How to Cater a Roman Orgy


Drawing by Nan Swift, Improbable Research staff.

By Corky White
Professor of Anthropology
Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA


As a very young caterer in the late 1970s, I learned lessons the hard way every day. I catered for people who knew their food, and so I tried to make things I hoped they’d not yet had, to avoid comparison. Cooking off their grid and mine often meant making dishes for the first time. I took on every challenge knowing I would inevitably curdle or burn or undercook. But taking on a Roman orgy was a whole different kettle of fermented anchovy sauce.

A Harvard University professor, who will remain nameless, asked me to cater a Roman dinner, hereafter known as the Orgy. Considering the money (and not, in my innocence, the potential for blackmail), I took the job. I went to the lowest level—of Harvard’s Widener Library—and found Apicius and other texts giving clues to the foods of the Roman Empire.

Translations to 1970s Cambridge weren’t always easy. Stuffed larks? No problem: frozen quail, stuffed with a parmesan herb stuffing. Anchovies in oil with herbs came straight from Boston’s Little Italy. Nightingales’ tongues? Nowhere in our most exotic butchery were there packets of these. The smallest tongues I could find were from calves. I thought, what would a nightingale’s tongue resemble… little, slippery, wormy…snails! Periwinkles from Chinatown! With a hatpin, I plucked each of the little buggers out of their chambers and stir-fried them with garlic and green herbs. A nightingale sang in Harvard Square, or might have, except I had its tongue.


An 1817 edition of the source of the recipes.

With no orgy cookbook in front of me, I had to use my imagination. Honey cakes seemed to epitomize the evening, and I made them in buttocky shapes drenched in a nut-honey mixture.

I had thought about what to wear as costume, and summoning up dignity, decided to dress as a caterer in my long black apron. I carried the boxes of delicacies through the Doric columns of the host’s Victorian Cambridge home. The neighborhood brings together quite different styles: Olde Englande Colonial and New England clapboard, both decorous to a fault, making the fantasy of an orgy all the more titillating. The house had been swept free of  furniture, the floors laid with oriental carpets and strewn with pillows. Incense wafted from standing brass braziers in which little electric bulbs were hidden. I took the food into the kitchen. Our host said, “Oh, just leave directions for the servers,” and I swore inwardly: surely you’ll let me just watch? At that point, the doorbell rang, and I opened the door on a pair of perfectly matched and fetchingly attired male undergraduates, wearing tiny chitons that barely covered their toned bodies in draped cloth. They even sported Demetrius and the Gladiator sandals, trussed up the legs.

There was a guest list near the door and I caught a peek: they were all male faculty whose names I recognized from the Classics and English departments. I left soon afterwards with instructions to return by noon the next day to pick up my dishes. (Noon? What low expectations he had! Surely orgies go on for days!)

I came back at about 11 the following day, a tad early, expecting (or hoping) to find the floor littered with sated or expired bodies, spilled wine and pieces of clothing. It was disappointingly empty and clean, and our host, clad in monastic old-school pajamas and robe, had a bowl of Cheerios breakfast cereal in his hand.

Was the orgy a bust? Perhaps Cambridge was not ready for deeply researched classical debauchery. Perhaps I neglected to add some crucial ingredient to the nightingales’ tongues. Come on, are Cheerios the tail of the dog in the Playboy Penthouse? Well, there’s no meal you can’t learn something from. Next time I’ll leave out the saltpeter.



A Note About Apicius
De re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking) is a Roman cookbook from the late 4th or early 5th century C.E. The author is unknown, though the word “Apicius” which appears to be a made-up name, is associated with the text. The word “Apicius” has come to be associated with a decadent passion for food.

_____________________

This article is republished with permission from the May-June 2010 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

Newest 3
Newest 3 Comments

Har! A friend of mine owns a catering biz, in LA. He told me that he once was hired to cater an orgy for Husler mag. He said it was the weirdest gig he ever did.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
I guessing the caterer never realized he was tricked by the English department who was probably snickering into their hands as they told him it was for a "Roman Orgy".

"A Roman orgy wasn't really a wild place where sexual intercourse took place, it was more a place where you liked food, and they were not exclusively for adults either."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QI_(G_series)#Episode_14_.22Greeks.22
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Commenting is closed.


Email This Post to a Friend
"How to Cater a Roman Orgy"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.

 

Success! Your email has been sent!

close window
X

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
 
Learn More