Ancient Cookery, And Cooks by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

The memorable grand dinner given by the classical doctor in Peregrine Pickle, has indisposed our tastes for the cookery of the ancients; but, since it is often “the cooks who spoil the broth,” we cannot be sure but that even “the black Lacedaemonian,” stirred by the spear of a Spartan, might have had a poignancy for him, which did not happen at the more recent classical banquet.

The cookery of the ancients must have been superior to our humbler art, since they could find dainties in the tough membranous parts of the matrices of a sow, and the flesh of young hawks, and a young ass. The elder Pliny records, that one man had studied the art of fattening snails with paste so successfully, that the shells of some of his snails would contain many quarts.[1] The same monstrous taste fed up those prodigious goose livers; a taste still prevailing in Italy. Swine were fattened with whey and figs; and even fish in their ponds were increased by such artificial means. Our prize oxen might have astonished a Roman as much as one of their crammed peacocks would ourselves. Gluttony produces monsters, and turns away from nature to feed on unwholesome meats. The flesh of young foxes about autumn, when they fed on grapes, is praised by Galen; and Hippocrates equals the flesh of puppies to that of birds. The humorous Dr. King, who has touched on this subject, suspects that many of the Greek dishes appear charming from their mellifluous terminations, resounding with a floios and toios. Dr. King’s description of the Virtuoso Bentivoglio or Bentley, with his “Bill of Fare” out of Athenaeus, probably suggested to Smollett his celebrated scene.

The numerous descriptions of ancient cookery which Athenaeus has preserved indicate an unrivalled dexterity and refinement: and the ancients, indeed, appear to have raised the culinary art into a science, and dignified cooks into professors. They had writers who exhausted their erudition and ingenuity in verse and prose; while some were proud to immortalise their names by the invention of a poignant sauce, or a popular gateau. Apicius, a name immortalised, and now synonymous with a gorger, was the inventor of cakes called Apicians; and one Aristoxenes, after many unsuccessful combinations, at length hit on a peculiar manner of seasoning hams, thence called Aristoxenians. The name of a late nobleman among ourselves is thus invoked every day.

Of these Eruditae gultae Archestratus, a culinary philosopher, composed an epic or didactic poem on good eating. His “Gastrology” became the creed of the epicures, and its pathos appears to have made what is so expressively called “their mouths water.” The idea has been recently successfully imitated by a French poet.[2] Archestratus thus opens his subject:–

I write these precepts for immortal Greece,
That round a table delicately spread,
Or three, or four, may sit in choice repast,
Or five at most. Who otherwise shall dine,
Are like a troop marauding for their prey.

The elegant Romans declared that a repast should not consist of less in number than the Graces, nor of more than the Muses. They had, however, a quaint proverb, which Alexander ab Alexandro has preserved, not favourable even to so large a dinner-party as nine; it turns on a play of words:–

Septem convivium, Novem convicium facere.[3]

An elegant Roman, meeting a friend, regretted he could not invite him to dinner, “because my number is complete.”

When Archestratus acknowledges that some things are for the winter, and some for the summer, he consoles himself, that though we cannot have them at the same time, yet, at least, we may talk about them at all times.

This great genius seems to have travelled over land and seas that he might critically examine the things themselves, and improve, with new discoveries, the table-luxuries. He indicates the places for peculiar edibles and exquisite potables; and promulgates his precepts with the zeal of a sublime legislator, who is dictating a code designed to ameliorate the imperfect state of society.

A philosopher worthy to bear the title of cook, or a cook worthy to be a philosopher, according to the numerous curious passages scattered in Athenaeus, was an extraordinary genius, endowed not merely with a natural aptitude, but with all acquired accomplishments. The philosophy, or the metaphysics, of cookery appears in the following passage:–

See also  Adventurer 120 [The miseries of life] by Samuel Johnson

“Know then, the COOK, a dinner that’s bespoke,
Aspiring to prepare, with prescient zeal
Should know the tastes and humours of the guests;
For if he drudges through the common work,
Thoughtless of manner, careless what the place
And seasons claim, and what the favouring hour
Auspicious to his genius may present,
Why, standing ‘midst the multitude of men,
Call we this plodding fricasseer a Cook?
Oh differing far! and one is not the other!
We call indeed the general of an army
Him who is charged to lead it to the war;
But the true general is the man whose mind,
Mastering events, anticipates, combines;
Else is he but a leader to his men!
With our profession thus: the first who comes
May with a humble toil, or slice, or chop,
Prepare the ingredients, and around the fire
Obsequious, him I call a fricasseer!
But ah! the cook a brighter glory crowns!
Well skill’d is he to know the place, the hour,
Him who invites, and him who is invited,
What fish in season makes the market rich,
A choice delicious rarity! I know
That all, we always find; but always all,
Charms not the palate, critically fine.
Archestratus, in culinary lore
Deep for his time, in this more learned age
Is wanting; and full oft he surely talks
Of what he never ate. Suspect his page,
Nor load thy genius with a barren precept.
Look not in books for what some idle sage
So idly raved; for cookery is an art
Comporting ill with rhetoric; ’tis an art
Still changing, and of momentary triumph!
Know on thyself thy genius must depend.
All books of cookery, all helps of art,
All critic learning, all commenting notes,
Are vain, if, void of genius, thou wouldst cook!”
The culinary sage thus spoke: his friend
Demands, “Where is the ideal cook thou paint’st?”
“Lo, I the man?” the savouring sage replied.
“Now be thine eyes the witness of my art!
This tunny drest, so odorous shall steam,
The spicy sweetness so shall steal thy sense,
That thou in a delicious reverie
Shalt slumber heavenly o’er the Attic dish!”

In another passage a Master-Cook conceives himself to be a pupil of Epicurus, whose favourite but ambiguous axiom, that “Voluptuousness is the sovereign good,” was interpreted by the bon-vivans of antiquity in the plain sense.

Behold in me a pupil of the school
Of the sage Epicurus.

Thou a sage!

Ay! Epicurus too was sure a cook,
And knew the sovereign good. Nature his study,
While practice perfected his theory.
Divine philosophy alone can teach
The difference which the fish Glociscus[4] shows
In winter and in summer: how to learn
Which fish to choose, when set the Pleiades,
And at the solstice. ‘Tis change of seasons
Which threats mankind, and shakes their changeful frame.
This dost thou comprehend? Know, what we use
In season, is most seasonably good!

Most learned cook, who can observe these canons

And therefore phlegm and colics make a man
A most indecent guest. The aliment
Dress’d in my kitchen is true aliment;
Light of digestion easily it passes;
The chyle soft-blending from the juicy food
Repairs the solids.

Ah! the chyle! the solids!
Thou new Democritus! thou sage of medicine!
Versed in the mysteries of the Iatric art!

Now mark the blunders of our vulgar cooks!
See them prepare a dish of various fish,
Showering profuse the pounded Indian grain,
An overpowering vapour, gallimaufry
A multitude confused of pothering odours!
But, know, the genius of the art consists
To make the nostrils feel each scent distinct;
And not in washing plates to free from smoke.
I never enter in my kitchen, I!
But sit apart, and in the cool direct,
Observant of what passes, scullions’ toil.

See also  The Return Of The Birds by John Burroughs

What dost thou there?

I guide the mighty whole;
Explore the causes, prophesy the dish.
‘Tis thus I speak: “Leave, leave that ponderous ham;
Keep up the fire, and lively play the flame
Beneath those lobster patties; patient here,
Fix’d as a statue, skim, incessant skim.
Steep well this small Glociscus in its sauce,
And boil that sea-dog in a cullender;
This eel requires more salt and marjoram;
Roast well that piece of kid on either side
Equal; that sweetbread boil not over much.”
‘Tis thus, my friend, I make the concert play.


O man of science! ’tis thy babble kills!


And then no useless dish my table crowds;
Harmonious ranged, and consonantly just.


Ha! what means this?


Divinest music all!
As in a concert instruments resound,
My ordered dishes in their courses chime.
So Epicurus dictated the art
Of sweet voluptuousness, and ate in order,
Musing delighted o’er the sovereign good!
Let raving Stoics in a labyrinth
Run after virtue; they shall find no end.
Thou, what is foreign to mankind, abjure.


Right honest Cook! thou wak’st me from their dreams!

Another cook informs us that he adapts his repasts to his personages.

I like to see the faces of my guests,
To feed them as their age and station claim.
My kitchen changes, as my guests inspire
The various spectacle; for lovers now,
Philosophers, and now for financiers.
If my young royster be a mettled spark,
Who melts an acre in a savoury dish
To charm his mistress, scuttle-fish and crabs,
And all the shelly race, with mixture due
Of cordials filtered, exquisitely rich.
For such a host, my friend! expends much more
In oil than cotton; solely studying love!
To a philosopher, that animal,
Voracious, solid ham and bulky feet;
But to the financier, with costly niceness,
Glociscus rare, or rarity more rare.
Insensible the palate of old age,
More difficult than the soft lips of youth,
To move, I put much mustard in their dish;
With quickening sauces make their stupor keen,
And lash the lazy blood that creeps within.

Another genius, in tracing the art of cookery, derives from it nothing less than the origin of society; and I think that some philosopher has defined man to be “a cooking animal.”


“The art of cookery drew us gently forth
From that ferocious life, when void of faith
The Anthropophaginian ate his brother!
To cookery we owe well-ordered states,
Assembling men in dear society.
Wild was the earth, man feasting upon man,
When one of nobler sense and milder heart
First sacrificed an animal; the flesh
Was sweet; and man then ceased to feed on man!
And something of the rudeness of those times
The priest commemorates; for to this day
He roasts the victim’s entrails without salt.
In those dark times, beneath the earth lay hid
The precious salt, that gold of cookery!
But when its particles the palate thrill’d,
The source of seasonings, charm of cookery! came.
They served a paunch with rich ingredients stored;
And tender kid, within two covering plates,
Warm melted in the mouth. So art improved!
At length a miracle not yet perform’d,
They minced the meat, which roll’d in herbage soft,
Nor meat nor herbage seem’d, but to the eye,
And to the taste, the counterfeited dish
Mimick’d some curious fish; invention rare!
Then every dish was season’d more and more,
Salted, or sour, or sweet, and mingled oft
Oatmeal and honey. To enjoy the meal
Men congregated in the populous towns,
And cities flourish’d which we cooks adorn’d
With all the pleasures of domestic life.

An arch-cook insinuates that there remain only two “pillars of the state,” besides himself, of the school of Sinon, one of the great masters of the condimenting art. Sinon, we are told, applied the elements of all the arts and sciences to this favourite one. Natural philosophy could produce a secret seasoning for a dish; and architecture the art of conducting the smoke out of a chimney: which, says he, if ungovernable, makes a great difference in the dressing. From the military science he derived a sublime idea of order; drilling the under cooks, marshalling the kitchen, hastening one, and making another a sentinel. We find, however, that a portion of this divine art, one of the professors acknowledges to be vapouring and bragging!–a seasoning in this art, as well as in others. A cook ought never to come unaccompanied by all the pomp and parade of the kitchen: with a scurvy appearance, he will be turned away at sight; for all have eyes, but few only understanding.[5]

See also  The How The Iron Shirts Came To Tuscaloosa by Mary Hunter Austin

Another occult part of this profound mystery, besides vapouring, consisted, it seems, in filching. Such is the counsel of a patriarch to an apprentice! a precept which contains a truth for all ages of cookery.

Carian! time well thy ambidextrous part,
Nor always filch. It was but yesterday,
Blundering, they nearly caught thee in the fact;
None of thy balls had livers, and the guests,
In horror, pierced their airy emptiness.
Not even the brains were there, thou brainless hound!
If thou art hired among the middling class,
Who pay thee freely, be thou honourable!
But for this day, where now we go to cook,
E’en cut the master’s throat for all I care;
“A word to th’ wise,” and show thyself my scholar!
There thou mayst filch and revel; all may yield
Some secret profit to thy sharking hand.
‘Tis an old miser gives a sordid dinner,
And weeps o’er every sparing dish at table;
Then if I do not find thou dost devour
All thou canst touch, e’en to the very coals,
I will disown thee! Lo! old Skin-flint comes;
In his dry eyes what parsimony stares!

These cooks of the ancients, who appear to have been hired for a grand dinner, carried their art to the most whimsical perfection. They were so dexterous as to be able to serve up a whole pig boiled on one side, and roasted on the other. The cook who performed this feat defies his guests to detect the place where the knife had separated the animal, or how it was contrived to stuff the belly with an olio composed of thrushes and other birds, slices of the matrices of a sow, the yolks of eggs, the bellies of hens with their soft eggs flavoured with a rich juice, and minced meats highly spiced. When this cook is entreated to explain his secret art, he solemnly swears by the manes of those who braved all the dangers of the plain of Marathon, and combated at sea at Salamis, that he will not reveal the secret that year. But of an incident so triumphant in the annals of the gastric art, our philosopher would not deprive posterity of the knowledge. The animal had been bled to death by a wound under the shoulder, whence, after a copious effusion, the master-cook extracted the entrails, washed them with wine, and hanging the animal by the feet, he crammed down the throat the stuffings already prepared. Then covering the half of the pig with a paste of barley, thickened with wine and oil, he put it in a small oven, or on a heated table of brass, where it was gently roasted with all due care: when the skin was browned, he boiled the other side; and then, taking away the barley paste, the pig was served up, at once boiled and roasted. These cooks, with a vegetable, could counterfeit the shape and the taste of fish and flesh. The king of Bithynia, in some expedition against the Scythians, in the winter, and at a great distance from the sea, had a violent longing for a small fish called aphy–a pilchard, a herring, or an anchovy. His cook cut a turnip to the perfect imitation of its shape; then fried in oil, salted, and well powdered with the grains of a dozen black poppies, his majesty’s taste was so exquisitely deceived, that he praised the root to his guests as an excellent fish. This transmutation of vegetables into meat or fish is a province of the culinary art which we appear to have lost; yet these are cibi innocentes, compared with the things themselves. No people are such gorgers of mere animal food as our own; the art of preparing vegetables, pulse, and roots, is scarcely known in this country. This cheaper and healthful food should be introduced among the common people, who neglect them from not knowing how to dress them. The peasant, for want of this skill, treads under foot the best meat in the world; and sometimes the best way of dressing it is least costly.

See also  The Ungrateful Guest By James Baldwin

The gastric art must have reached to its last perfection, when we find that it had its history; and that they knew how to ascertain the aera of a dish with a sort of chronological exactness. The philosophers of Athenaeus at table dissert on every dish, and tell us of one called maati, that there was a treatise composed on it; that it was first introduced at Athens, at the epocha of the Macedonian empire, but that it was undoubtedly a Thessalian invention; the most sumptuous people of all the Greeks. The maati was a term at length applied to any dainty of excessive delicacy, always served the last.

But as no art has ever attained perfection without numerous admirers, and as it is the public which only can make such exquisite cooks, our curiosity may be excited to inquire whether the patrons of the gastric art were as great enthusiasts as its professors.

We see they had writers who exhausted their genius on these professional topics; and books of cookery were much read: for a comic poet, quoted by Athenaeus, exhibits a character exulting in having procured “The New Kitchen of Philoxenus, which,” says he, “I keep for myself to read in my solitude.” That these devotees to the culinary art undertook journeys to remote parts of the world, in quest of these discoveries, sufficient facts authenticate. England had the honour to furnish them with oysters, which they fetched from about Sandwich. Juvenal[6] records that Montanus was so well skilled in the science of good eating, that he could tell by the first bite whether they were English or not. The well-known Apicius poured into his stomach an immense fortune. He usually resided at Minturna, a town in Campania, where he ate shrimps at a high price: they were so large, that those of Smyrna, and the prawns of Alexandria, could not be compared with the shrimps of Minturna. However, this luckless epicure was informed that the shrimps in Africa were more monstrous; and he embarks without losing a day. He encounters a great storm, and through imminent danger arrives at the shores of Africa. The fishermen bring him the largest for size their nets could furnish. Apicius shakes his head: “Have you never any larger?” he inquires. The answer was not favourable to his hopes. Apicius rejects them, and fondly remembers the shrimps of his own Minturna. He orders his pilot to return to Italy, and leaves Africa with a look of contempt.

A fraternal genius was Philoxenus: he whose higher wish was to possess a crane’s neck, that he might be the longer in savouring his dainties; and who appears to have invented some expedients which might answer, in some degree, the purpose. This impudent epicure was so little attentive to the feelings of his brother guests, that in the hot bath he avowedly habituated himself to keep his hands in the scalding water; and even used to gargle his throat with it, that he might feel less impediment in swallowing the hottest dishes. He bribed the cooks to serve up the repast smoking hot, that he might gloriously devour what he chose before any one else could venture to touch the dish. It seemed as if he had used his fingers to handle fire. “He is an oven, not a man!” exclaimed a grumbling fellow-guest. Once having embarked for Ephesus, for the purpose of eating fish, his favourite food, he arrived at the market, and found all the stalls empty. There was a wedding in the town, and all the fish had been bespoken. He hastens to embrace the new-married couple, and singing an epithalamium, the dithyrambic epicure enchanted the company. The bridegroom was delighted by the honour of the presence of such a poet, and earnestly requested he would come on the morrow. “I will come, young friend, if there is no fish at the market!”–It was this Philoxenus, who, at the table of Dionysius, the tyrant of Sicily, having near him a small barbel, and observing a large one near the prince, took the little one, and held it to his ear. Dionysius inquired the reason. “At present,” replied the ingenious epicure, “I am so occupied by my Galatea,” (a poem in honour of the mistress of the tyrant,) “that I wished to inquire of this little fish, whether he could give me some information about Nereus; but he is silent, and I imagine they have taken him up too young: I have no doubt that old one, opposite to you, would perfectly satisfy me.” Dionysius rewarded the pleasant conceit with the large barbel.

See also  The Temptation Of Eve by Agnes Repplier

[Footnote 1:
Nat. Hist. lib. ix. 56. Snails are still a common dish in Vienna, and are eaten with eggs. ]

[Footnote 2:
Dr. Lister published in the early part of the last century an amusing poem, “The Art of Cookery, in imitation of ‘Horace’s Art of Poetry.’” ]

[Footnote 3:
Genial. Dierum, II. 283, Lug. 1673. The writer has collected in this chapter a variety of curious particulars on this subject. ]

[Footnote 4:
The commentators have not been able always to assign known names to the great variety of fish, particularly sea-fish, the ancients used, many of which we should revolt at. One of their dainties was a shell-fish, prickly like a hedgehog, called Echinus. They ate the dog-fish, the star-fish, porpoises or sea-hogs, and even seals. In Dr. Moffet’s “Regiment of Diet,” an exceeding curious writer of the reign of Elizabeth, republished by Oldys, may be found an ample account of the “sea-fish” used by the ancients.–Whatever the Glociscus was, it seems to have been of great size, and a shell-fish, as we may infer from the following curious passage in Athenaeus. A father, informed that his son is leading a dissolute life, enraged, remonstrates with his pedagogue:–“Knave! thou art the fault! hast thou ever known a philosopher yield himself so entirely to the pleasures thou tellest me of?” The pedagogue replies by a Yes! and that the sages of the Portico are great drunkards, and none know better than they how to attack a Glociscus. ]

[Footnote 5:
Ben Jonson, in his “Staple of News,” seems to have had these passages in view when he wrote:–

A master cook! Why, he’s the man of men
For a professor, he designes, he drawes.
He paints, he carves, he builds, he fortifies;
Makes citadels of curious fowl and fish.
Some he dry-dishes, some moats round with broths,
Mounts marrow-bones, cuts fifty-angled custards,
Bears bulwark pies, and for his outerworks
He raiseth ramparts of immortal crust;
And teacheth all the tactics at one dinner:
What rankes, what files to put his dishes in;
The whole art military. Then he knows
The influence of the stars upon his meats,
And all their seasons, tempers, qualities;
And so to fit his relishes and sauces,
He has Nature in a pot, ‘bove all the chemists,
Or airy brethren of the rosy-cross.
He is an architect, an ingineer,
A soldier, a physician, a philosopher,
A general mathematician!

[Footnote 6:
Sat. iv. 140. ]

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *