August 2011

On my first trip to Mexico, I sat down at a lunch counter next to a local resident who was savoring a dish that looked like something I might want to try at home. I asked, “¿Cómo se llama lo que come?” [‘What’s what you’re eating called?’] to which he replied, “El almuerzo.” [‘Lunch.’] Concluding that it might be prudent to abandon informant work with this particular subject, I resolved instead to look for a cookbook, preferably one with pictures, to ascertain the recipe for “Lunch.”

The term recipe, abbreviated ℞ in both the pharmaceutical and culinary arts, is originally the second person singular imperative form of the Latin verb recipere ‘take, receive,’ which typically preceded the list of “ingredients” your doctor prescribed for you to take to cure your current ills. The kind of recipe you follow to cook a dish is accordingly a list of ingredients with instructions for what to do with them, like a physician’s prescription, to cure your current hunger. The cookbook as we know it today can trace its origins to a work of the third or fourth century C.E., Apicius’s De obsoniis et condimentis sive de re culinaria [‘On Catering and Seasoning, or, On Cookery’], apparently the first of its kind. There is some debate as to the identity of the author of De re culinaria—a fellow named Caelius or Coelius is a prominent contender—though it is likely that the cognomen “Apicius” was adopted as a deliberate reference to Marcus Gavius Apicius, “a famous Roman epicure who lived during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. Having, it was said, spent one hundred million sesterces (about $3,600,000) in procuring and inventing rare dishes, he balanced his accounts and found that he had only ten million sesterces ($360,000) left. Unwilling to starve on such a pittance, he destroyed himself.” (The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, 1894-1895.)

The first translation of De re culinaria to be published in English is Joseph Dommers Vehling’s Apicius: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, reprinted by Dover Publications in 1977 and now widely excerpted on the Internet, the copyright having expired. Vehling’s introduction, footnotes, and glossary make this translation well worth chasing down. His remarks on the havoc wreaked on the text as it was passed down over the years are suggestive—one imagines copyists’ errors caused by food stains on favorite recipes in the original—as are his arguments that De re culinaria was essentially a “fake book” for pros, rather than a prototypical Joy of Cooking aimed at the public, and as such understandably terse and, at times, incomplete: Professionals would not have to be told how to make a common marinade, and the author might omit some details to preserve the secret of his signature dishes.

Here’s a sample recipe from Vehling, preceded by the original Latin text:

Pullum Frontonianum: pullum praedura, condies liquamine, oleo mixto, cui mittis fasciculum anethi, porri, satureiae et coriandri viridis, et coques. ubi coctus fuerit, levabis eum, in lance defrito perungues, piper aspargis et inferes.

Chicken à la Fronto1
Pullum Frontonianum

A half-cooked chicken marinaded in a pickle of broth, mixed with oil, to which is added a bunch of dill, leeks, satury and green coriander. Finish it in this broth. When done, take the chicken out2 dress it nicely on a dish, pour over the sauce, colored with reduced must, sprinkle with pepper and serve.

1 Named for a Roman by the name of Fronto. There is a sucking pigs à la Fronto, too. Cf. ℞ No. 374. M. Cornelius Fronto was orator and author during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. According to Dann. a certain Frontone under Emperor Severus.
2 List., G. V. levabis; Tor. lavabis, for which there is little or no occasion. He may mean to clean, i.e. remove skin, tissues, sinews, small bones, etc.

Vehling’s translation raises some questions:

(a) What should we make of  pullum praedura? Mileage varies among translators: “A half-cooked chicken, ” “Start to fry chicken, ”  “Brown the chicken, ” “Fry the chicken to start browning the skin, ” “Roast the chicken a little to brown it.” “Blanched” and “parboiled” have also been suggested for the operation performed on the chicken [Latin pullus].  Leaving aside the meaning of the verb praedurare (‘to harden’ [cf. durus ‘hard’]) and its associated adjectival form praedurus, -a, -um (which would make more sense if applied to an egg than to a chicken, really), one could read praedura as an imperative except that it’s immediately followed by a present indicative form (condies), and the other Apicius recipes tend to use the future or present indicative rather than the imperative. On the other hand, if praedura is an adjective, it disagrees with pullum in both grammatical gender and case. Why it’s pullum rather than pullus, if it’s not a direct object,  is another question. Or if it is a direct object not of praedurare but some other (implied) verb, what’s that verb? Perhaps a smear of liquamen or defritum obscured the original text.

 (b) What were liquamen and defritum (orig. defrutum)? Vehling says of liquamen (here rendered as  “a pickle of broth ”) that “[i]t may stand for broth, sauce, stock, gravy, drippings, even for court bouillon—in fact for any liquid appertaining to or derived from a certain dish or food material.” He renders defritum/defrutum as ‘must,’ which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as ‘The fermented or fermenting juice expressed from fruit, especially grapes.’ For a useful exposition of liquamen, see

 (c) ubi coctus fuerit, levabis eum, in lance defrito perungues, piper aspargis et inferes. There is some disagreement among translators as to whether it’s the chicken or the plate [lanx, lancis ‘plate, charger’] that you smear [perungues] with must. One translation ( cleverly dodges the issue: “When it is done remove [the bird] from [the pan], and arrange on a serving dish sprinkled with defrutum.” Today, we’d drizzle.

fray pollo

Ora y cocina

Actually nobody wants dead air, the term broadcasters use for radio silences during transmission, particularly those longer than, say, a cough — whence the term “cough button” for the switch on the announcer’s console used for brief silent interruptions of the studio’s live sound, in contrast with the pure tone, usually rendered as “bleep,” which has accordingly become ubiquitous participial euphemism for any swearword one cannot say on air, e.g., “Now wait just a bleeping moment.” (In the transcriptions of the tapes Richard Nixon rashly made of his conversations in the Oval Office, the equivalent of “bleep[ing]” was “[expletive deleted”].)  Dead air that last longer than a few seconds leaves the listener uncertain as to whether the station has gone off the air entirely or the announcer has taken a hike (whether to the bathroom or the next world) especially when occurring at the end of a track that’s playing from a turntable.

Human beings ordinarily breathe air in and out about 40 times a minute when newly born.  Healthy adults breathe somewhere between 12 and 15 times a minute when at rest, but 35 to 40 when exercising. An athlete in top condition and performing at peak, however, can breath as often as 60 to 70 breaths per minute. (Whence a favorite joke of one of our grammar-school teachers, raised in the days when boys wore knickerbockers: “His breath came in short pants.”) Of the air we breathe, 78% is nitrogen, which for metabolic purposes is irrelevant, although dissolved in the bloodstream it can cause lethal cramps (“the bends”) for underwater caisson workers who come to the surface too quickly rather than undergoing gradual decompression. By contrast, oxygen, which makes up almost all of the remainder (21%, the rest being carbon dioxide, helium, argon, and other trace gases) is absolutely essential to human metabolism, and if its supply to the brain is choked off, death is sure to follow.


Antoine Lavoisier

The Lavoisiers Taking the Air

Of the scientific revolutions throughout history one of the most dramatic centered on understanding the nature of oxygen and its role in both respiration and combustion. It was well known from ancient times that without air we suffocate and that fires deprived of air go out. By the mid-1700s, the prevailing belief among European “pneumatic chemists” was that there was a substance in air called phlogiston whose action extinguished flame, and when Joseph Priestley first produced something close to pure oxygen by heating red oxide of mercury, he believed it at first to be nitrous oxide; later he modified this conclusion and pronounced it to be ordinary air from which the phlogiston has largely been removed. It was left for his opposite number across the English Channel, Antoine Lavoisier, to isolate oxygen and to identify it as the element that joined with other substances in the process of combustion, and thus accounted for the added weight of the burnt product—a result flat contrary to the predictions of phlogiston theory. (Lavoisier’s fine brain would meet its own end by oxygen deprivation through exsanguination, as an immediate consequence of his being guillotined by Charles-Henri Sanson in 1794 at the height of the French Revolution.)

The English word air is actually a convergence of several etymons. The stuff we breathe comes from Latin āēr, ‘air as a substance, lower part of the atmosphere’ (this second meaning in contrast with aethēr, ‘ether,’ the upper “pure” air which in antiquity was
supposed to permeate the sublunar sphere and, later, all of outer space until its existence was disproved by Michelson and Morley’s definitive experiment in the early 20th century). Both āēr and aethēr were lifted straight from Greek (aēr and aithēr respectively, which explains why āēr is two syllables, whereas the ae– in aethēr is a diphthong), and in poetic usage, at least, retained the Greek accusative-case ending –a. But āēr soon got assimilated into ordinary everyday speech (Plautus was already using it familiarly by the time he wrote his Comedy of Asses in the early 2d century B.C.E.), such that the accusative form āerem became quite commonplace; from it French (and English in turn) derived air in the first two senses in the Petit Larousse: ‘gaseous fluid that makes up the atmosphere’ and ‘manner, fashion.’ The Latin poetic accusative āera, on the other hand, was the source for the Italian metathesis, aria, likewise borrowed into French as air in the sense of ‘song’– a convergence reminiscent of the Yankee’s answer to the motor tourist at the fork in the road that “the left one be straighter, but the right one be prettier.”