Alice and I and our ever-voracious French bulldog Ipsa spend our winters in sunny Apalachicola, Florida, and we time our arrival each year so we don’t miss the annual Oyster Cook-Off, which is always scheduled on Friday and Saturday of the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. A major fundraiser for the tiny but charming town’s volunteer fire department, the riverfront event regularly features a silent auction, a 5K road race, lots of fun kid activities, and live music. But the focus is of course on cooking and eating, with "oysters galore, shrimp, smoked mullet, hot dogs, hamburgers, and local beer," as the adverts proudly proclaim (along with a notice that greatly pleases Ipsa: "Well-mannered pets are welcomed on a leash.").
The ancient Romans, who loved festivals and street food, would have enthusiastically approved the Cook-Off menu. Although wine (vinum) was their adult beverage of choice, they knew about a variety of beers, including cervesia (like Mexican cerveza), from the Gauls to the north, and the less expensive zythum from Egypt. Many a Roman legionnaire stationed in these provinces developed a taste for the local brews, as they often did for the local ladies too, and doubtless would have savored a pint or two from Apalachicola’s award-winning Oyster City Brewing Company.
And what goes better with beer than a hot dog? While they weren’t served on buns with mustard and ketchup, the Greeks and Romans relished their own version of these sausages, which were concocted of minced meat, typically pork entrails, stuffed into casings made from the stretched linings of pig intestines or stomachs. Yum - "parts is parts," as the saying goes. Wieners (which even the ancients compared with that similarly shaped portion of the male anatomy) were commonly cured with salt, so they could be safely stored for long periods of time.
The process wasn’t foolproof of course. One Latin word for sausage, hilla, meant literally "small intestine"; another, botulus, has given us the term BOTULism, which in origin meant "sausage poisoning." Despite the risks, street vendors called BOTULarii, noisily hawking their frankfurters in the Roman forum, were as common as hot dog vendors on our modern city streets. Their concessions were called thermopolia, which meant literally "places where hot items are sold," and were very like our fast-food joints, offering an array of beverages and hot foods.
Burgers were another matter. The ancients raised cattle (bos/bovis, as in BOVine and Sesame Street’s "BOSsy the cow"), but primarily for use as working animals and, to a lesser extent, for their milk. Beef (Latin bubula) was not common in the Greco-Roman diet, although oxen were used for large animal sacrifices (notably in Homeric epic) and their flesh eaten by the celebrants at religious festivals - the ancient counterpart to our church barbecues. Athletes bulked up on beef, the Roman chef Apicius has a recipe or two, and in Petronius’ ancient novel, the "Satyricon," the ostentatious host Trimalchio places a small cut of beef atop the taurus/bull image on a serving dish decorated with signs of the zodiac. In Traupman’s "Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency," hamburger is "chopped beef," bubula concisa (as in inCISion/inCISor),but the idea of ground-beef patties on a bun was a much later, perhaps German or even American invention.
Burgers and franks are fine, but Rome (like Apalachicola) was situated on the banks of a river, the Tiber, not far from its mouth into the bay (its port town was in fact called Ostia, Latin for "mouths"), and its citizens were much into fishing and seafood. Like us, they loved shrimp (Latin squilla or cammarus) and ate them roasted or pan-fried, honey-glazed, or stewed in an oil and wine garnish for fish.
Romans were crazy for oysters/ostreae too and could be as fussy as we are about where they came from, often paying extravagant sums to import varieties from England or the near east. If their empire had extended to America, they’d have insisted the best were from Apalach. The emperor Vitellius is said to have downed a thousand or more at a single sitting, and Domitian’s imperial councillors included an expert who could identify an oyster’s provenance with just one taste.
Mullet was another culinary favorite, prized by the ancients. The satirist Juvenal condemned another gluttonous member of that same Domitian’s cabinet for buying a six-pound mullet for 6,000 sesterces, the equivalent of at least several hundred U.S. dollars. The red mullet (mullus) was regarded as especially fine dining - and supposed by some to have aphrodisiac qualities as well. Romans liked them grilled and spiced with the salty fish sauce called garum.
Watch for more mullet talk in my column on Florida’s St. George Island Mullet Toss, which comes around on the second Saturday in June each year. Meantime you’ll find Alice, me, and the mostly "well-mannered" Ipsa down by the Apalachicola River every MLK weekend, with our plates of squillae, ostreae, and mullus, and a coupla cups of cervesia from our beloved OCBC.
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.