Juscellum (Bread Porridge)
The central role of grains in Roman cuisine made for a wide variety of breads and porridges. This dish, though not attested by ancient sources, combines the two. Here is a description of its enduring popularity and a recipe to prepare.
A photo of the unprepossessing juscellum I made using the recipe below.
Following the reforms of the Gracchi brothers in the second century BC, the Roman government developed a practice called the Cura Annonae. Named after Annona, the goddess of (you guessed it) the grain supply, it involved giving out doles of wheat to the poor residents of the city for subsistence. The Cura worked both as an early sort of social safety net and as a nifty political maneuver: by feeding the masses, they remained relatively happy and peaceful.
As grain was the only guaranteed food item for thousands of ancient citizens, it had an inestimable role in Roman cuisine. When it came time to prepare these grains, there were two main options for most people: porridge (puls) or bread (panis).
Somewhere along the line, somebody must’ve thought, You know what sounds really good? Bread porridge! And man, was it a hit! By making one staple dish from the stale scraps of another, an even better combination was born. This magnificent food-child was something the Romans called juscellum. Except we don’t know if they actually did.
I read about juscellum from several modern-day sources that claimed the porridge could ultimately be traced back to the main cookbook I’ve used, Apicius, but I couldn’t find anything like this recipe anywhere. The closest I could get to the first century AD, around the time that text was compiled, was the fourteenth century and, what’s more, in writing from England, not the expected location of Rome or greater Italy.
A medieval scholar by the cool name of Geoffrey the Grammarian published a treatise — more of an English-Latin dictionary — called Promptorium parvulorum, which happened to mention the dish. (Side note: this book was later published by a printer called Wynkyn de Worde, an even better name I know everybody wants.) Little can be gleaned from Geoffrey’s entry, though, as there's no description of ingredients or anything like that.
However, around the same time, another work told of juscellum, or at least its medieval English descendant, jusselle. This recipe comes from a book named The Forme of Cury (“The Way of Cooking” in Middle English), which was said to have been written by the royal cooks of King Richard II. The Forme of Cury is a landmark text at least when it comes to food history, as the book is the first to document now-integral ingredients from around the world like gourds and cloves being used in recipes in the British Isles (pretty remarkable in my opinion!).
A third source, titled Liber cure cocorum, was published a little while later than the other two (around 1430) in Lancashire. There’s something a bit unusual about how this recipe for jusselle is written. The same goes for many of the other recipes in the Liber cure cocorum and other Middle English recipes, too. It’s composed in verse, so it rhymes. I’m guessing this style acted as a sort of memory aid — by setting up a recipe in pairs of rhymes, it’s less difficult to remember.
I think that’s very clever, and it adds even more charm to many of the interesting dishes in the book. Middle English is a fascinating stage in our language's history, but gradual changes in phonology and spelling have made these medieval texts a little thorny to interpret. Below is the original recipe and my modern English translation:
Take myud bred and eyren thou swynge / To hom to-gedur wyth out lettyng / Take fresshe brothe of gode befe/ Coloure hyt wyth safron that is me lefe / Boyle hyt softly, and in tho boylyng / Do ther to sage, and persely yoyng.
Take grated bread and beaten eggs
To hom [?] together without stopping
Take fresh beef broth
Color it with saffron
Boil it softly, and while it’s boiling
Add sage and young parsley.
The presence of three unrelated sources support the popularity of this jusselle recipe, at least among medieval English diners. This dish feels strikingly similar to Roman porridge recipes, or even the more foreign puls Punica. The name could also support the idea of a Roman origin, as it comes from Latin. Jusselle seems to be a Middle English or Anglo-Norman interpretation of the Latin word juscellum. The first part of the word, jus, means “soup” or “broth,” and the ending is diminutive, so it basically means “little broth.”
Again, we can’t be entirely sure the Romans truly ate something called juscellum, but I’ve decided to put my own spin on the medieval recipe from Liber cure cocorum, just for the fun of it! Here’s what I prepared:
3 cups of breadcrumbs, freshly grated
2 ½ cups of beef broth
A pinch of saffron
2 leaves of sage
A small bunch of parsley
Pour the beef broth into a medium-sized pan and turn the stove to low heat. Add the saffron to the pan and let simmer for about ten minutes. In a small bowl off to the side, beat the eggs and add them to the breadcrumbs in a separate bowl. Stir the bread well, until it looks like the eggs have been absorbed. After the broth has simmered, mix in the bread and continue to stir. Chop the sage and parsley and add to the pan. Pour into a bowl to serve.
Pictures of the ingredients (I forgot the parsley) and the prepared juscellum.
Just based on looks, this dish isn't something I'd choose to eat. It looks more like pig slop than proper porridge, but you should never judge a bowl by its porridge (or something like that). I thought it tasted like stuffing, except blended together. The beef broth was the keystone ingredient — it added really all of the flavor and substance. I do think adding a bit more in the future could make the juscellum a little less stodgy.
What I made following the recipe above was really good, though. I could imagine Roman laborers eating this, and I can see why it remained a mainstay of peasant cooking for over a millennium after the fall of Rome — it's super easy to prepare and is very filling. Whether or not Roman cooks truly made juscellum, its story is a fascinating one and, what's more, it's delicious!