June 2, 2007

Roman Fast Food

The headline to this article is annoyingly deceptive. The actual find in a study of middle-sized homes in the ruins of Pompeii was of "an abundance of small grilling vessels (like barbecues) found in the residences studied, indicating that people were eating-and-running on the go". That's a little different than "fast food" as we might have imagined it.

But there were a lot of restaurants and vendors of prepared food, in the typical Roman marketplace. People on the go or working all day would stop at a stand in the forum and get some bread, cooked meats, and some heavily-watered wine or maybe fruit juice for a meal. Taverns and pubs were popular businesses then, as now, and for all the same reasons.

Pictured to the right are the remains of a thermopoilum in Pompeii. The proprietor would served cooked food would be served in those little insets in his counter; there would have been a brazier or something similar to keep the food warm. The customer would have sat on a stool or a tall chair, and probably chatted with the proprietor and other customers while eating or waiting for their food, while they drank wine. These thermopoliae are found all over the forae of Roman towns across Europe and Africa.

What did the citizens of Rome get for their money at places like these? Wheat baked into bread was the big staple; rice was unknown and of course potatoes and corn were not yet discovered. It seems odd to me that there are no records of noodles; one can make noodles or pasta from wheat flour just as easily as bread, but the idea seems to have never occurred to them. Local fruits and vegetables, of course; but only in season -- it would not have been possible to keep a steady diet because transportation was not fast enough to keep perishables fresh and edible. I seem to recall reading somewhere that some vegetables were dried and stored for year-round consumption, like peas.

The meats eaten were a little different from ours -- fish, pork and chicken, but plenty of things we would consider luxury foods today, like duck and snails, and things we just wouldn't eat at all, like mice, peacocks, and flamingoes. The Romans did not care for beef, as far as I know; while they recognized it was edible, they thought cows were strictly for making milk and thought of eating cows like Americans would think of eating dog or cat meat.

All of this would have been flavored with a wide variety of spices and herbs; the Romans were then, as they are now, fond of intense and varied flavors in their food. And nearly everything had some quantity of a salty red sauce called garum, which we would think today was very much like Thai fish sauce -- a sauce which surely came in a variety of sub-flavors, some spicy, some sweet, and some mild.

But the idea of people wanting or needing to get a meal in a short amount of time seems like an inevitability of life in any sort of urban environment. Fast-service food vendors couldn't have been an innovation for the Romans; surely the Greeks had them, and the Babylonians and Egyptians before them. Somebody working all day in, say, a blacksmith shop or a cloth dyer does not have the time to step away from work to go fix himself some food, and not everyone would have had the benefit of a family network to support them during the day. And currency can buy so much! So I have to imagine that in this respect as in so many others, the Romans did not innovate this idea; rather, they did it a lot more, and better, than their predecessors.

The Roman forum was, in addition to the center of civic life where the government and courts were found, the primary marketplace for the city -- kind of a big mall and general store as well as city hall. There must have been booths and shops all over the place, selling different kinds of food; people probably had their favorite places then just like now -- "Oh, let's go to Flavius'; he makes the most delicious peacock skewers!" -- and the place must have smelled incredible, with all the restaurants cooking their food to serve to hungry customers, anxious to get back to court or return to their shopping.

And of course, travelers on Rome's famed network of roads needed to eat, too, and there were roadside taverns and inns to cater to their needs. So when you're getting your tacos and fries at the drive-thru this weekend, give a thought to the Romans who were doing exactly what you are now, only two thousand years ago.

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