Aristophanes’ comedies are not only important sources about ancient theatre but also daily life in the 5th century BCE, with the exaggeration and excess typical of the comical writing. One of the aspects most important to us is the description of food, which we find both in Greek comedy and Roman sources. The text we chose for this week’s recipe is Birds, one of the best works by this playwright, which tell the journey of two men who will found the mythical city of birds.
At the beginning of the comedy, the Athenians Euelpides and Pisthetaerus are following two birds, bought at the market by a seller who assured them that they are able to bring them to Tereus, who became a hoopoe but was born as a man, to ask him if he knows a quiet city in which to live.
Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, however, are quite bewildered when they see Tereus, who seems quite a strange creature. His servant says that he still desires, sometimes, anchovies and mashed legumes (or cereals, the word etnous refers to a plate similar to Roman puls), and when the two men arrived, he was napping after a meal based on insects and myrtle. Tereus has a ridiculous beak and no feathers, and says that all birds lose their feathers in winter.
A city like the ones they are searching for, in which one can live in peace without paying back their debts, does not seem to exist. Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, then, suggest founding one: a city for the birds to rule on men, preventing the smoke of the sacrifices to reach the gods if they do not pay a tribute, and in this way, starving them.
Tereus, then, summons all the birds to decide what to do. The birds, however, are not happy that Tereus has brought men among them, because they are the enemy, and decide to tear them to pieces.
To save his life, Pisthetaerus says that it is a pity that it is forgotten that once the birds were kings, even before Chronos, the Titans, and Earth. Once, they ruled even on the gods and Zeus himself. For example, the rooster was once the king of the Persians, before Darius, and the proof is that he is called the bird of Persia, not to consider that when he crows, everyone get up to go to work when the sky is still dark. In the same way, the Phoenicians begin reaping the wheat in the fields when the cuckoo sings, and the gods themselves keep a bird with them: Zeus an eagle, Athena an owl, and Apollos a hawk. Now, people disrespect the birds by hunting them, selling them in bundles on the market, and cooking them with oil, cheese, silphium, and vinegar, which is the same destiny that will befall the enemies of democracy in the future city of birds.
These words are enough to convince the birds, which ask Pisthetaerus to teach them how to build a city to restore the lost glory of the birds. The man recommends taxing the gods for receiving their sacrifices and assigning to each god a bird: if one wants to offer a sacrifice to a god, they must sacrifice to the bird at the same time. If people do not understand that now the gods are the birds, they must be punished, for instance by devouring all the seeds in the fields. The birds now are convinced to build their city to become gods again.
The rules in the city of birds, named Nephelokokkygia, are different from the Greek cities, the law is upside-down, in the name of freedom, and everyone is welcomed to join them and receive a pair of wings, though, as we have mentioned above, the enemies of democracy risk to end up roasted. When the birds are building the city, however, the gods begin starving from the absence of sacrifices, so they send messengers to find an agreement with the birds and prevent a war, and the story concludes with a marriage and a consequent alliance.
In the Greek sources, we find several kinds of birds, both domestic and wild. For this recipe, we chose quails, very common in Greek cooking, but you may use others to your taste. The most important ingredients are silphium and cheese, both grated with a grater, as specified in another passage of the text.
Silphium is an ancient spice very popular in ancient Mediterranean cuisine. The authors, especially Theophrastus and Dioscorides, describe two main varieties, one of them, called silphium Parthicum, corresponds to traditional asafoetida.
The cheese, instead, is surely aged, since in the text it is grated. We recommend sheep cheese or a cheese made with half goat milk and half sheep milk, described even in the Odyssey, in the book dedicated to Polyphemus.
To know more about ancient cooking, check out our Patreon page, in which you find the first six books of De Re Coquinaria and other translations of sources, in addition to several articles on historical food. For more information about Roman cuisine, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources.
If you are interested in the passage between ancient and medieval cooking, check out our new book, with the translation, commentary, and glossary of a beautiful 6th-century source, De Observatione Ciborum, written by the physician Anthimus for the king of the Franks Theuderic. This book contains some of the earliest medieval recipes, in addition to information about the diet of the Franks and the differences between their food habits and the alimentation of the Mediterranean populations, showing the passage between ancient and late-medieval cooking.
If you are interested in late-medieval cuisine, we recommend Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook.
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white wine vinegar
Spit-roast the quails on charcoal. Grate the cheese. When they are cooked, cover them with grated cheese and asafoetida, adding a bit of vinegar and olive oil, and serve.
ὀπτησάμενοι παρέθενθ᾽ ὑμᾶς,
ἀλλ᾽ ἐπικνῶσιν τυρὸν ἔλαιον
They prepare you roasted, sprinkled with grated cheese, oil, silphium, and vinegar.
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus. Early-medieval recipes at the court of the Franks.
Registrum Coquine by Johannes Bockenheim. A medieval cookbook
Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes
Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-6
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus (6th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8th-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum (11th century)
Tractatus de Modo Preparandi et Condiendi Omnia Cibaria – first and second part (13th-14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano – first part (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Chicken with Taro
Honey and Millet Libum
Ham in Crust
The diet of the ancient Germans
The diet of the Franks
Oysters and Clams
Ancient Sicilian Sea Bass
Pork Roast and Lentils with Sumac
Cuttlefish and Eggs
Gustum de Praecoquis – Appetizer with Apricots
Octopus and Cucumber Salad
Copadia Agnina – Lamb Stew
Apothermum – Spelt Cakes
Pullus Parthicus – Roast Chicken
Tisana Barrica – Barley Soup
Beef Roast and Shallots
Staitites – Ancient Greek Sweet
Chicken Meatballs and Mashed Peas
Sweet Fritters – Dulcia Domestica
Columella’s Moretum and Hapalos Artos
Ancient Roman Frittata
A Saturnalia Recipe – Roast with Saffron Sauce
Muria – Ancestor of Colatura di Alici
Globi – Ancient Roman Sweet
The Diet of the Roman Legionaries – Buccellatum, Lardum, and Posca
How to make garum
Ancient Roman Gourd and Eggs
Ofella – Ancient Roman Steak
Fruit salads – Melon and Peaches
Isicia Marina – Shrimp Cakes and Cucumber Salad
Sala Cattabia – Snow and Posca
Copadia – Beef Stew
Puls Punica – Phoenician Dessert
Farcimina – Spelt and Meat Sausages
Ova Spongia ex Lacte – Sweet Omelettes
Flatbread and Chickpea Soup
Salted Fish with Arugula Sauce
Savillum – Cheesecake
Pasta and Meatballs – Minutal Terentinum
Venison Stew with Spelt Puls
Veal with Allec Sauce – Ius in Elixam Allecatum
Isicia Omentata – Meatballs Wrapped in Caul Fat
Placenta – Honey Cheesecake
Pork Laureate – Porcellum Laureatum
Poppy Seed Bread with Ancient Dry Yeast
Cured Olives and Epityrum