Be glad you weren’t invited to these outrageous dinner parties throughout the ages! (Plus, letters I get from readers)
Welcoming friends and family into your home (or palace) to break bread together and share cordials has been a custom for centuries. Here’s a glimpse into some of the most outlandish dinner parties of all times.
Dinner To Die For
“One man’s meat is another one’s poison,” aptly describes some fatal feasts throughout history, including Nero’s dinner party in the Roman palace when he allegedly murdered his adopted brother Britannicus (heir designate to the Empire), likely by slipping some poison into his goblet of mulsum (mixture of wine and honey).
Lucrezia of the infamous papal Borgia clan, the Renaissance version of the Gotti family, had a penchant for hosting lavish and lethal dinner parties. Lucrezia had a reputation for dispensing her toxic tonic from a hollow chamber in her ring into the food or libations of dinner guests who did not share the Machiavellian political beliefs of the Borgia family.
Arsenic antipasto anyone? This convenient modus operandi of spiking drinks and dishes with potent potions led to the practice of hiring eunuchs as trustworthy servants (and food tasters) of royal courts, especially in China during the Middle Ages. If the eunuch survived the taste test, then the emperor could safely imbibe and chow down.
Of recent times, revered Japanese kabuki actor and intrepid gourmand, Brando Mistsugoro, attended a dinner party with friends at a Kyoto restaurant, indulging in Fugu liver. This Japanese delicacy from the puffer fish, if not prepared by a certified Fugu chef, will likely contain toxic amounts of tetrodotoxin. That evening was Brando’s final curtain as he stuffed his face with four orders of the fatal Fugu.
The Gross Gourmet
Ancient Roman gastronome, Marcus Gavius Apicius, the Anthony Bourdain of the first century AD, and author of the oldest cookbook that bears his name, was a lover of luxury and culinary extremes. That included serving such kitschy fare at decadent dinner parties as flamingo’s tongue, camel heel and pork liver foie gras produced by force feeding pigs with dried figs, plying them with mulsum, then slaughtering them. Spending 100 million sestertii on lavish hospitality, and unable to cope with pending impoverishment he poisoned himself.
In Cleopatra’s barge the décor for an elaborate dinner party included tables graced with gold-and-jewel-encrusted place settings, and the floor blanketed with rose petals one and a half feet deep. The Queen served exotic feasts made with locally grown vegetables, fresh fish from the Nile and wild caught game. Spelt and fava bean soups, stuffed pigeon with seasonal veggies, roasted wild boar, and date, fig and nut cakes covered with honey were some of her faves, all washed down with Greek wine and beer.
Of great sport were the gustatory competitions between Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony as to who could host a costlier banquet. While Antony scoped out a plethora of rare delicacies, the Queen easily spent 10 million sesterces, and in the commotion, she managed to disintegrate one of her priceless pearl earrings in a goblet of vinegar.
Peripatetic Dinner Party
A contemporary trend gaining popularity is a riff on potluck with an element of travel. The Progressive Dinner party (aka the Safari Supper or the Round Robin) is comprised of successive courses prepared and eaten at the homes of various hosts. So guests start at Alice’s house for appetizers, progress to Barry’s for the main course, and then finish the meal at Claire’s for dessert.
Cleopatra’s Date and Fig Mousse
My dinner party contribution is a divine dish that is fit for a queen.
10 ounces pitted dates
4 ounces figs
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon orange juice and zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice (I prefer Meyer) and zest
1 teaspoon Amaretto or Frangelico liqueur
Dash cinnamon and ginger powder
1 cup water
Method: In a saucepan on low heat, combine dates, figs, liqueur, juices, water and spices. Cook until soft.
Whip cream until stiff peaks form. Fold into date mixture. Chill and serve in martini glasses.
Two letters for the Kitchen Shrink
1) Dear Kitchen Shrink, I read with great interest your article on cilantro in the Light. I’m hoping that you can clarify something I have been wondering about: When did everyone start using this stuff so massively?
You write that cilantro is “the cornerstone of Latin American cuisines,” yet I grew up next to Mexico and spent many years living, working and traveling in various parts of Latin America (including Mexico) for decades without ever noticing that cilantro was in any dish.
Not to say it wasn’t there, but if it was, it was used so subtly and sparingly that it was not obvious. Suddenly starting about the 1980s (more or less) cilantro seemed to be sprinkled on everything north of the border. It took a few more years for it to percolate south in noticeable amounts, and subjectively it seems far more prevalent in restaurants catering to gringos than anywhere else.
Any further information on the spread of cilantro will be appreciated.
Thanks for the kudos and interest in my “Kitchen Shrink” column.
Now, let’s talk cilantro. I believe cilantro became popular in the 1980s when Mexican cuisine really began to assimilate into the American food scene. Also, when television-cooking shows started to become popular (“Julia Child,” “The Galloping Gourmet,” etc.) chefs would tout the use of fresh herbs as a quick and dirty tip for neophytes to step up their cooking game.
Today cilantro is big in South African, Latin American and Asian (especially Thai) cuisines. I happen to love it, and use it to detox every now and then, especially after dental X-rays.
The Kitchen Shrink”
2) Dear Kitchen Shrink, I read the article in the Jan. 10 Light and want to know if you have a substitute for cheese. I am lactose intolerant and could just leave it out, but ½-cup adds so much flavor that I’m not sure I want to try it. Any suggestions for us lactose intolerant people?
I would be most appreciative of any other recipes or sources for this condition. I’ve learned to live with it for the past four years. I am 72. I know most people get it around their 20s, so I’m not complaining.
Thank you for reading my column, and I so welcome your query. I, too, have become more and more lactose intolerant over the years because our bodies produce less digestive enzymes as we age. I have my 82-year-old mom and I take a probiotic supplement or glass of probiotic kefir every morning to help our guts do their jobs. This has helped us become more tolerant to dairy.
As for a cheese substitute, you could try an assortment of grated tofu cheeses, or yogurt or goat cheeses, which are more forgiving. You could also leave out the cheese and add an assortment of nuts.
The Kitchen Shrink
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