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  http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/roman/fetch-recipe.php?rid=roman-garum.

 (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 (http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/apicius-aeropetes-6.php) 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