Hail Caesar! But hold the fish sauce
As a single working mom, I couldn’t spend much time at my kids’ schools during the day, which is probably how I got suckered into organizing an authentic Roman feast for my son’s classically-ennuied seventh-grade Latin class. An end-of-the-school-year celebration, it was an evening event so I really had no excuse.
I would like to say that a lot of authenticity gets lost between the ancient Romans and the version suitable for modern middle school students. It was going to have to be held indoors in the gym so chariots were going to be problematical, but I still thought we could have Olympic-style games, wear togas, and stage a feast using only ingredients available during Roman times.
Fortunately, a cookbook had come out which translated recipes of ancient Rome into English, and more importantly, into ingredients found at your local Vons. Well, mostly found. It had an admirable selection of dishes, but unfortunately no section on Junkus Foodus, the category most likely to appeal to our target audience. The foods we associate with modern Rome didn’t exist then and the ancients, I discovered to my dismay, tended to slather a salty sauce of desiccated fish on pretty much everything. I couldn’t imagine that a group of kids whose sense of adventure didn’t extend to eating the fish sandwich at Jack in the Box would go for anything icthyologically encumbered. For the same reason, we nixed the lamb brains with a side of olive paste, and a host of similar delicacies.
In my research, I was intrigued by a banquet dish made of flamingo tongues, which sounded from the description like ancient Flamingo McNuggets. Problem: flamingo tongues were not available, even at Jonathan’s. There was always Plan B, but the Zoo would notice they were gone. Fortunately, the Romans were also big on pig parts wrapped in pastry dough. Ecce! Several pork products were purchased and the recipe tested for the relative merits of phyllo dough versus Lady Lee Refrigerator Roll mix, which we assured ourselves the Romans would have had if they thought of it. We finally had our main course.
Back in Roman times, if the gods were willing to let the feast commence, they would send favorable signs (secunda) and the guests could be seated. As it turns out, this sometimes involved examining the entrails of a sacrificial victim. Personally, I thought this would be a GREAT incentive not to be the lowest scoring student on the mid-semester declension test.
In the Roman tradition, we were going to have games before the meal, and “volunteer slaves” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) would serve part of the meal. I was pleased to read that most table slaves in ancient Rome were male, a thought that appealed to my feminist sensibilities. I rather liked imagining those ancient Roman housewives complaining about how hard it was to find a good Macedonian cleaning man.
Indoor competitive events turned out to be more problematical than I had anticipated. The Latin teacher, who had gamely volunteered to be the object of an extremely popular wet sponge toss the year before, maintained he was still recovering from the eye infection. Fortunately, most of the new ideas we came up with were nicely unisex, including the discus throw, which some might have confused for Frisbees. Hoping to winnow out the teacher population, one student submitted a game idea called “Gladiator Fights to the Death” then listed various teacher pairs. That idea went the way of the flamingo tongues.
Instead, a largely-improvised play, extremely loosely based on “Julius Caesar,” which none of the kids had read, was staged while the male members of the audience lay Roman-style on pillows on the floor at their low tables emitting lifelike imitations of intestinal gas. Afterward, it occurred to me that that might actually have been the most authentic part of the evening.
And so a reasonable facsimile of a Roman feast took place. As a strictly weenie mom observation, I would like to say that the students all looked incredibly cute in their togas and laurel wreaths. The banquet food was well received, especially the dry ice from our ice cream dessert, which was dunked into the grape juice for amazing special effects. We forewent the secunda. Gaudeamus Igitur, a staple of my East Coast upbringing, was sung, apparently for the first time west of the Mississippi.
And I went back to being the working mom, who, alas, wasn’t available for big school projects. Hallelujus.
— Look for La Jolla resident Inga’s lighthearted looks at life in La Jolla Light. Reach her at email@example.com