, Shield Jaguar II. If the dates given in the Mayan inscriptions can be trusted, Shield Jaguar enjoyed a very long life and reign. After ascending the throne aged 34 in the year 680, it is claimed that he ruled for 61 years, still leading troops into battle and commissioning building projects in his eighties and nineties. He had three known wives besides his mother’s sister, but only Xoc was his queen.

Shield Jaguar’s marriage to his aunt was a means of cementing his position as ruler. In a polygynous, male-dominated society, a king marrying women from his own family was a way of controlling the royal bloodline, preventing rivals from fathering royal children who could grow up to claim the throne themselves. A similar custom existed among Inca and Egyptian kings, though they took it a step further, marrying not only their aunts but their sisters. Perhaps the union of Shield Jaguar and Fish was purely political; we know that they had no children together. Yet Lady Xoc’s special significance to her nephew’s reign ensured her a place above any other wives he would take. The stone carving, her burial site and wall inscriptions in the palace of Yaxchilan show that she was given special treatment, including the largest chambers in the Bee House**, the royal women’s quarters. Her offering of her own blood in sacrifice was a duty that came with her role as queen, and would have been performed on special occasions as part of public religious rites before the people of Yaxchilan.

Shield Jaguar’s son Yaxun B’alam, Bird Jaguar IV, took the throne a full decade after his father. To some scholars, this long hiatus suggests that Bird Jaguar was a baby when his father died, and either Xoc or Bird Jaguar’s biological mother, a secondary wife of Shield Jaguar named Evening Star, ruled as regent for the prince during this time. I like to imagine there was an epic, intrigue-filled rivalry/partnership between the Ladies Evening Star and Fish, like the Dowager Empresses Cixi and Ci’an of 19th-century China, another polygamous monarchy with a similar structure. The parallels are bizarrely close. Ci’an was the Empress who never gave the Emperor a child. Cixi was a much-younger concubine whose son was born shortly before the Emperor died. The two women struggled against each other before reaching a grudging compromise and becoming co-regents for the child-Emperor. I hope the two Mayan ladies were similarly able to come to an agreement (or at least had some epic Dynasty-style catfights in the palace gardens). Bird Jaguar honored both his real mother and Lady Xoc as royal ancestors after the two women died.

lady_xoc_by_zendalla8

An incredible sketch of Lady Xoc as she might have appeared in life. She wears seashell and jade ornaments, an ornate traditional dress called a huipil, and her body shows tattoos, piercings, head-flattening, eye-crossing, and other signs of the Classical Mayan obsession with body modification. Image by Kyla (zendalla8) on DeviantArt.

HOW SHE ATE

The basic features of ancient Mayan cuisine are shared with other indigenous Mesoamerican cuisines. The most important crop was corn, with beans, squash and chili peppers not far behind. Their jungle environment gave the Mayans access to a host of tropical fruits that are still popular today: guava, pineapple, papaya, soursop, avocado. Mayans ate no dairy or concentrated fat but fished and hunted many animals, with white-tailed deer being their most important meat. The Maya didn’t make tortillas like their neighbors and trade partners the Aztecs, but both societies made tamales from steamed corn dough, with various fillings.

As the queen of her city, Lady Xoc would have eaten the finest-quality food, and doubtless had access to delicacies imported from other lands. Perhaps she sampled axolotl, the “water monster” of the Aztec soda lakes, or choice jungle animals like parrot and monkey. She likely ate the mashed, boiled root of manioc or cassava, which was priced higher than corn because it was more difficult to grow and requires processing before eating to remove dangerous toxins. But she wouldn’t have been in the mood for a proper Yaxchilan banquet after one of the ceremonial days on which she had to offer sacrifice.

I can’t begin to imagine the experience of pulling a rope studded with stingray or cactus spines through one’s tongue, but I can imagine how it would affect one’s diet. The human tongue heals relatively quickly (as anyone with a tongue piercing can tell you), but after a blood sacrifice, Lady Xoc would probably have been unable to eat solid or heavily-spiced food for a few days at least. Religious fasts in Mesoamerica often involved abstaining from chili and salt, the two most essential condiments, and avoiding them makes particular sense for someone in Lady Xoc’s condition.

img_5459.jpgFaint from blood-loss and reeling from the serpentine visions which accompanied such acts of mortification, Lady Xoc might have nourished herself with a simple cornflour gruel, ubiquitous in Mesoamerica. She may have also soothed her wounded mouth with a sip of the famous beverage of wealthy Mayans: a frothy chocolate drink, served cold. Although chocolate was brought to the world via the Aztecs, and the word “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) name xocolatl, “bitter water,” it was the Maya who grew the trees that supplied it. The Aztecs had to import cacao pods from the jungles to the south of their Empire, as the tree cannot survive in other environments. The cacao pod, which is reddish and roughly shaped like a heart, was sacred to many Mesoamerican cultures and often associated with human flesh and blood. One Mayan legend states that the gods dripped their own blood on the cacao tree to bless it, reminiscent of the blood Lady Xoc drizzled onto strips of sacrificial paper. As lurid and grotesque as the imagery around Mesoamerican sacrifices seems today, let us not forget that these sacrifices were not performed to satisfy the hunger of bloodthirsty demons, but to thank the gods in kind for their own sacrifices.

The dinner I made for Lady Xoc is simple and hearty, to soothe her pain. Her chocolate does not contain chili, as it normally would have, but is sweetened with honey and vanilla.

In the flickering torchlight of the largest chamber of the Bee House, K’ab’al Xoc, Lady Fish, pulls the heavy jade spools from her stretched earlobes and hands them to her servants as another servant removes her feathered crown. She sniffs, rubs at her nose and the crust of blood on her chin and neck. Her servants hold out a basin, and she washes her face and hands in water that quickly turns pink. She sighs, spits, swallows, wincing at the ache in her torn mouth. It got harder each time, but she had to do it. The gods gave us so much. How can we fail to give a little in return?

Slowly, she settles herself down to sit cross-legged on the rich pelts that cover her stone floor–jaguar, ocelot, monkey. Another servant brings a bowl of gruel and a cup of bitter froth. Paying no heed to the servants still scurrying around her bedchamber, Fish lifts her bowl and gulps until she cannot taste blood any more. Her hand when she sets the bowl down is shaking. The gods demand a share of life from everyone, even the old.

Just when she is about to take a sip of chocolate, someone pounds on the doorframe. She scowls, her crossed eyes bulging, and turns to look at her visitor. Who can it be at this hour? Don’t they realize talking will pain her for days to come?

The man parting the embroidered hangings of her doorway is a courier, clad in the feathered livery of Lady Evening Star. “A message from my Mistress,” he says, bowing.

Ayya, what does the little upstart want now?” the Lady Fish thinks to herself as she rises grudgingly to her feet. Couldn’t she ever just enjoy a meal?


* The Mayan languages have a couple of sounds that are not found in English. This name is pronounced like eetz-am-nach buh-al-aaam, where the ch is like in Hebrew or German and the buh has a puff of air called a glottal stop after it.

** The Mayans were experienced beekeepers, trading their honey to the Aztecs along with their cacao pods. “Bee House” as a name for the palace women’s quarters is probably a nod to the natural history of bees, which live in all-female hives ruled by a queen. Bees themselves were referred to by the Maya as “royal ladies.”