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Aristophanes Cooks Up Comedy
in the Kitchen
(e-SoupSong 48: May 1, 2004)
First of all, you have to know that 2500 years ago Aristophanes, an ancient Greek Athenian, wrote drop-dead, laugh-out-loud funny comedies.
Men would flop around on stage with enormous leather phalluses tied around their waists. Women characters--all played by men--were robed...most of the time. Two or three of these main characters would set the scene, usually on a public street, then a whole troupe of actors--all costumed alike--would swoop in, jabbering a mile a minute, to complicate things. In one play they were all wasps, buzzing and waving their stingers around. In another, they were frogs: "Brekekekex co-ax...co-ax, co-ax, co-ax...brekekex co-ax!" they'd croak at the god Dionysus, disguised as Heracles and trying to row across the River Styx. "Don't sing anymore; my back is sore" he'd rhyme back, brekekekekexing them irritably. In another, they were clouds floating by, gazing in consternation at Socrates (who actually was in the audience guffawing), suspended in a basket over his "Thoughtery." And in one that staged a woman's revolt, they were equally divided into old men and old women who'd snappishly attack each other at every chance and get so mad they'd lose the thread of the play.
Exquisitely witty dialogue expressing the most profound thoughts existed side-by-side with characters farting, messing their pants from terror, dancing, waving their privates around, kicking each other's shins, waging war with stew pots, fondling each other, and getting drunk. And food? Food is everywhere--it's prepared off stage; it's prepared on stage; it's sought; it's conjured up; it's talked about; it's sacrificed; it's lusted after; it's eaten; in its different dishes, it symbolizes war, peace, wealth, poverty, old values, new values, religion, good government, bad government, creation, reconciliation, and sex, sex, sex.
Aristophanes wrote a LOT of plays--some 40 over 39 years, to be acted in one of two big annual Dionysian drama festivals in Athens. Alas, only 11 survive, but they pretty much cover the entire gamut of human experience, right up to the present day. It was a wild time in history. Democracy, with all its messy consequences, had broken out in 5th century BCE Athens, and Aristophanes, in the funniest way possible, agonized over its constant warfare, its politics, its culture and its values.
Pay attention, he says in his plays. While you're laughing, think about the issues. And many of the issues were expressed in culinary terms.
PARADOS: AND NOW A WORD ABOUT ANCIENT GREEK FOOD
- Today's famous "avgolemono" soup or sauce with eggs and lemon? Nope, lemons didn't arrive in Greece until 1st century AD at the earliest.
- Moussaka? No eggplant in Greece til the 7th or 8th century AD, introduced by Arab traders.
- Dolmadakia yialantzi, or rice-stuffed grape leaves? Uh uh, no rice--and "stuffed" was a Byzantine concept, introduced much later.
- Horiatiki salata, the classic Greek salad? Leave out the tomatoes and peppers, both New World foods.
Greece in 5th century BCE had very specific foods for very specific reasons.
Not much beef, for example, because the famous Homeric oxen had disappeared along with the forests and grazing plains that Bronze Age warriors had stripped bare with double axes. Small household pigs, sheep, goats, and poultry, yes; hares and small wild birds and animals, yes--but for special occasions only, and each ALWAYS individually sacrificed to the gods in a religious ritual first.
Olives for food and fuel--they'd been transplanted from Syria/Palestine early on and ended by driving out most indigenous trees since their deep roots sucked all the moisture out of the soil.
Grapes flourished in those temperate climes--and were made into thick wines that were nearly always diluted with water when served in 2-handled, wide-mouthed kylixes at banquets. Native fruits and vegetables and herbs sustained the local people. Cheese from the sheep and goats. A little seafood (mostly salted and always a luxury). Honey--after beekeeping had been learned from ancient Egyptians. Peas, chickpeas, and lentils. And, above all, almighty bread, made from imported barley and wheat.
Think ancient Greek food, think Bread With Flavorings (opsas), Washed Down With Wine. Barley was roasted then kneaded into a dough and eaten without further cooking. When times were flush, imported wheat grain was pounded in a mortar, ground with a millstone in a 3-legged basin, kneaded with some fermented dough, allowed to rise, then baked under a pottery cooking bell or in a small portable oven set over a charcoal brazier. Bread and cakes were also sacrificed to the gods before being eaten--they were that revered. How did Homer distinguish humans from beasts? They were "eaters of flour."
Soup--mostly made of lentils, peas, beans, and vegetables--was for the poor, the old, the sick, and countryfolk. It was boiled in a pottery chytra (metal was only for the very rich) parked right next to the fire or set on a barrel-shaped cooking stand in the fire. In 5th century BCE, city-wise bread-eating Athenians laughed at bumpkins for eating so much bean and pea soup. In fact, many of the farts in Aristophanes' plays come flying out of those bumpkins.
So we have a pretty fixed ancient Greek pantheon of food--and we have some heavy duty conceptualizing about it, as you'd expect from those incredibly thoughtful ancients.
In Plato's Timaeus, the Creator is a Cook with a giant mixing bowl making a physical-world pudding out of 4 elements (fire, air, water, earth), preexisting soul, and a measure of Same and Different. So how were humans made and linked to the heavens? That cook "turned again to the same bowl in which he had mixed the soul of the universe and poured back into it what was left of the former ingredients, mixing them in much the same fashion as before, only not quite so pure, but in a second and third degree. And when he compounded the whole, he divided it up into as many souls as there are stars."
So cooking and eating food in Aristophanes' plays may be about cooking and eating food on the physical level. But that's not all they're about. Just consider that:
THE ACHARNIANS, which begs Athenians to stop warring against Sparta, starts off making fun of barbarian food customs; has main character Dicaeopolis ("just city") make a private treaty with Sparta through the ritual drinking of wine; has him perform a ritual food sacrifice to Dionysius, set up a marketplace to trade food, and prepare a banquet on stage; the play ends with him stuffed with food and fondling a sexy girl on each arm. Lesson: That's what Peace will get you every time.
THE KNIGHTS makes a sausage-seller the hero of Athens, bringing order to the Senate and to the people, "because I know both how to speak and how to cook." THE CLOUDS makes sense of Thoughtery philosophy with metaphors of making stews, making sausages, and kneading dough. THE WASPS makes family meals and public feasts its central value, then runs amok through a drunken symposium and ends up with a dancing crab feast. PEACE opens with servants kneading excrement into cakes to feed a dung beetle that will fly Trygaeus ("maker of crops") to Olympus; when Trygaeus succeeds in drawing Peace out of a pit there, earth immediately bursts into an abundant harvest of food. The play ends back in Athens with the ritual sacrifice of a sheep, a libation, and a wedding feast with cakes.
THE BIRDS, searching for a peaceful society, is one long joke about eat or be eaten. It sacrifices a sheep midway, then ends with the hero preparing a banquet of chickens onstage that, with the advent of peace, turns into a wedding feast. LYSISTRATA opens with a wine sacrifice that cements the resolve of a female caucus: no sex for the warrior husbands of all Greek city-states until peace is declared. It closes, upon that extremely rapid declaration, with the promise of "home-cooked banquets." Are you getting the picture? THE THESMOPHORIAZUSAE finds angry women at their sacred festival complaining that they formerly "had the care of food, fetched the flour from the storeroom, the oil and the wine; we can do it no more. Our husbands now carry little Spartan keys on their persons, made with three notches and full of malice and spite." THE FROGS takes Dionysius into Hades with a pig sacrifice, has Persephone offer him a banquet, and closes with Pluto invoking a feast. THE ECCLESIAZUSAE ("women at the Assembly") begins with a ritual sacrifice, has women impose food equality on Athenians, and ends with a banquet serving the longest recorded word in the history of the world: lepadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsanodrimypotrimmatosilphiotyromelitodatakechymen-
terygon, a supper dish that mixes limpets, slices of salt fish, thornbacks, whistle-fishes, cornel-berries, leftover brains, silphium, cheese, thrushes, honey, blackbirds, ringdoves, squabs, chickens, mullets, wagtails, rock-pigeons, hare, and wings ground in reduced new wine. Finally PLUTUS, God of Wealth, regains his sight after a food sacrifice...conscientiously showers good food onto the just...and ends with an old woman following him offstage with a pot of vegetables on her head.
If you could just see my food graph of the 11 plays (describing some 22 sacrifices/feasts and itemizing about 75 different foods, with garlic discussed over 15 times; figs, 18 times; bread, over 50 times, and I can't count that high for wine, etc.) you too would be...hungry. Well, and besides being hungry, you'd likely be thinking that Aristophanes was very clever in dramatizing the elemental relationships and correspondences between feeding the body, feeding the body politic, and feeding man's social and spiritual needs.
Soup has its role to play too. It teaches lessons: Socrates comparing the science of thunderclaps to a man who has gorged on bean soup; Dionysius teaching Heracles, that notorious glutton, about man's desire for poetry and art by comparing it to a craving for pea soup. Soup is used to bribe characters and sneer at rubes; it's doled out in utopian Athens by beautiful girls; it's bought in the marketplace and carried home in military helmets by men whose wives are on strike; and it's served to the Senate for 3 straight days upon the declaration of peace. It's also conjured suggestively: women tease their horny husbands that "the soup is waiting, rich and thick" if only they'd put an end to war. Angry men are described as boiling broths that need to have their threats skimmed off. And then there's Cario, in PLUTUS, who describes to that blind god of wealth the depth of men's love of money: "They get weary of all else," he says, "--of love...of music...of sweetmeats...of honours...of lentil soup!"
And so, without further ado, let's do it: Let's try some of that completely authentic ancient Greek lentil soup, keeping in mind that it's not just food to put in our bellies; this particular soup has got a 2500 year history of sitting people down together and binding families, communities, and society itself in a sacred ritual of shared sustenance.
Faki (Lentil Soup), for 6
The splash of strong red wine vinegar lifts this out of the category of plain fare into a whole new world. Its sharp sweetness and the spike of scallions counterpoint the creamy lentils and vegetables perfectly--it's a fine meal, especially with some bread, olives, and feta cheese on the side. Greek wine too, mmmmmmm.
Heat the oil over medium heat in a large soup pot, then scrape in the onions, garlic, and turnip and saute until the onions are translucent. Stir in the lentils and saute for several more minutes. Stir in the parsley, then pour in the water, add the bay leaves, rub the thyme into the pot, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for an hour and a half.
- 4 Tablespoons olive oil
- 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
- 8 cloves garlic, chopped
- 3 turnips, peeled and chopped
- 2 cups brown lentils, washed and picked over
- 1/2 cup parsley, chopped fine
- 6-8 cups water
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon thyme, rubbed through your palms
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 4 Tablespoons strong red wine vinegar
- 4 scallions, chopped
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
When ready to serve, stir in the vinegar and let cook for a minute. Ladle into bowls, top each with the chopped scallion, and drizzle with olive oil. Serve immediately.
Resources: American School of Classical Studies at Athens' Pots and Pans of Classical Athens; Anon, translations of Aristophanes' comedies; H.C. Baldry's Ancient Greek Literature in its Living Context; The Cambridge World History of Food; Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food; Victor Duruy's The Greeks; Flandrin and Montamari's A Culinary History of Food; Andy Harris' Taste of the Aegean; Ruth Kersher's Greek Cooking; Diane Kochilas' The Food and Wine of Greece; Aglaia Kremezi's The Foods of the Greek Islands; Gilbert Murray,'s translation of Aristophanes' The Frogs; Gilbert Norwood's Greek Comedy; Theoni Pappas and Elvira Monroe's Greek Cooking for Everyone; Douglass Parker's translation of Lysistrata; Carson I. A. Ritchie's Food in Civilization; Lois Spatz' Aristophanes; George Malcolm Stratton's Theophrastus and the Greek Physiological Psychology before Aristotle; Michael Symons' A History of Cooks and Cooking; Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's History of Food.
NEXT MONTH: Soup in Dreams