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Ph. Credits - Pompeii, Villa del Cicerone, dettaglio mosaico
Table and Theatre: Syracusan passions
Food, and the way it is prepared and served, the social context or ritual in which it is consumed, all play a role in defining a culture, as well as differentiating it from others. Since Homer and Hesiod, Greek poetry and literature have crystallised foods and feasts in unforgettable pages, where men talk to the gods with animal sacrifices, and heroes talk to each other with wine and meat. On one hand, lyrical poems transform the symposion (literally translated as "drinking together") into the centre of a collective aristocratic ritual full of new themes, ethical, political and social teachings, philosophical and sacred conversations inspired by wine; on the other, writers of iambic verses focus on the food customs of the lower social classes, often mixing them with insults and tirades.
An important literary source that gives insight into the food practices of the Greek world is theatre, and especially the “comedy” form that develops in Siracusa in the VI century B.C.E, in the work of Sicilian authors like Epicharmus and Formide, who were also appreciated by Plato and Aristotles. Between them, they wrote over 60 works for theatre, though unfortunately we only have the titles and many fragments about food, collected by Athenaeus of Naucratis. The voices of actors and singers declaiming their verses echoed for a long time across the stones of the Greek Theatre in Siracusa, the biggest and most important in the western Greek world. In the Vth century BCE, the echoes of this new, unusual form of theatre, so different from refined and epic-lyrical tragedy, reached Athens where it found its ideal mouthpiece in Aristophanes.
Bassorilievo con maschere teatrali
Lastra tombale con scena di symposion
In ancient comedy, the popular language still dominates, with its syntax full of intrigues and double-entendres, explicit, and never obsequious towards the rich, the aristocratic and the authorities. It’s this keen and brilliant spirit found in ancient comedy that reflects many aspects that relate to food. Not only do the sacrifices for feasts and banquets appear, but also the preparation of food with recipes, colourful rivalry between cooks, servants and masters, bickering between women and merchants full of references to the quality and the cost - especially about fish, something that wasn’t available to a large part of the population, and which is the basis for a wide range of comic elements. On stage, meat can be grilled or boiled, offal can be stewed or used to make sausages and stuffing, perhaps with the addition of some blood which has been daringly taken from the sacrifice.
There are many references to everyday objects, to the utensils necessary for preparing, serving and eating meals (ovens, spoons, tripods, pots and pans), to the domestic details and situations which a less educated audience would recognise easily, and would watch as they themselves nibbled olives, roasted chickpeas and nuts, feeling involved and entertained.
Bassorilievo con maschere teatrali
Some writers of comedy adopted the literary motif of the “gastronomic Utopia”, as noted in a series of citations in the Deipnosophists by Athenaeus of Naucratis, in which fear of famine and a lack of foods is countered by a food universe filled with every sort of delicacy. This is the eternal mirage of a land of Plenty, of Cockaigne - which Athenaeus dreams of too - where rivers of broth run bearing quarters of roast bull, fish fillets, pieces of eel wrapped in leaves of beet, platters full of the most tender thighs, bull offal and tasty ribs of pork with loaves of wheat; and while it rains wine and soup on towns and villages, the bread kneads itself, cooked thrushes fly straight into the mouths of the guests, the climate is always pleasant, pleasure is a daily experience and no-one wants to know anything about work, fatigue and tiredness.
As homage to Dionysus - the god of drink who erases the rational outlines of things and also the god of theatre who transforms things into stories - wine has an important role in ancient comedy. On stage, it’s often talked about and it’s drunk a lot, pure or mixed with water, strong red pramnio, sweet passito psìtyos or the sweet white biblino, a forefather of the Moscato of Siracusa wine. Ideal settings for the libations are taverns, alleys, private houses and banquets that sometimes end with farcical symposia. Tipsiness, even drunkenness, is a prerogative of slaves, workers and often women who drink wine behind their husbands’ backs - a fault that Aristophanes attributes, along with many others, to the female sex.
More sober habits and stereotyped characters are found in the so-called “Middle Comedy” which coincides with the disastrous Athenian expedition to Siracusa in 411 BCE. and culminates in the period of oligarchy. It was again a Syracusan, Philemones, who inaugurated the age of New Comedy with less popular, more refined language, and the abandoning of political themes to focus more on themes of everyday life, where the comic and the serious have equal claims to represention. An important part of this theatrical nouvelle-vague is the cook, the mageiros, the great organiser of dinners and banquets. Unlike in Old Comedy, this figure is given greater recognition for his creative input, and some authors like Euphronius, compare the work of the cook to that of the poet. For Nichomachus a good cook “must know about geometry to move harmoniously in the kitchen, about medicine to watch over the health of his guests and even about astrology to decide under which sign of the Zodiac to buy the best fish”.
Scena Plautina, Ph. credits - musiculturaonline
If we put all the quotes from comedies together in which we find a cook who’s a bit of a braggart, we can imagine a typical Syracusan cook during the reign of Geron, as unashamedly sketched in many comedies of the day. Let’s imagine him sitting on a stone bench at the harbour market, surrounded by swarms of assistants with their implements, as he waits for a commission worthy of his attention.
“If you all think that being a cook at Siracusa is easy, you’re completely wrong. People arrive at the harbour here from all over the world and you have to know everyone’s tastes. People from Rhodes for example, want as an aperitivo a cup of hot wine that smells of fish (...). If you stick a fine squid in it, you’ll make them happy” (…). People from Byzantium like a lot of garlic and a pinch of aniseed (…). The Corinthians don’t even want to know about Athenian cooking.
Then you need a good eye to choose your master. You have to scent immediately what sort of person you’re dealing with (...). It might be that first of all he tells you great things about the magnificence of his house, and then once there, you find yourself having to do everything by yourself. If by any chance you dare to protest a little, he might even be capable of beating you, and when it’s time to pay, he makes a great fuss and doesn’t even want to give you what had been agreed, using excuses like - there wasn't enough vinegar in the lentils (...). By now however, I’ve had quite a lot of experience, and I don’t even consider people of that type. You have to read the good clients straight away and not let them get away; for example, you have to understand who the merchants are who go back home with a tidy sum having done good business here at the harbour. Another client to appreciate is the wastrel from a good family, who is wasting his inheritance with loose women (…) I’m not just saying this, but here in the square I’m one of the best paid. Because I know how to advertise myself and when I enter someone's house I give myself certain airs (…) I manage to appear important! If I have to set up a banquet, I feel a bit like a general: I distribute responsibilities, precise orders; I shout, yell, and sometimes at the right time, box a few ears (…). This is also a surefast method of keeping the masters of the house out of the kitchen (…).
You’d never guess what sort of kitchens I find. Empty of everything; no vinegar, no fennel seeds, no oregano, no fig-leaves to make meat rolls, no oil, no almonds, garlic, cooked must, leeks, or onions! There’s never any sylphius and even salt and wood are missing… I have to bring everything with me (…). Not to boast, but I am one of the really serious few cooks on the piazza. Not like some of my colleagues whose nose is always dripping and snotty, who can’t smell and can’t breath in to judge the perfume of their sauces. There are some who have depraved tastes and use their tongues for other business and not in the kitchen (…). Others are too heavy-handed with the salt, others are so greedy that by tasting continuously, they leave the pans almost empty. Then there’s always someone horny who goes chasing after a servant or nanny in the house and leaves the things to burn on the stove (…) without mentioning those who can’t stand smoke or fire and who are reduced to tears and with such red eyes they look like a mask from a tragedy.
I hope you’ve all realised that I, without failings - almost - am the number one cook in Siracusa. In my profession I’ve earned more than any of our most famous actors will ever earn in all his life (…). My art happens in an empire of perfumed smokes. I’m also an inventor, because it was I who invented the use of royal lentils at the house of Agathocles. But I’ve done even better; everyone talks so much about a certain Lacares, who being generous with his friends in times of famine, happened to feed Minerva in disguise (…) What about me? Feed Minerva? I feed Zeus with all his mates in the Olympus (…) the thundering god now only wants to feed with the smoke from my fires (…). I have him practically in the palm of my hand and if I don’t cook, he’ll die of hunger!"
SERGIO G. GRASSO
Da giovane, doppiava per il cinema attori del calibro di Orson Welles e Jeff Goldblum. Autore e conduttore televisivo, ha lavorato a programmi Rai come Unomattina, Lineaverde e La prova del cuoco. È docente di Antropologia dell’alimentazione, food-writer, cultore e divulgatore di storia sociale del cibo, curatore di eventi gastronomici legati alle rappresentazioni del cibo nell’arte. Scrive e fa parte della direzione editoriale di SiracusaCulture.