Food in the Ancient World

By John M. Wilkins and Shaun Hill

Well, it was on the “Librarians’ Picks!” shelf so I picked it. I like thinking about how culture changes over time, and I tend to assume that we are more similar to our ancient brethren than not. I look for ways to prove my theories correct, and end up reading random sociological and historical texts when I find them. So if a librarian liked it…

It turns out that no particular librarian is taking credit for putting this book on that shelf. When pressed, the librarian checking out other books to me admitted that sometimes they just put new books there. I was disappointed, yet relieved. It was not the kind of book I wanted my librarians to be recommending to folks. It was not a very good read.

That said, it was a good book, I guess. I don’t know a lot about Greek culture, certainly not nearly as much as it was assumed by the authors that a reader would know–and there were a lot of assumptions, about Greek customs and habits and political divisions (as in regions and cities and rural geographies). It was peculiarly structured, too, with way more introducing than seemed warranted. I think that’s a byproduct of being from two very distinct authors. One is a scholar, one is a chef. It is unrealistic to expect them to collaborate. I mean, what’s the chef really going to say about the etymology of different Greek terms for beverage vessels? And what’s a scholar really going to know about cooking a bovine uterus? (Bovuterus?)

So why four stars? The information was solid, and I learned a lot. I never thought about the relationship between sacrifice and scarcity of meat before, or about the contradictions between community-building sacrifice events and common marketplace transactions. The codification of the hierarchy of foods was interesting, as was the documentation of who was talking about food (playwrights and doctors). It is fascinating to observe how scholars glean information from fragments of text, citations in existent texts, and artwork in order to form opinions about an earlier time. And were I to be assigned the task of writing a paper about some domestic facet of Ancient Greek life, I’m sure one of these chapters would be a perfect source.

Not a great cover to cover to read, lots of things to think about. Because I am an advanced reader and know how to find scintillating tidbits in boring material, I didn’t mind wading through this book. It was a wade. But it was thought-provoking. Maybe I just have dorky thoughts.

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