When in Rome: Dinner Lecture event features food, details of ancient feast

When one thinks of Italian cooking, pasta and sauce are among the first things that come to mind. But when some 150 guests sat down to a Roman feast Tuesday (June 11) at the University Union, there was no marinara on the menu.

No tomatoes of any kind, in fact — nor did potatoes, corn, citrus fruits, chocolate or peanuts make the cut. That’s because these staples of modern diets were unknown to the ancient Romans, and the feast — along with the talk that accompanied it — was true to history.

The event was the latest installment in UW-Green Bay’s recently revived Dinner Lecture Series, a popular campus and community fixture of the 1980s and 90s that fell dormant before being brought back in 2011 by the Division of Outreach and Adult Access. Tuesday’s dinner lecture featured award-winning Prof. Greg Aldrete, Humanistic Studies, an expert on ancient Rome and a popular instructor with traditional and non-traditional students alike.

Guests dined on traditional appetizers (olives, cheeses and other authentic snacks), lentil soup, carrots with herbs and honey; apple-stuffed pork loin; a variety of side dishes and honey custard for dessert. And while they consumed many of the same foods the ancient Romans might have, the style of the evening was very different, Aldrete told the packed house.

For one thing, the Roman convivium (gathering) generally featured guests clustered in multiples of nine, lying stomach-down on padded platforms (three to a platform) arranged in an open-ended square while they ate. The host would decide on an appropriate ratio of water to wine — depending on the desired level of festiveness — and a conversation topic to match (less wine meant a more philosophical discussion). Aldrete told lecture attendees many of the gatherings would be open only to men, and that some ancient Romans spent enormous sums to host elaborate status-symbol parties. Guests might hang out in the public square, angling for an invite prior to the event, and bring a large napkin to fill with leftovers before departing.

Of course, not all Romans were wealthy enough to dine in this fashion, Aldrete told attendees. The diet for the average Roman consisted primarily of olives (often in the form of oil), some sort of grain or bread, and grapes (generally in the form of wine). Most Romans also would consume Garum, a fermented fish sauce whose description thoroughly yet good-naturedly disgusted many audience members, on a regular basis.

Dinner lecture attendees had been told togas were welcome attire at the event; and though no one came thusly clad, Aldrete did dress a willing volunteer in the traditional piece of clothing. The toga also served as a status symbol, Aldrete said, and wearing one without proper pedigree was punishable by death.

The Dinner Lecture Series has featured cuisine of and speakers on Israel, Peru, Mexico and the Basque region of Spain. Up next, Associate Prof. Katia Levintova, will speak about Russia at an event featuring the country’s authentic cuisine. That dinner is slated for Thursday, Sept. 26. For more information or to register, visit the Dinner Lecture Series website.

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Photos by Dan Moore, Outreach and Adult Access