• Parker Johnson

Porridges can be found around the world, and have been eaten for tens of thousands of years. Cato the Elder wrote a recipe for boiled wheat with milk that may have been eaten by peckish Romans. Here, a recreated version for you to make, plus a story of porridge's past.

A bowl of Cato's wheat porridge with milk. He was centuries ahead of the whole foods game!

It's the morning eight days before the calends of February, and you're woken by the sound of water dripping in the corner of your apartment. The roof has been leaking recently from the past week's winter rain, but the price of maintenance is steep and it's tricky to get up to the fourth floor anyway.

As you clamber out of your straw bed, a cold breeze drifts over the windowsill, causing slivers of early light to pierce through the sheet flapping across your window. The usual bevies of hawkers and peddlers have yet to set up shop along the street below, so the morning is noticeably quiet. You hear the floorboards creak and sag beneath your feet as you walk toward the window, and as you jerk the sheet aside, you feel your stomach grumble.

Walking back across the room, you catch a glimpse of a rat shooting out from a stack of crockery next to the hearth. You grab a bowl from the top and drag a low stool over to the fire. The coals are still smoldering, gently warming your feet. Your stomach growls again, and you peer into the olla resting on the embers, only to see... porridge.

Porridge, porridge, porridge. Grain and water. Dishes like these can be found around the world think Indian kheer and Chinese congee, both made from rice; South African mealie pap and Southern grits, from corn; or kasha, made from buckwheat and eaten across eastern Europe. Regardless of the grain being stewed, porridge is everywhere (and has been for millennia).

In 2015, archaeologists excavating Grotta Paglicci, a cave in southern Italy, discovered a stone pestle covered in the remains of ground oats. Now dated to around 32,000 years ago, this grinding stone would've been used by members of the Gravettian complex, a term used to refer to similar artifact styles these people shared (this archaeological era is known for its "Venus" statuettes, like the one from Willendorf in Austria).

These people would've almost certainly been hunter-gatherers. And though there's no direct evidence, it's plausible the oats they would've foraged and ground were heated and eaten with water analysis suggests they were dried. Even before the dawn of organized farming, we can think that people have lived on porridge. Who knew?

So you may eat the same breakfast as a cave-dwelling colony of Italian foragers did thousands of years ago! As great as this may be, we mustn't forget porridge's historical recurrence. Medieval diners ate a porridge of cracked wheat called frumenty, the Greeks ate a barley broth called trahana, and the Akkadians ate sasqu, an emmer or barley porridge served with dates. And as in the scene I set at the beginning of this post, porridge-eating permeated Roman society, too.

Some sources I read described porridge as the aboriginal dish of the Roman people, which doesn't seem all that far-fetched. It's believed porridge formed the basis of the vesperna, an evening meal eaten during the earlier part of Rome's history. Even in the imperial age, it seems likely that poor Romans lived on little more than the grain provided by the Cura Annona, a grain dole that kept the hoi polloi fed and relatively happy.

The Romans cultivated umpteen dozen crops. Well, maybe not, but Pliny the Elder describes a number of different grains known to the farmers of his day wheat, barley, millet, panic, vetch, lupine, lucerne or alfalfa, and chickpeas (as legumes were considered grains, along with cereals).

Many of these were probably eaten as porridge in addition to being used as fodder, thatch, or tinder, but it seems wheat was the corn of choice. Another parallel between the classical world and today check! Cato the Elder, the senator who wrote extensively on agriculture and pastoral life, wrote down a recipe for a wheat porridge with milk in his work De agri cultura (On farming). Here's what he said:

Graneam triticeam sic facito. Selibram tritici puri in mortarium purum indat, lavet bene corticemque deterat bene eluatque bene. Postea in aulam indat et aquam puram cocatque. Ubi coctum erit, lacte addat paulatim usque adeo, donec cremor crassus erit factus.

Wheat porridge is made this way. Place a half-pound of clean wheat into a clean mortar, wash well, rub away the shell of the grain well, and clean it out well. Afterwards, pour it into a pot and boil pure water. When it has been cooked, add milk gradually until the gruel will finally have become thick.

This recipe clearly calls for wheat "triticeam" in Latin. The question remains, though, of what type of wheat is meant by this recipe. And would it have been ground or whole? Dried or roasted or raw? I'm thinking that the recipe can help clue us in.

Cato mentions that the grain at hand had to be stripped of its shell before it could be eaten. So we couldn't use semolina, farina, or any other wheat meal there would be no need to rub away anything.

Moreover, Cato describes that alica, as used in his Punic porridge recipe, ought to be soaked before serving. It's believed alica is spelt, either whole or ground, and the modern consensus is that spelt and other types of hulled wheat are best if they're soaked beforehand. Here, Cato doesn't mention any soaking business prior to cooking the wheat, so I don't think spelt is right, either.

For these reasons, my best guess is that common wheat (Triticum aestivum) is what we're working with. I figure farro would work in a pinch, though. Grain terminology is hairy, I've decided, much like the awns on an ear of wheat. But enough of that here's my recreated recipe to try!

1 cup of wheat berries or farro

3 cups of water

½ cup of milk

A healthy pinch of salt

Pour the wheat into a strainer and rinse with tap water. Transfer to a small pot, fill with the three cups of water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Let cook until the water is mostly gone from the pot, about 15-20 minutes. At this point, the wheat should be just past al dente, so a bit mushy. If not, add more water and continue to cook until the grain achieves this consistency. Lower to low heat and slowly stir in the milk. Serve while still warm.

Pictures of the famous Venus of Willendorf, the porridge ingredients, the boiled grain in a pot, and some of the porridge with milk in an aptly simple bowl.

This recipe has lent further weight to a conclusion I've formed: plain food is good food. It's tasty, sure, and by the nature of this dish's plainness, gives the chance to dress it up. Lard or olive oil, cheese, roast squab, leeks, parsley you name it, you could mix it into this porridge. Or you could enjoy it plain, savoring the porridge and the comfort of not sleeping in a rat-ridden heap of straw.

  • Parker Johnson

With colder winters and the conclusion of Saturnalia and the modern holiday season, now seems like as good a time as any to write about the Romans' version of mulled wine. Here, a brief history of spices in wine and a recipe to try yourself.

A photo of the conditum paradoxum I made. Real peppery!

Step aside, eggnog! The Swedes call it glögg, the Germans glühwein, and the English wassail, but no matter the name, the pairing of spices and wine seems to be perfect for cold-weather beverages. This has been the consensus for millennia even the Romans drank spiced wine.

Nowadays, these drinks and their ilk contain many of the same ingredients cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, anise, orange plus a base of wine sweetened with sugar. The Roman recipe, we could assume, would be largely the same then, right? Well, I've found that many of the spices steeped in today's iterations of mulled wine weren't unknown but were incredibly expensive in antiquity.

Pliny the Elder writes that a Roman pound (328.9 g) of cinnamon could cost as much as 1,500 denarii, evidently as much as some laborers would make in fifty months of work. Other ingredients, namely the orange, were completely foreign to the European continent (only being introduced by the Moors centuries later).

In any case, modern mulled wine wouldn't have been an option for any ancient drinkers. However, it does descend from an ancient drink over a centuries-long evolution. Where do we begin?

The oldest recipe for mulled wine that modern drinkers would recognize can be found in The Forme of Cury, or The Way of Cooking in Middle English. This cookbook, written in the 14th century, is a watershed source in the development of modern cuisine it documents the arrivals of ingredients like mace, gourds, and cloves in European dining and contains medieval forms of other recipes like juscellum.

It contains many of the ingredients we could expect to see today: wine and sugar, along with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom, much to my dismay. But there's something vital about this recipe's name: it calls the drink not mulled wine, but ypocras.

Ypocras, or hippocras, comes from the medieval Latin vinum Hippocraticum, or "Hippocratic wine," not necessarily for its connection to the Greek physician, but because it was poured through a Hippocratic sleeve (essentially a water filter) before drinking. As we'll soon be able to see, filtering wine before it was drunk was a practice among the Romans that seems to have been continued by medieval vintners.

It's possible, then, that mulled wine evolved from an initial Roman recipe, one that was filtered, becoming fancier as more exciting spices took root in medieval European kitchens. The Romans would have called their proto-hippocras "surprise wine," or conditum paradoxum. This drink's recipe comes from the pages of Apicius, where it begins the book:

Conditi paradoxi compositio: mellis pondo XV in aeneum vas mittuntur, praemissis vini sextariis duobus, ut in coctura mellis vinum decoquas. quod igni lento et aridis lignis calefactum, commotum ferula dum coquitur, si effervere coeperit, vini rore compescitur, praeter quod subtracto igni in se redit. cum perfrixerit, rursus accenditur. hoc secundo ac tertio fiet, ac tum demum remotum a foco post pridie despumatur. tum ‹mittes› piperis uncias IV iam triti, masticis scripulos III, folii et croci dragmae singulae, dactilorum ossibus torridis quinque, isdemque dactilis vino mollitis, intercedente prius suffusione vini de suo modo ac numero, ut tritura lenis habeatur. his omnibus paratis supermittis vini lenis sextaria XVIII. carbones perfecto aderunt.

The composition of surprise spiced wine: Put fifteen pounds of honey into a copper vessel and send forth two sextarii of wine, so that in the cooking of the honey you may boil off the wine. This is heated on a slow fire with dry firewood, stirred with a cane while it is cooked. If it begins to boil over it will be quenched with the moisture of wine, then removed from the fire.
When it is cooked through, it will be lit again. This will be done for a second and third time, and then finally, after having been removed from the hearth the day before, it is skimmed. Then add four ounces of pepper now ground, three scruples of mastic, a drachm each of saffron and bay leaves, and five roasted date pits softened in wine that have been ground lightly. When all this is done, pour over eighteen sextarii of light wine. Charcoal will make it complete.

The first thing I noticed as I read this recipe was how much it called for. Fifteen pounds of honey! That amount is monstrous for most anybody to cook with I'd imagine this conditum was intended for a banquet so as with the Punic porridge recipe, I decided I would need to shrink the quantities provided.

Related to this are the units in the original text. Though I've simplified these on my own for you to use, I felt compelled to comment on two of the measurements used: scruples and drachms. These two tiny measures around 1 and 3 grams, respectively are remnants of the now-extinct apothecaries' system, once used to weigh medicine.

Curiously, they've survived in common parlance: just think of someone compunctiously commenting they "have scruples" about something or hearing a Scotsman ask for a dram of whisky. Not entirely pertinent to this post, but I find these words fun to mull over (and worth taking a short etymological detour!).

Finally, I'll address an ingredient that befuddled me as I first checked out this recipe: mastic. As it turns out, mastic is the resin drawn from the bark of a Mediterranean evergreen closely related to the pistachio. It's collected almost exclusively on the Greek island of Chios, where there are even designated mastic-harvesting villages. The mastic beads are also sometimes called "tears of Chios." They find uses as incense, as flavoring for a Greek liqueur called mastiha, and as chewing gum (sharing an etymon with "masticate").

I ordered my mastic online in a little 10-gram sachet. It wasn't terribly hard to find vendors selling mastic, but I'm not sure how many were genuine sometimes other lesser pine resins are sold instead because of mastic's rarity. The stuff I ordered took a long time to arrive, probably due to shipping delays and the fact that it came from Greece!

I'd recommend not omitting mastic as it adds a fragrant and, well, piney flavor to the wine. If you're not able to get your paws on any, though, I've read that fennel seeds work just fine. Without further ado, here's my take on the recipe for conditum paradoxum:

1 tsp of peppercorns

¼ tsp of mastic

2 bay leaves

1 date with pit

A pinch of saffron

¾ cup of honey

2½ + ¼ cups of dry white wine (plus a few squirts more)

Pour the honey and ¼ cup of wine into a pot and bring to a boil, stirring gently the whole time. Right as the mixture begins to seethe, add in a dash of cold wine and quickly take off the heat. Once the big bubbles have disappeared, skim off the white foam floating at the top. Repeat this process twice more. After letting it cool slightly, pour the honey mixture into a container and let it sit overnight. Fill a small bowl with extra wine and begin soaking the date in it.

The following day, skim off any scummy foam floating on the honey-wine's surface. I found it easiest, then, to transfer the wine into a pitcher. Grind the pepper and add it to the pitcher, along with the mastic, saffron, and bay leaves. Take the date from its wine bath and remove the pit. Crush it if you can I wasn't able to as it was rock-hard and toss it, too, into the wine pitcher. Pour over the 2½ cups of wine. I would recommend letting this steep for another day, but it can be drunk sooner. Strain, warm slowly, and enjoy!

Photos of a mastic tree, the ingredients for conditum paradoxum, and the finished wine in a glass.

This recipe was long, in content and in preparation, but it makes an interesting drink. It's really sweet. I think that should go without saying, but even starting with a dry wine didn't prove to be enough. I was surprised, as the recipe's name would suggest, by the other flavors I was able make out.

There was a nice nip from the pepper and the mastic was balanced enough that I could taste some bitterness without it feeling like licking a pine tree! Plus, what's not to love about the color the saffron imparts? Though not anything like mulled wine today, this recipe was a joy to make, offering a taste of the glories of Saturnalias long, long ago.

  • Parker Johnson

Though it's Jupiter who Holst named the Bringer of Jollity, it was Saturn who brought the Romans into the streets and taverns. Here, a less gastronomical description of one of the merriest celebrations in classical Rome.

Antoine-François Callet's vision of Saturnalia in 1783, Winter or Saturnalia (L'Hiver ou les Saturnales), the Louvre. The air of mirth is obvious!

After hearing the same set of Christmas songs over and over again and driving by miles of lights, I'm inclined to find the whole idea of "holiday cheer" stale. Don't get me wrong, I like this time of year. But if I'm being completely honest, it can grow awfully predictable.

Why don't we think about going from door to door shouting, "Io Saturnalia!" or playing knucklebones in public? That'd be something totally new, but most people would think you've gone around the bend. Even if my better judgment has prevented me from spicing up the modern holiday season with pagan revelry, it's still fascinating to think about.

On December 17, the Romans would kick off their largest festival of the year Saturnalia. Originally meant as a literal and symbolic liberation of Saturn, priests would enter his namesake temple in Rome to cut off the wool that bound his statue's feet. By "releasing" Saturn, the world was seen to return to its primeval state of innocence and plenty.

Following the Punic Wars, the holiday changed and slowly began to grow from one day to a whole week, stretching from December 17-23. The religious foundation of Saturnalia seems, more often than not, to be overlooked in favor of more exciting and frivolous things. It is true, though, that the private face of this festival would have been loud and raucous. This fact was something Pliny the Younger, nephew of Pliny the Elder, didn't enjoy:

...I find it delightful to sit there [in the villa], especially during the Saturnalia, when all the rest of the house rings with the merriment and shouts of the festival-makers; for then I do not interfere with their amusements, and they do not distract me from my studies.

Side note: he sounds like a killjoy, but Pliny's dourness wasn't totally in vain. His preoccupation with reading was what saved him from the same fate as his uncle, Pliny the Elder being swallowed by a pyroclastic flow from Mt. Vesuvius.

What caused the shouts Pliny preferred to steer clear of? One of the activities permitted on Saturnalia was gambling. Usually banned by taboo, all Romans were allowed to play during this week, including slaves. Games like these were overseen by the King of Saturnalia, a figure chosen in each household by drawing lots. Whoever was selected would have the job of ruling (or misruling) by insulting dinner guests, chasing people around the house, and stirring up debauchery.

Other rules were also loosened and roles were reversed. During the topsy-turviness of Saturnalia, slaves could insult their masters without fear of punishment, masters served their slaves food, and all ate together at the same table. Aristocrats sported the Greek synthesis, a colorful robe less cumbersome than the traditional toga but viewed as too gaudy for daily wear. Everyone would also don the pileus, a funky, pointed felt cap that was usually reserved for freedmen.

Another activity was the delivery of sigillaria. Usually made from wax or clay, these figurines were customarily traded during Saturnalia. I've read that they could have either been treated as reminders of the extinct practice of human sacrifice or that they were children's toys (I'm hoping not at the same time). A golden statuette of Victoria, a terracotta Hercules, a silver Minerva, and a marble Leander (the guy who legendarily drowned swimming across the Hellespont to see his lover) are among the sigillaria Martial describes in his work Epigrams.

The exchange of sigillaria was part of a much larger system of gift-giving on Saturnalia. Whether party-goers were thanking their hosts or hosts were giving presents to their guests, it seems this constituted a large part of Saturnalian spirit. Martial wrote short poems about lots of these party favors (apophoreta), a large portion of which are food.

Among the many things given by Umber and Sabellus, two guests at Martial's Saturnalia party, were Libyan figs, mulled wine from Syria, Picene olives, and sausage from Lucania. Though we can't say conclusively if these goodies would've been eaten specifically for Saturnalia (as, say, stuffing is for Thanksgiving today), it becomes clear from ancient sources that food and ritual were intertwined on this holiday.

Photos of the Temple of Saturn in Rome, a Greek plate showing a man wearing the pileus, bone dice, and a clay statuette of a gladiator at the Met in New York City (perhaps a sigillarium?).

By digging around through Latin texts, we're able to determine that dining was an important aspect of a festival that was old, even by Roman standards. Food here wasn't just used for sustenance, but symbolically as a reminder of the land's bounty as the nights grew longer and the weather colder.

Food and holidays, broadly speaking, are both a social glue, things that have bound people and cultures together for millennia when the two are combined and partying is added into the mix, it's clearly even better. Sadly, there's no real excuse nowadays to take off work or school to gamble and feast for a week. But we can celebrate Saturnalia in jest. Grab a carafe of conditum paradoxum, a handful of Libyan figs, and a loaf of libum, and you should be set! Io Saturnalia!