Dinner Date: Artemidora (90s CE)

 

“Artemidora, daughter of Harpokras, died untimely, aged 27. Farewell.”
~ Funerary inscription of Artemidora, 90s CE

The first thing I always notice about her is her hair. It’s a distinctive fusion of two styles: the mountain of coils bound with gold is purely Egyptian, but her fringe of curls is borrowed from the Flavian ladies of Rome. She wears more gold on her wrists, ears, and fingers and around her neck, which shows the first folds of age. Her skin is coppery, her eyebrows thick and sloping, her eyes wide. Her face is frozen in the beginnings of a hesitant smile, but not the cryptic “Archaic smile” of the oldest Greek art. It is the smile of someone who has just taken the hand of the psychopomp, jackal-headed Anubis or winged Hermes, ready to lead them to the next world. Frightened, but hopeful; happy to be going, but a little nervous all the same. Her name was Artemidora, Gift-of-Artemis. Today, you can find her sarcophagus in New York City, in the Met’s Egyptian galleries. But near the end of the first century, she lived in the Egyptian city of Cusae and was buried in the nearby necropolis of Meir. She lived. She died. She ate.

WHO SHE WAS

What can we say with certainty about Artemidora’s life?

We know from the splendor of her coffin that she was wealthy. Her father Harpokras must have been a local aristocrat and an important person in his community. In keeping with contemporary custom, she was probably married at the onset of puberty to a man older than her, perhaps by as much as ten or fifteen years. Likely her husband was as noble as her father. They may even have had the same father, as sibling marriage was not uncommon for upperclass Egyptians, even those of Greco-Roman extraction (the first Greek pharaoh to adopt this local custom was given the mocking moniker of Philadelphus, Sibling-Lover, by other Greeks).

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Artemidora, side view. All photos are my own.

Egypt, long a multicultural society, was particularly so by the end of the first century. By then, it had been a province of Rome for one hundred and thirty years and ruled by a Greek elite for two centuries before that. Artemidora was part of that elite, whose culture and ancestry were a unique fusion of Egyptian, Greek and Roman. Not only her hairstyle but her clothing and the style of her coffin display a blend of these influences. She was adorned with icons of Egyptian deities but named after a Greek goddess.

For most of Artemidora’s lifetime, Rome was ruled by the increasingly draconian Emperor Domitian, who tried to purge subversive influence by expelling Rome’s philosophers. Hated by the Senate in his final years, Domitian was assassinated in a political coup in the year 96. All eyes were on Rome in Artemidora’s time, and she and her family surely had their own opinions on the Emperor’s paranoid antics. Perhaps they whispered about the tragic scandal that marred Domitian’s private life: the extramarital affair he conducted with his own niece Julia Flavia, whose sudden death, some said, resulted from a forced abortion. This story has an eerie 20th-century parallel in the relationship between Hitler and his niece Geli Raubal, who would also die young under suspicious circumstances.

Artemidora died at 27 (as did Julia Flavia). By the time they reached that age, most first-century women had experienced pregnancy and motherhood, and many had experienced losing a child. In the Roman world, half of all children died before the age of ten, a quarter of them before age one. Birth was dangerous for mother and baby alike, and Artemidora might have died in childbirth, or from illness or accident. However she died, her “untimely” passing was mourned by her family and celebrated with creation; in this case, the creation of art in her likeness. In the spirit of this tradition, the following meal is dedicated to the memory of Artemidora, gone before her time, in another time. χαῖρε!

HOW SHE ATE

Artemidora’s cuisine, like so much else about her, was likely a mixture of Greek, Roman and Egyptian elements. How much came from what culture is difficult to say with certainty. It might have varied from meal to meal, and depending on who was working in the kitchen and whether there were guests in the home. Amongst the three cultures there were broad culinary similarities, but many differences, including in how food was served and eaten. Romans and Greeks had food brought by servants to a communal table, but Egyptians had servants carry trays of food around the room and offer them to guests, cocktail hour-style. Roman men and women dined together. Greek women dined separately, after the men. Egyptian men and women dined together but were seated separately.

We know that the Greeks who settled in Egypt did not wholly give up their native diet. In the Deipnosophistae, an important text on Ancient Greek cuisine, the Greco-Egyptian author describes a feast served in his hometown that has no Egyptian features whatsoever: a simple, hearty meal of pork and vegetables on top of bread, with wine to drink. Pork was unpopular with native Egyptians, but their cuisine made full use of the region’s native flora and fauna, from tiger nuts and papyrus shoots to Nile tilapia and Egyptian goose. Artemidora might have enjoyed Egyptian delicacies like hedgehog, which was baked in a crust of clay so that the spines would come off when the clay was cracked open, or chickens hatched in specially-designed ancient incubators. Her family’s wealth would have enabled them to acquire ingredients out of the reach of most Egyptians, such as red meat, imported dried spices and Greek wine. They may have joined other Greek aristocrats in spurning local beer as the drink of peasants and farmers. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, and Artemidora probably enjoyed wheat bread, from flour milled as white as was possible in her time.

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Not pictured (mercifully?): the author eating this meal ancient style, with no utensils and using the bread as a napkin.

For my own dinner for Artemidora, I chose to start the meal with a salad of romaine lettuce dressed with olive oil, white wine vinegar, garlic, coriander, cumin and rue; a mixture of ingredients popular with Greeks, Egyptians and both. While bitter lettuces had been known in Egypt since ancient times, eating the greens as a starter course was first popularized there by Greeks and Romans during the reign of Domitian; i.e., Artemidora’s lifetime. The main course is roast loin of pork in a nod to Greek tastes, but basted with an Egyptian-style sauce of honey, vinegar and spices, including fragrant fenugreek and tart, lemony sumac. The siton, the grain backbone of a Greek meal, is white wheat bread, sourdough in imitation of many ancient breads. I enjoyed it as Artemidora would have done; with my fingers, and wine.

The lady Gift-of-Artemis reclines at a banquet in her finest jewels. Her eyes are blackened with kohl past her eyelids, and her coiled wig drips perfume. Beneath draperies and wreaths of flowers, the men and women of Cusae dine together, in the Roman style. She speaks to them in Greek, but calls to a servant in Coptic for more wine.

Servers circulate around the room in the Egyptian style, offering different delicacies on trays. A young man brings a dish before her; sliced pork in a reddish sauce. Artemidora smiles, inhaling the scent of honey and spices. Delicately, her henna-dyed fingers lift a slice of meat to her painted mouth. She chews, swallows, sips wine from the refilled glass at her side.

“Agathós esti,” she mutters with a smile. “It’s good!”

 

Ancient Recipe: Parsnip Fries with Wine Sauce (Roman, 5th Century CE)

“Then there is the carrot. ‘This vegetable,’ says Diphilus, ‘Is harsh, but tolerably nutritious, and moderately good for the stomach; but it passes quickly through the bowels and causes flatulence. It is indigestible, diuretic, and not without some influence in prompting men to amatory feelings, on which account it is called a love-philtre by some people.” ~ Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae [The Philosophers’ Dinner-party], 2nd century CE 

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The Ancient Romans didn’t eat fries in cones of wax paper, but they should have.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: carrots are orange, parsnips are white. But it wasn’t always that way.

From a botanical standpoint, the two plants are different enough to keep them out of the same genus (they belong to Pastinaca and Daucus, respectively). Most modern people simply use color to tell them apart. But ancient people tended not to differentiate between these two tapered, edible roots, in spite of the fact that parsnips seem to have been first cultivated in northern Europe and carrots in Persia. In Old English, for example, both were called by the same name, moru. The Romans had two different words but used them interchangeably, just as the roots were used interchangeably in their cuisine. Apicius, the compendium of all things Roman and culinary, offers recipes for carotae seu pastinacae, carrots or parsnips. The ancient confusion hints at the carrot’s biggest secret: it wasn’t always orange.

Farmers selectively breed their crops, encouraging desirable traits like size, productivity, and sweetness to create new cultivars and strains. Our modern food plants have been genetically manipulated for so long by human beings that they look extremely different from their ancient ancestors (who says GMOs are a recent phenomenon?) Ancient fruits and vegetables had more of the “bad” qualities that have been bred out in the centuries since: you can bet that the Romans never heard of a seedless grape. Color is a trait that can be selected for just like any other, and Roman carrots, in addition to being smaller and less sweet than our modern ones, only came in purple or a very parsnip-like white. So where did orange carrots, rich in the same beta-carotene that gives everything from pumpkins to flamingos their color, come from?

Scientists believe that a genetic mutation in the purple carrot resulted in the first yellow carrots around the 11th century, which was then selectively bred to create our modern orange. A popular legend asserts that orange carrots were developed in the 17th-century Netherlands as a tribute to the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau. The Orange in that family’s name refers to the French principality of Orange, a transformation of the Latin place-name Aurasio that came to be associated with both the color and the fruit. But should we believe the carrot-as-political-tribute story? Maybe. It’s true that the Netherlands was known for its carrot production in the 17th century. It’s also true that a century later, “carrots sold with their roots too conspicuously showing were deemed provocative” by the Dutch Patriot party who forced out the House of Orange. But whether the orange carrot was actually developed in tribute to the House of Orange is unknown, though it’s the kind of unqualified claim that frequently gets presented as fact in places like tourist guides and bar trivia.

All this means that when reconstructing a Roman recipe in your modern kitchen, orange carrots are to be avoided at all costs, but parsnips or carrots in other colors will do just fine. The Roman love for both vegetables is well-documented. In the first century BCE, they were demanded as tribute from the tribes of Germany by the Emperor Tiberius; two hundred years later, the Roman-Greek writer Athenaeus records their health benefits in the text quoted above, including the ability to rouse sexual desire in men.* Any aphrodisiac qualities attributed to carrots and parsnips by the Romans are likely due to their phallic shape. In ancient medicine, this was the plant’s “signature”, the physical resemblance between a plant and the part of the human body it could cure or affect. This belief continued well into the Medieval period, when for example walnuts were believed to be good for brain health because a walnut looks like a tiny, wrinkled brain.

In this simple and delicious recipe from the Roman cookbook Apicius, the roots are fried in olive oil and dressed with a pungent savory/salty sauce called oenogarum, a reduction of red wine, fish sauce (garum) and pepper. We might consider this recipe an antecedent of French fries with ketchup. The parallel is a surprisingly close one; the South American potato would eventually dethrone the parsnip as the favorite starchy vegetable in Europe, while ketchup arose from the same origins as Roman garum.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 large parsnips or (non-orange) carrots
  • Enough olive oil to fill a pot about two inches deep
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1/6th of a cup fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons ground black or long pepper
  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch

Wash and peel the parsnips and cut them into small pieces. I did half-circle wedges, but you could also try a traditional French fry shape. Dry the parsnip pieces thoroughly with a paper towel.

 

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This is what happens when you put moist, fresh vegetables into hot olive oil. Be careful!

Fill a pot with olive oil up to around two inches and raise the heat to medium-high. After a few minutes, drop a small piece of parsnip in to test if the oil is hot enough to fry. When the oil is ready, fry the parsnips a few pieces at a time (they are moist and will produce a lot of bubbles). Move the parsnips around with a wooden spoon or other tool to prevent them sticking.

 

When the parsnips are golden brown on the outside, remove from the oil and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

Next, make the oenogarum. Bring the red wine to a low boil in a saucepan. When it has reduced by about one-third, add the fish sauce and pepper. Mix the cornstarch and about half a cup of water into a slurry in a separate bowl, Slowly add this to the wine while stirring with a spoon to prevent clumping. Reduce the mixture another third. The end result should have the consistency of barbecue sauce, thicker than water but liquid enough to pour.

Serve as you would French fries and ketchup, with the wine-sauce drizzled on top of the parsnips or on the side for dipping.

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These pastinacae are ready to prompt men to amatory feelings.

VERDICT

I feel like with every ancient recipe I make, I claim that it’s the best one ever. I’d better start on that rose-and-lamb-brain patina, or the dish invented by Emperor Vitellius that contained fish semen. This one really is good though! The parsnips are soft on the inside and crunchy outside, and the oenogarum has a powerful blend of flavors that provide the salt and other seasoning. I wouldn’t want to eat the oenogarum on its own, but it’s perfect when balanced against the bland starchiness of the parsnips. This is one of the first Roman recipes I could genuinely imagine someone ordering from a modern restaurant (or a food truck, for that matter, which inspired the photo above). X out of X.

* The aforementioned Emperor Tiberius was accused by his enemies of the most extreme sexual perversion. One wonders if his documented love of a vegetable considered to be an aphrodisiac is purely coincidental.