The Most Interesting Ancient Foods
From ancient emperors to the fast-food restaurants of modern America, the enjoyment of food has always been an integral part of our lives. Despite their troubles, our ancestors still found the time to turn the items around them into delectable delights.
What might be Hannibal Lecter’s favorite meal on this list, maccu is an ancient Roman dish made primarily from crushed fava beans. Initially created on the island of Sicily, this particular dish spread once the Sicilians were integrated into the Roman Empire. Widely known as some of the best cooks in the Roman Empire, the island dwellers were introduced to the bean sometime in the distant past, though the exact date is unknown.As for the preparation, the fava beans were boiled with any number of herbs and spices. Olive oil was added to the mixture, and it was eaten as a soup.
Staying in ancient Rome, moretum was a kind of cheese spread that Roman peasants used on the various breads which they ate. The great poet Virgil, more widely known for the epic Aeneid, compiled a collection of poetry called Appendix Vergiliana. (Ancient sources believed that Virgil was the author of most of them, but it’s more likely that he merely assembled those written by others.)One of the poems discusses the foodstuff, and it is eponymously named “Moretum. In the poem, the peasant collected ingredients from his land (garlic, herbs, and butter) and then produced the meal, all while talking and singing to his slave.There was also a widely eaten variant involving pine nuts which is remarkably similar to modern-day pesto. As for the name, since all the ingredients needed to be crushed together in a mortar, it only made sense to name it after that.
An extremely traditional Mesoamerican foodstuff, tamales have been cooked since at least 1500 BC. Some evidence actually points to as long ago as 8000 BC.The word itself is derived from the Nahuatl word for “wrapped food” (tamalii), and the correct singular form is tamal. (In English, it’s commonly spelled and pronounced “tamale.”) Tradition holds that the Maya would make their cornmeal delights both filled and unfilled, with the fillings ranging from fish to beans to eggs.Aztec tamales were quite similar, with some of their descriptions coming from Bernardino de Sahagun, a Spanish priest who wrote about his experiences in the New World shortly after the Aztecs were conquered. (They also had “dessert” tamales, which were filled with fruit or honey.)Tamales, especially those made of ground amaranth, also took on a religious connotation due in part to their use as offerings to various gods. As a result, the Catholic Church banned tamales and amaranth. Execution was the likely punishment for those caught making this food.As for the tamales’ wrapping, which serves to help the steaming process, corn husks are the most widely used. However, banana leaves are more common in tropical areas.
Leave it to the Spartans of ancient Greece to have one of the most reviled foodstuffs in history. “Black soup” (melas zomos) was a traditional soup or broth eaten by soldiers in the army. Adding to their legacy of caring for nothing but warfare, it was only eaten for sustenance, though some say the Spartans enjoyed the soup. Made from boiled pigs’ blood, pork, and vinegar, black soup was infamous even in its own time.Supposedly, one Italian who tasted it said that he finally understood why Spartans were so willing to sacrifice their lives in battle if black soup was all they had to eat. Another tale has a king of Pontus who wanted to try the soup. He had a Spartan chef prepare it for him, and with the first spoonful barely in his mouth, he was disgusted. The chef’s response was that the king should have first bathed in a Spartan river, implying that one had to be Spartan to enjoy it.