Resurrecting Meals Past
Among Italy’s many fascinating landmarks is the UNESCO-designated site of ancient Pompeii. The remains of a civilization frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius still hold explorers captivated to this day. But archaeologists are still finding there’s so much more to discover among the rubble and ruins.
In December 2020, the archaeologists on site announced they had discovered the remains of two men and a dog at an excavated food establishment, known as a thermopolium, in the fifth region of Pompeii’s dig site. A well-preserved counter with ceramic storage containers (or dolia), combined with wall art provide clues as to the role this eatery played in the local life.
Frescoes of daily life adorn the counter, including images of flagons, cooking utensils, and deliverymen. Depictions of chickens, ducks, goats, and fish along the counter along with the remains of these animals found in their corresponding storage containers hint that the thermopolium used a visual menu for those who couldn’t read.
The discovery of these ruins means that historians now have a better picture of life among the lower-class citizens of a society that often left them on the sidelines. As few homes in the area had fixed hearths for cooking, this tavern counter was just one of several food vendors of the time that served to feed most of the lower and working class. It stands today as the relic and predecessor of modern-day pubs.
Putting together the clues found in the Naples excavation of the ancient pub with his culinary expertise, contemporary gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius has reconstructed a few of the meals the locals may have eaten at the tavern before Vesuvius’ eruption cut things short. Preparing duck or crane with simple seasonings like salt, olive oil, dill and oregano, all done in cookware like that of ancient Pompeiians, Apicius revives the people’s fare for modern explorers to enjoy.