Apicius was such an over-the-top foodie, even by the grand standards of the Roman Empire, that his name not only became synonymous with the culinary high life but, so scholars believe, also the popular title for a cookbook formally known as "De re coquinaria" (On cooking). This work, the only known cookbook to have survived from the ancient Greco-Roman world, has for centuries intrigued scholars and cooks with its glimpse of Roman life.
"I think if people look into Roman cooking at all, they go to 'Apicius' first," said Rosemary L. Moore, lecturer in history and classics at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. That's why the book still counts, she noted. "What I tell my students is, the way we choose to eat talks about social structures and who we are as people. The study of history, in general, is learning about other people."
Marcus Gavius Apicius was certainly hungry for that prestige. He lived in the 1st century during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius and became famed for his love of food. A contemporary biography, "On the Luxury of Apicius," is now lost; most of the surviving anecdotes from the time tend toward the censorious. "One almost feels he was too bad to be true," write Christopher Grocock and Sally Grainger in the introduction to their 2006 translation of "Apicius."
Apicius gained lasting notoriety, wrote the late historian Phyllis Pray Bober in her book "Art, Culture & Cuisine: Ancient & Medieval Gastronomy," by killing himself when he realized there wasn't enough money left to keep him in the culinary style to which he was accustomed. That style, she wrote, included creating a dish "from the crests of living cocks," parboiling poultry before cleaning and plucking to "seal in the full savor of fat and juices" and killing pigs with doses of honeyed wine. Apicius also fed dried figs to pigs in order to fatten their livers for foie gras.
"The special flavor imparted to pork liver as a result of being 'figged' (ficatum) ultimately came to be applied generically to all liver (fegato in Italian)," Bober added.
Yet, despite his critics, Apicius clearly had his supporters and admirers. (Pliny, no fan, pinned a fad for flamingo tongues on him.) That may explain why a cookbook created 300 years later bore his name. (Of the roughly 500 recipes, seven are believed to have links to Apicius himself, write Grocock and Grainger.)
"By associating his compilation with the name of Apicius, the editor endowed it with a certain credibility that no doubt helped to ensure its survival to the present day," wrote Carol Dery in an essay, "The Art of Apicius," published in "Cooks & Other People," the proceedings of the 1995 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.
Two 9th-century copies of the cookbook are known to have survived. One is in the Vatican; the other is at the New York Academy of Medicine in New York City. For centuries after their rediscovery in the Renaissance, it was believed Marcus Gavius Apicius actually wrote the book. But modern scholars believe the cookbook was compiled later from various sources.
Paul Freedman, a Yale history professor and editor of "Food: The History of Taste," says the complexity of some dishes in "Apicius" has led to debate on whether the recipes should be taken seriously. He compares "Apicius" not to a practical book like "Joy of Cooking" but the more conceptual books published in recent years by such famous chefs as Ferran Adria of the former El Bulli in Spain and Rene Redzepi of Noma in Denmark.
"This book was not meant for home cooks but other professionals. He was probably addressing the other chefs of wealthy people," Freedman says. "What the recipes in Apicius share with El Bulli and Noma is a cutting-edge quality and the assumption there's a lot of labor available."
Recipes in "Apicius" have been panned for being overspiced, overflavored and as over-the-top as the real man. That criticism is unfair, wrote Grainger in her book, "Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today," because "Apicius" is a book for cooks, by a cook. Prior knowledge and training is assumed.
"The numerous spices were used with considerable restraint and in fact the very subtlety of their use is easy to misinterpret, and the results of such misinterpretation would support modern criticism," Grainger wrote, "but with care, the flavours of the various ingredients can be balanced ... and the results are stunning."
ROAST LAMB WITH CORIANDER
Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 8 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
Adapted from "Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today" by Sally Grainger.
1/2 cup coriander seed