Hold the Fermented Fish Sauce

I am not a brilliant cook. I’m not exactly terrible either, unless you ask my youngest son, but then he refuses to eat anything that doesn’t come in a pizza box so I’m not sure you can trust his judgment on the matter. I have gotten braver with ingredients than I once was and may even occasionally go off recipe, which even more occasionally works out fairly well. And I have a few dishes that are actually quite good.

Over IX billion served. photo credit: The Golden Arches via photopin (license)

But meal planning for a picky household and trying to get everyone fed something that’s not terrible for them before they rush off to the next thing is tough. This is especially true in the summertime when I spend long days playing with my kids and then have to throw dinner together at the last minute.

So like so many busy families, we eat out, or at least eat take-out, far more than we should. It’s a problem that’s been around for millennia.

We know because the Roman city of Pompeii, so perfectly caught in the act of everyday life by the volcanic ash spewing from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, had take-out restaurants. Or at least archaeologists can make a reasonable guess that that’s what they were. These cookshops or thermopolium (which roughly translates as “McDonald’s”) are equipped with stone counters with large recessed bowls. Some of the more well-preserved ones include depictions of the menu items offered.

I’ll take a number VII with a Coke. Hold the fermented fish sauce. photo credit: Au marché, les poissons, Cesenatico, province de Forli-Cesena, Emilie-Romagne, Italie. via photopin (license)

They offered simple, easy to prepare fare, such as lentils, cheese, and porridges. Customers slathered their food with garum, a fermented fish sauce as ubiquitous as ketchup is today (though significantly more disgusting on French fries).

The food must have been fairly cheap, as the cookshops almost exclusively served the less well-to-do, an assumption made by archaeologists both because of the disdain with which Ancient writers refer to the thermopolium, and from the inclusion of kitchen facilities in the homes of the wealthy, a luxury lacking in most of the more modest dwellings.

I suppose if you don’t have a kitchen, it makes sense to eat out all the time. In retrospect, maybe this is the feature (or lack of feature) I should have looked for in a house. Instead I have a lovely kitchen. It’s roomy enough to work in and visit with family, friends, and neighbors while we prepare food to share. I love that.

But going out to eat with friends is also pretty nice.

It’s the daily grind, when it’s just me, and whining, hungry kids that aren’t going to eat whatever I’m cooking anyway, and a mountain of dishes, that I’m not too fond of. That’s when I start to think that the citizens of Ancient Rome may have had the right idea. Well, except about the fermented fish sauce.