Patrick Faas (translated from the Dutch by Shaun Whiteside),
Around the Roman Table (Palgrave McMillan, 2003)
Mary Ella Milham, Platina: On Right Pleasure and Good Health:
A Critical Edition and Translation of De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine

(Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1998)

These two recent books both attempt to make ancient Roman cuisine (and incidentally its culture) accessible to modern readers. They will appeal to lovers of historical fantasy by filling in the background details of the era in which many such works are set. They will probably appeal less to gourmets, as after a few pages it becomes obvious that Italian food was very different 2,000 years ago, or even 500 years ago. Indeed, Palgrave McMillan includes the following note: "The publishers offer these recipes for historical interest, but there is no guarantee they will suit the modern palate."

Around the Roman Table is not just a cookbook. It is divided into two parts (not counting the Foreword and the Introduction). Part One is an overview of Roman life, taking in topics such as history, culinary habits, social organization, architecture and furniture. While necessarily brief, it puts the recipes into context. Part Two contains the recipes themselves, along with more social and cultural commentary. Most of the recipes are from Apicius, but some come from Pliny and various other sources.

Faas has an interesting way of presenting the recipes. First he gives the original Latin recipe, then a translation of the recipe and finally a modern interpretation of the same recipe. Roman recipes were sketchy — perhaps so that chefs could protect their professional secrets — so Faas' modern versions are much longer and more detailed. The book doesn't state whether the translations of the recipes are from the original Latin or from a Dutch version by Faas.

Around the Roman Table is amply illustrated with line drawings from a long list of sources. It has a bibliography, an index, a glossary and an appendix listing weights, measures, units of money and prices. The text is accompanied by footnotes.

De Honesta is not just a cookbook either. In ten books (chapters), Platina discusses everything from where to build a house, to how to exercise, to what to eat in which season. His recipes are annotated with health advice firmly grounded in the science of his era. For instance, one dish "drives sticky humors from the head" — a reference to the four-humour theory of medicine.

Platina based his work on both ancient and modern (to him) sources. Much of his information is from Pliny's Natural History, but his other sources include Cato, Varro, Columello, C. Matius and Apicius. Many of his recipes are from Maestro Martino de Rossi, the most famous chef of the day.

The recipes themselves are neither very appealing nor easy to duplicate, including as they do culinary delights such as sow's udder and carob beans. Platina wasn't into level measurements: "as much rich broth as necessary" and "as much salt as the situation demands" are typical quantities. Even he wasn't convinced some of these dishes were either tasty or healthy, and in one case he even recommends that the reader "serve it to your enemy."

Milham starts out with a biography of Platina. She discusses his sources and gives a history of the text and its many editions. She also discusses the identities of the friends he mentions and includes a bibliography of Platina's other books. Then comes the De Honesta itself, with the original Latin and the English translation on facing pages.

This is definitely a scholarly work. The text is heavily footnoted. There are three indices (the index to the introduction, the index nominum proprium and the index verborum medicorum et culinariorum), a detailed textual history with sigla, stemma and stemmatic proofs, and a list about ten pages long of works cited. An index of recipes might have been nice, should anyone actually be tempted to try to reproduce them. There is only one illustration, Melozzo da Forlė's Sixtus IV appointing Bartolomeo Sacchi, called Platina, the Prefect of the Vatican Library.

Around the Roman Table is more accessible than De Honesta, and the adapted recipes are more feasible. It also has better illustrations. But the two are based on the same ancient sources; indeed I suspect that Around the Roman Table is the book Platina would write if he were alive now. Around the Roman Table, coming from a major publisher, is also easier to find, but De Honesta is listed on Amazon.com.

I can't really comment on the quality of the translations, as I read neither Latin nor Dutch. As a certified translator with over twenty years' of experience, I can say that both books read well and only faintly "smell" of translation (as we say in the profession), but I can't evaluate their accuracy.

Patrick Faas is a food historian and chef, and a food columnist for Der Volkskrant. Mary Ella Milham is professor emerita of Classics at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Neither Patrick Faas nor Mary Ella Milham has a Web site, but you can find biographical information and pictures of Faas here and of Milham here.

"Platina" is the pseudonym of Bartolomeo Sacchi, who was born in 1421 in Piadena and died on September 21, 1481, in Rome. He held various positions in his career, the most important of which was prefect of the Vatican Library. He has an entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia here. As well, a Web site called Stefan's Florilegium has extensive comments on Platina and De Honesta.

[Faith J. Cormier]