Saturday, May 26, 2012

Recipe for a Roman Diet

Humans evolved to be omnivores.  We'll eat anything we can get our hands on - fruit, vegetables, beans, grains, meat - and we've invented innumerable ways to cultivate and refine those basic ingredients, particularly in the last 10,000 years or so since the agricultural revolution.
But diet in the past was limited, primarily by geography but also by social class or culture.  Before the New World was discovered, Italian food had no tomatoes.  Before the industrialization of food production, many items we think of as dirt cheap today, like salt, were too expensive for the poor to purchase.  If you didn't live on the coast, you probably weren't eating seafood.
When we talk about ancient diets, then, we're looking primarily at commonalities - what the average person was eating - while at the same time understanding that omnivores make for a dietarily heterogeneous population.  There is no singular "American" diet, but we can agree that most of us likely consume a large amount of corn-based products, which are cheap and ubiquitous in the form of corn syrup, tortilla chips, popcorn, etc.  This reliance on corn, a crop native to the New World, means that the average American diet differs from the average European, African, or Asian diet.  Biochemically, we can see this difference in carbon isotopes, and we can show that their value increased following the transition to maize agriculture in the Americas (see, for example, Tykot 2006).  My carbon isotope value is almost certainly higher than that of most contemporary Europeans.
Roman-era Mosaic
Similarly, there is no singular "Roman" diet, particularly in the Empire when goods were moving around at astounding rates, although researchers agree that a heck of a lot of wheat was consumed by all social classes and that olives and olive oil contributed a number of calories and fat to most people's diets.  Ancient historical sources also seem to agree that no one really liked barley and that millet was only consumed in times of struggle, as both of these grains make inferior bread compared to wheat (Garnsey 1988).  Yet dried millet tended to keep longer than other grains, making it good for storage along with dry legumes like chickpeas, lupin beans, and lentils, the latter another food that was most often consumed in times of shortage.