Who Invented Our Food?

Posted: December 13, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I’m teaching a food history course right now, and I was recently thinking about some extra-credit assignments for my students.  I found some inspiration reading a fascinating book by Ina Lipkowitz called Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language. Lipkowitz reminded me that the world’s oldest recipe book was written in the fourth or fifth century AD by a Roman gourmand by the name of Marcus Gavius



Apicius.  This man lived and died for food, and I mean that literally. Evidently, Apicius committed suicide when he could no longer afford to throw the lavish feasts he so enjoyed.  That is an interesting aside, but the idea that really grabbed me was using his recipes from his book De Re Coquinaria as an extra-credit opportunity. Since many of my students are culinary students, I would think many might be interested in testing their hand at some ancient Roman fare.

But, I thought, maybe I should try it first. After looking through Apicius’ recipes, I settled on an easy one to start:

Sautéed Squash in Herb Sauce

1 medium onion, thinly sliced.

1 T. olive oil

¼ t. pepper.

¼ t. celery seed.

¼ t. oregano.

Dash of cumin.

3 c. diced squash

½ c. squash stock.

¼ c. white wine.

1 t. olive oil.


Sauté sliced onion in olive oil. In a mortar, grind pepper, celery seed, and oregano. Add to onions, with a dash of cumin. Stir. Then add diced squash. Add stock, white wine, and olive oil. Stir repeatedly over medium heat until the gourds are cooked. If you wish, thicken the liquid with flour and serve.


The oldest recipe ever found is for beer.

The oldest recipe ever found is for beer.

So, this is a roughly 1600 hundred year old recipe.  Doesn’t look too hard, or odd. Now admittedly, I skipped over the recipes with calf brain and garum (fish sauce) to find some that I could easily make, but it struck me how similar this is to a modern recipe.  Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising though when you think about how recipes are handed down from generation to generation. Our family recipes are often based upon regional or national traditions that simply have riffs and slight alterations of what people have been cooking for millennia in a certain part of the world.  So even the food of Apicius is quite simple; or is it?

Look at this recipe.  Think of the processing of food that needs to go into this.  Getting oil from thousands of olives.  Fermenting grape juice.  Discovering and growing herbs that will not poison you, and will make your food tasty.  After all that, there is the chemical mixture of all these foods to create a pleasing taste.  Who was the first person to figure this stuff out? How did they do it?  I believe such a question is one of the great mysteries of human civilization: who invented our food?

Think of something as simple as bread (even non-leavened).  Process wheat into flour, process olives into oil, and add water.  Mix it together, and bake in an enclosed oven.  What?  Who thinks of that?  And, that doesn’t take into account more complex bread recipes that would add salt (from the sea/salt mine), honey (from bees), eggs (from a chicken), milk (from a cow or goat).  What mad scientist first put those things together, and then heated them at a certain, perfect temperature for a preordained time?

Such a question is obviously impossible to answer, but it should make us respect those anonymous cooks who came before us, and provided the knowledge that our civilization of food rests upon.  I wonder if my students will feel that sense of awe and respect when they are elbow deep in calf-brain and fermented fish sauce.

  1. Jane Ungari says:

    Great article; I am sure your students will learn much. Good cross curricular assignment too.

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