I studied Latin in university (and yes, I do sleep on top of a pile of money, surrounded by servants quivering to attend upon my every whim!) and my favourite writer was the 2nd century satirist Juvenal.
Wait, don’t leave! This really is related to food!
Juvenal wrote some spectacular pieces centred on the social function of food. Of his Sixteen Satires, Satire IV represents Emperor Domitian in a quandary over how to cook and eat a ludicrously large (and expensive!) fish that has been given to him as a gift, and is advised by a wily old gourmand from Nero’s day:
He’d known the extravagance of the old imperial court—Nero’s midnights and beyond, and that second hunger, when Falernian fires the lungs. [A strong wine from Capua.] No one in my own day had greater skill at eating. He could determine at first bite whether oysters came from Circeii or near the Lucrine lagoon or were produced from the Rutupian seabed. At a glance, he would state the native shore of an urchin.
Satire V is even better, a full length description of not one but two meals, a rich man’s and a poor man’s, both exaggerated wildly. The unkindest cut of all: both are served at the same dinner party, in order to display contempt for the poorer “guest.”
That lobster there, adorning the dish on its way to the master—look at the length of its body and how it is walled around with choice asparagus; see how its tail looks down on the party as it enters, borne aloft by the hands of a towering waiter.
You are served with a prawn, hemmed in by half an egg, crouched on a tiny saucer, a meal fit for a ghost.
…To you, you’re a free person, the guest of a wealthy patron. He thinks you have been enslaved by the smell of his kitchen, and he’s not far wrong. …The hope of a lavish dinner—that’s what attracts you: “Ah, now then, he’ll give us a bit of the hare’s carcase or the haunch of pork; what’s left of the chicken will come our way.” So all of you draw your bread-sticks, holding them clean and ready, waiting in silence.
He knows what he’s doing, treating you like that. For if you can stomach every insult, then you deserve just such a dinner, and just such a friend.
Satire IX gives us a kinder yet still ironic view of the ideal Roman countryside dinner, although it’s incongruously placed in the middle of the City where the guests can hear the roar of the crowds from the Circus!
Here is the menu, supplied without the help of the market: from my farm at Tivoli a kid will come, the tenderest and plumpest of the herd, one which has never tasted grass or dared as yet to nibble the twigs of the humble willow, one which is fuller of milk than blood, and with him, from the hillside, asparagus picked by the farmer’s wife after leaving her spindle. There will also be fine large eggs, still warm in their packing of straw, along with the hens that laid them, and grapes which have been preserved for half the year and are just as fresh as they were on the vine; Signia and Syria provide the pears and, sharing their baskets, are apples that rival those from the Picenum and keep their fragrance. You needn’t have any worries; they are quite reliable, now that the cold has dried the bitter juice which they had in autumn.
There’s loads of this material in the Satires; Juvenal seemed intensely interested in food, or at least he was a close observer of it, with his usual knack for vivid descriptions.
What does this have to do with the title of the site? I thought you’d never ask.
“Satire” in Latin, satura, actually referred not just to a literary genre but to a culinary one! Satura meant a kind of Stu Surprise (for my friends who played too much of The Sims): a little of everything tossed together into a pot. The root word, satur, meant “stuffed full.” Juvenal called his own work farrago, a term for horse-feed which had been prepared with a similar “toss it all in” treatment. That word has come to us in English as “a confused mixture”, often of nonsensical elements. It’s a word with comedic connotations, and so is another word that has a meaning of “a mixture stuffed full”: farce, which is used for a comedy in English, but which you can see in its French usage on bilingual packaging here in Canada:
One last connection, this one a bit wiggly: satureja, the genus of plants that gives us summer and winter savory, might derive from its connection to satura—an herb you would use to flavour this stewed mix of leftovers. This is in dispute (Pliny, if you care to invest any credibility in him, claims that the herb was named for the satyrs, who used it as an aphrodisiac). But I like this etymology, mainly because I love summer savory: I remember my father triumphantly bringing home huge fragrant bundles of it from farmer’s markets and inviting me to smell it. “This is special stuff,” he told me. “You can’t just find it anywhere.”
So hopefully this blog will introduce you to things just as lovely and fragrant as summer savory, along with the farrago of my everyday blog posts, and that you will, in the end, get stuffed.