How Testing (and Tasting!) Recipes Shaped My Novel

This week the Debs are testing out the recipes of Apicius, ahead of Crystal’s launch week.

I was SO excited when my fellow Debs all agreed to do a fun experiment for this week–to make a recipe inspired by the ancient gourmand, Apicius, who is the protagonist in my forthcoming (only 8 days away!!) novel, FEAST OF SORROW The world’s oldest known cookbook bears the name Apicius, and while it was compiled three or four hundred years after his death, there are numerous recipes within the book that likely came directly from Apicius’s first century kitchens. I can’t wait to hear how my fellow Debs’ foray into the world of ancient Roman cooking goes. And no, I didn’t ask them to make something crazy, like flamingo tongues or fried dormice, much as that would have been entertaining. I’m looking forward to finding out what their experience was like and how it compares to my time in the kitchen cooking up these ancient meals.

My novel is full of food. Everything about the story pivots around meals, ingredients and what food represents. Of course, I had to try these recipes. I had to understand them so I could describe them. So I could talk about my characters’ relationships to these dishes.

When I started writing FEAST I didn’t try making any recipes directly from the Apicius cookbook. Instead I relied on cookbooks by historians such as Sally Grainger and Mark Grant who had already done some of that heavy lifting. I tried making honey cakes, Parthian chicken, bread made from goat milk. I found that, for the most part, the recipes were still just as delicious today as might have been back then.

The most common ingredient in ancient Roman cooking is garum, a fish sauce that is made in a very similar way to Thai Nam Pla or Vietnamese Nuoc Nam Mhi, sauces that are very common today. In Italy they are also reclaiming their heritage and several manufacturers now make colatura (which you can find in Italian specialty food shops or on Amazon). The ancient Romans used garum in EVERYTHING. Even sweet things. This was one of the hardest things for me to get around when started out testing the recipes. To be frank, I just don’t like fish. I like shellfish just fine but fishy fish? I’ll eat it, but begrudgingly. So the thought of putting fish sauce in everything was more than daunting. Fortunately, though, I found that a little bit of colatura goes a very long way and instead of making foods taste fishy, they lend a salty umami quality instead. Now we use it in a lot of our every day cooking, the first of which was Parthian chicken, which is still one of our favorites for a regular weekday meal.

Eventually I decided that I wanted to try and recreate the recipes myself. I never had the opportunity to learn Latin — it’s rare to find in West coast schools — so I have to rely on others to at least do the translation for me. Sally Grainger’s Apicius is the version that I recommend although you can find Apicius in the public domain, a 1936 translation by Joseph Dommers Vehling. What is interesting is that the recipes are mostly just lists of ingredients, with some sparse instructions meant for the professional ancient cook.

For example, from the Vehling translation, for a dish called Salacattabia/boiled dinner (now doesn’t THAT sound appetizing?):

Pepper, fresh mint, celery, dry pennyroyal, cheese, pignolia nuts, honey, vinegar, broth, yolks of egg, fresh water, soaked bread and the liquid pressed out, cow’s cheese and cucumbers are arranged in a dish, alternately, with the nuts; also add finely chopped capers, chicken livers; cover completely with a lukewarm, congealing broth, place on ice and when congealed unmould and serve up.

There aren’t any amounts to the ingredients, nor do we know what the type of bread is implied. And what on earth is the lukewarm, congealing broth? I don’t have it in front of me but I suspect that the Grainger text identifies it as an aspic of sorts, which makes a lot more sense. But really…what on earth was this dish like? It’s hard for us to know.

I didn’t try that particular recipe, but I did try my hand at a few others, particularly the sauces, and some of the vegetable and grain dishes. We experiment with trying to keep the dish as original as possible, but also in modernizing it but keeping to the tastes and flavors. My husband has been wonderful at this; he loves to experiment. I bought him a sous-vide for his birthday this year and one of the first recipes we tried was one of the Apicius sauces for duck!

Making the recipes also forced me to explore the history behind the food I was writing about. For example, I learned how silphium/laser became extinct and in my novel its scarcity is an important part of several scenes. I found that lemons weren’t available until the 3rd century. The cucumbers in the recipes were not at all like the ones we eat now, but were harder and more gourdlike which is why they were always cooked. Making garum was actually a full-blown industry and came from what were probably some of the earliest factories in the world. I also had to learn a lot about the regions from which luxurious ingredients were obtained. It gave me a sense of the vastness of the Roman empire and how far that food sometimes traveled. I also learned a lot about food preservation–these were people who did not have cold storage, or if they did, it was because they brought snow from the mountains and kept it in straw-lined barrels in the cellars, at great expense. Many of these details found their way into the book and other things I’ve learned help me modify plotlines and character actions as a result of my research.

It turns out that trying out these recipes ended up being one of the most fun parts about writing my book!

If you want to try a very simple, but delicious Roman recipe, try this one:

Honey Fritters  (Apicius 7.11.6 and Cato 79)

The Apicius cookbook has a simple fried dough recipe that calls for the cook to combine coarse wheat flour (or semolina) with water or milk over heat until it’s a thick porridge. That mixture is spread out on a sheet, cut into pieces then fried in oil, drenched in honey then sprinkled with pepper.  

However, the ancient Roman Cato, in his treatise, On Agriculture, has a tastier recipe.

Mix the cheese and spelt in the same way, sufficient to make the number desired. Pour lard into a hot copper vessel, and fry one or two at a time, turning them frequently with two rods, and remove when done. Spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy-seed, and serve.

Simply put, take equal parts ricotta or other soft cheese and flour (you can use any type of flour that is to your liking), form it into dough balls, then fry in oil. Let cool, roll in honey and sprinkle in poppy seeds. These are extra good if sprinkled with pepper and if you substitute poppy seeds for toasted sesame seeds.

To get a sense of proportion, a half cup of ricotta and a half cup of flour will make approximately six 1” fritters.

Buon appetito!

Author: Crystal King

Crystal King is a writer, culinary enthusiast and social media expert. Her writing is fueled by a love of history and an obsession with the food, language and culture of Italy. She has taught writing, creativity and social media at Grub Street and several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University. Crystal received her masters in critical and creative thinking from University of Massachusetts Boston. She lives with her husband and their two cats in the Boston area.