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OAKLAND, Calif. — Travel presents so many opportunities to stimulate the senses, from new color palettes to new sounds and languages. But in my opinion, you’ve not experienced a culture until you’ve engaged that other sense — taste — and savored its foods, until you’ve watched how people cook and steam and source the meals they’ll have for the day.
One of my favorite blogs of late is Pass the Garum, a website for food enthusiasts and classics lovers. “Garum” here refers to a fish sauce that was something like a ketchup in Roman society, in that it was added to a wide variety of dishes (this historical web site about Pompeii suggests it probably tastes like contemporary southeast Asian fish sauce). And thus, the blog has become a cookbook of Roman food, a way to time travel back to the days of Cicero and Caesar and maybe get a taste of what they, their servants and everyone else in Roman society might have been eating.
From a hearty plate of stale bread salad to lentil and root vegetable mash, each entry contains detailed recipes and preparation instructions, alongside historical tidbits like the luxurious use of snow — a rarity in the Mediterranean region — to chill foods. “There’s a wonderful wealth of Greek and Roman writing online, so that’s usually my first port of call,” noted Neill George, the blog’s founder, chef, and writer in an interview with Hyperallergic. “When looking for a new recipe (or series of recipes) I’ll browse through English translations of ancient texts on Lacus Curtius or Perseus, or on my bookshelf if I happen to have them.”
Are they historically accurate? Unfortunately, we have no Romans around to help determine authenticity, and the blog notes that each of the recipes is an approximation based on available records. but George tells me he conducts in-depth research, relying on academic journals and other historical writings to get a sense of the context for the food. Then he checks to see if anyone else has tried to make it — Cooking Apicius, by Sally Grainger, makes a frequent appearance on the blog. The posts offers helpful reviews of the dishes in the manner of a true food blog, along with suggestions for sourcing more obscure foodstuffs.
“The food is great,” George noted, “but it’s the response to the website which makes me smile the most. It is absolutely mind blowing to wake up some mornings and see that 16,000 people have visited Pass the Garum overnight – who knew that Roman food was so appealing?” With such a large fanbase, George has inspired a historic foodie community to send him pictures and updates from their own experiments. Originally from northern Ireland and now based “just south of Hadrian’s Wall,” George cited his frequent travels as one reason he was interested in Roman cooking. “Sheer curiosity” was another, thanks to some initial dabblings in making Roman wine.
I’m a big believer in making history come to life, and food is a fantastic way to do so. Just as we travel to other parts of the world and try other cultures’ foods, there’s something so compelling about traveling to another part of history to eat as our ancestors might have.