The proof is in the pudding, and ancient cookbooks are no exception. The Roman recipe collection known as Apicius was written so that the recipes may be tried. It is a performative text, as all cookbooks are. If you can’t cook it, a recipe loses more than its flavour, it loses its reason to exist. It isn’t clear when Apicius’De Re Coquinaria (On the subject of cookery) was written, some have suggested dates as early as the 1st century AD and as late as the 4th century. It probably wasn’t written by anyone called Apicius, a name which by the 2nd century AD was synonymous with foodie. The text survives in two 9th-century manuscripts written at two monasteries, one in Germany (Fulda), the other in France (St Martin of Tours), respectively. Apicius is the only extant cookbook from ancient Rome.
From the point of view of function, ancient cooking recipes and ancient drama texts (tragedy, comedy, etc) have several things in common . Both textual genres are meant to be performed. And Roman cooking practice as well as ancient drama ceased to be performed after the decline of Rome. Ancient cuisine may have continued in southern Europe, but there is no evidence that the Apician ingredients – not to mention the recipes – were being used in northern Europe, the areas where the two surviving manuscripts were produced. As for the staging of ancient drama, the medieval period was characterised by the total absence of performance of ancient drama texts. When the Paduan humanist Albertino Mussato wrote the tragedy known as Ecerinis, inspired by Seneca, in 1314, it became the first ancient-style tragedy since Roman times. Nevertheless, it still wasn’t staged.
While ancient drama wasn’t performed during the Middle Ages, texts of ancient drama continued to be copied and commented on in manuscripts. The survival of Roman Latin drama texts in the West and ancient Greek texts in the Byzantine East was guaranteed by the integration of these texts in the school curriculum. In the West, Seneca and Plautus’ plays were used to teach Latin and provided examples of syntax and style. Ancient drama, at least parts of it, reached the 9th century AD thanks to this shift in functionality from performance to teaching.
When we turn to Apicius, things look very different. There is no evidence that ancient cookbooks were used to teach language in the same way that drama texts were. As a rule, ancient recipes didn’t survive because they didn’t fulfil any functions. They were meant to be used in the kitchen. An unattempted recipe is not worth transmitting, and a cookbook about food one is never going to cook is not worth its salt and parchment.
But Apicius was copied, and there is good reason to think that several copies of the text were in circulation in Carolingian Europe. One of the two surviving manuscripts was even decorated, which suggests that it may have been produced for a wealthy patron. Yes, but to what purpose? For the owner to show off a richly-illuminated manuscripts to his or her guests? ‘It’s beautiful, sire. But what is it about?’.’Well, it’s a cookbook, it has recipes no-one knows how to cook’. I don’t think so. Why would abbeys waste precious vellum on texts which were never going to be used? The question remains, as does our admission of ignorance as to what these texts were for. In the meantime, we should be thankful to those relentless monks at Fulda and St Martin of Tours who helped preserve our Apicius. Without them, ancient cuisine would have been decidedly less flavoursome.