pharaohs and philosophers: ancient times
milk and honey griddle bread • herbed olive puree
chickpea dip • minty garlic spread • assorted stuffed figs
lamb on skewers with mint marmalade • chicken from ancient africa
shrimp with feta • pea and dill puree
stuffed dates • peaches in spiced wine
lights, camera, action! finger-food buffet
Hollywood epics inspired by the Bible and ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome include some of the best films ever created. Pyramids, mummies, gladiators, Roman conquerors, and the Greek myths make for exciting adventures. Who can forget scenes like the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, the chariot race in Ben-Hur, and Russell Crowe’s battles in Gladiator?
These spectacular movies help bring the past to life, and sampling a meal of that time can further enhance the experience. This chapter explores the foods and dining customs during that vibrant age and serves up a tasty menu created from ancient writings and archaeological finds. Many recipes come from the Roman On Cookery, thought to be the oldest surviving cookbook. Other recipes are taken from The Philosopher’s Banquet, written by a Greek living in ancient Rome, detailing the foods and dining customs of Greece’s golden age.
The ancients dined reclining on couches, and although they ate some admittedly strange things, like stuffed mice, roasted flamingo tongue, and grilled cow womb, they also enjoyed familiar favorites such as pizza, focaccia, and lasagna. There are many interesting taste combinations to rediscover from their time.
So, sit back—or rather, lie back—and dine like a Roman emperor while you watch your favorite epic and try some of these succulent dishes, which can be served meze-style, on shared platters, eaten with fingers, as was done in antiquity.
MILK AND HONEY GRIDDLE BREAD
No son could have more love for you than I.
CHARLTON HESTON, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, 1956
In The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston’s real-life infant son played the baby Moses.
This recipe for moist and flavorful griddle bread is a reminder of the flatbreads that the Jews, led by Moses, ate during their exodus from Egypt. Delicious alone or wrapped around salami or grilled asparagus, it’s also great for scooping up stews and dips.
4 OUNCES FETA CHEESE
3 TABLESPOONS HONEY
1/2 TEASPOON SALT
1/2 CUP ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR, PLUS MORE AS NEEDED
OLIVE OR VEGETABLE OIL
1.In a large bowl, mash the feta, honey, and salt together with a fork until well combined. Add the flour and mix until a dough forms. Using your hands, knead the dough in the bowl until smooth. Cover in plastic wrap and allow to rest, at room temperature, for about 20 minutes.
2.Divide the dough into 12 equal portions and on a very lightly floured work surface roll each section into a very thin circle, about 3 inches in diameter.
3.Lightly oil a nonstick pan and over medium-low heat cook the circles until golden, about 1 minute per side. Serve warm.
And I felt His words take the sword from my hand! -CHARLTON HESTON, BEN-HUR, 1959
Ben-Hur was the first film ever nominated for twelve Academy Awards and ties for the record of most won, eleven, with Titanic. Ben-Hur earned actor Charlton Heston his only career Oscar.
Theaters did not sell food during the showing of Ben-Hur, as the movie was considered too important to allow for the usual popcorn chomping.
HERBED OLIVE PUREE
Somebody put too many olives in my martini last night.
W. C. FIELDS, NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, 1941
Olives, which according to Greek myth are a gift from the goddess Athena, were an important part of the ancients’ diet. They were eaten with bread and crushed to make oil, which was considered good for the body both inside and out. This dip, a recipe from the Roman statesman Cato, is not only perfect with pita bread or toasted baguette slices but also delicious tossed with cooked spaghetti.
It’s one of my favorite recipes because it can be made days in advance and only gets better with time, just like a good movie.
1/2 CUP PITTED WHOLE OIL-CURED BLACK OLIVES
1/2 CUP PITTED WHOLE BRINE-CURED GREEN OLIVES
1/4 CUP CHOPPED ONION
1/4 CUP EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
1 GARLIC CLOVE, MINCED
1 TEASPOON FENNEL SEED
1 TEASPOON GROUND CUMIN
1 TEASPOON GROUND CORIANDER
1/4 CUP MINCED FRESH PARSLEY, MINT, AND BASIL
GRATED ZEST OF 1 LEMON
6 PITA BREADS, CUT INTO QUARTERS AND WARMED
1.Combine the olives, onion, olive oil, garlic, fennel seed, cumin, and coriander in a food processor and puree until smooth. Place in a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and allow the flavors to mingle at room temperature for at least 6 hours.
2.Stir well and top with the minced herbs and lemon zest. Serve with the warm pita bread sections.
Arrange food, drink, entertainment, and a sit-down orgy for forty. —LEON GREENE, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, 1966
Ancient Greek feasts were an all-male event; and sexual relations between men, an accepted norm.
While it may have been accepted in 200 b.c., Hollywood censors certainly didn’t accept it in a.d. 1960. The seduction scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis was cut from the original Spartacus and only added back in the 1991 restoration. Since the sound track had been lost and Sir Laurence was dead, Anthony Hopkins dubbed his dialogue.
Truly, this man was the son of God.
JOHN WAYNE, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, 1965
This quote is John Wayne’s only line in the movie The Greatest Story Ever Told. According to Hollywood legend, the Duke kept delivering the line stiffly, so after several failed readings the director pleaded with him to try it once more “with awe.” On the next take, Wayne supposedly said, “Aw, truly this man was the son of God.”
Chickpeas, eaten for centuries, make a deliciously creamy and healthy dip for veggies or corn chips. Once you try this, you’ll never go back to store-bought. Truly.
1 LARGE ONION, DICED
1/2 CUP OLIVE OIL
1 CUP DRIED CHICKPEAS, SOAKED OVERNIGHT, RINSED, AND DRAINED
1 TEASPOON DRIED OREGANO
1 BAY LEAF
1 1/2 CUPS VEGETABLE OR CHICKEN STOCK
SALT AND PEPPER
2 LARGE GARLIC CLOVES, CHOPPED
JUICE AND GRATED ZEST OF 1 LEMON
MINCED FRESH MINT
PITA BREAD QUARTERS OR CORN CHIPS
1.Sauté the onion in 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until golden, about 10 minutes. Add the chickpeas, oregano, bay leaf, and stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the chickpeas are tender and the stock is absorbed, about 1 hour. Discard the bay leaf, season to taste with salt and pepper, and allow to cool slightly.
2.Put the mixture into a food processor along with the garlic, lemon juice, and remaining 1/4 cup olive oil. Pulse until well combined but still coarse.
3.Serve the chickpea dip topped with the lemon zest and mint and accompanied by pita quarters or corn chips.
Who loves ya, baby? —TELLY SAVALAS, KOJAK (TV SERIES), 1973
Telly Savalas first shaved his head to play Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told. He liked it so much that he kept it that way for the rest of his career.
MINTY GARLIC SPREAD
There are never enough hours in the days of a queen, and her nights have too many.
ELIZABETH TAYLOR, CLEOPATRA, 1963
The sexual exploits of Cleopatra, who had children with both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, were legendary. So too were the exploits of Elizabeth Taylor, who although married to Eddie Fisher during the filming of Cleopatra nevertheless carried on a very public affair with costar Richard Burton.
This wonderfully tangy mint-and-garlic spread comes from an ancient Roman cookbook and is great with raw or grilled veggies. Perfect for your next affair.
3 CUPS CUBED ITALIAN BREAD, CRUSTS ON
3 TABLESPOONS FRUIT VINEGAR
4 GARLIC CLOVES, MINCED
2 TABLESPOONS HONEY
1/2 TEASPOON GROUND CORIANDER
1/2 TEASPOON GROUND CUMIN
1/2 CUP GRATED PARMESAN CHEESE
1/2 CUP EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
SALT AND PEPPER
1/3 CUP FRESH MINT LEAVES
ASSORTED RAW OR GRILLED VEGETABLES AND FLATBREADS FOR DIPPING
1.Place the bread cubes in a food processor. Mix the vinegar into 1/2 cup water, pour over the bread, and toss. Let stand until the bread is soft and has absorbed all the liquid, about 10 minutes.
2.Add the garlic, honey, coriander, cumin, and Parmesan. Puree until smooth. Slowly add the olive oil and continue to puree until incorporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the mint leaves and pulse a few times to incorporate. Serve in a bowl surrounded by assorted vegetables and flatbreads.
—Milk? For beasts of prey?
—They are only great cats, wife, do you not hear them purr? —PUPELLA MAGGIO AND JOHN HUSTON, THE BIBLE, 1966
In the movie The Bible, Noah fills his ark with tame and wild animals of all sorts, including cats. Hollywood, it seems, likes cats, as there are a slew of films starring felines, including my family’s favorites: The Adventures of Milo and Otis; The Aristocats; The Big Cat; The Cat from Outer Space; Harry and Tonto; Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey; Oliver and Company; That Darn Cat; and The Three Lives of Thomasina.
ASSORTED STUFFED FIGS
He’s got to have a weakness! Because, you know, everybody has a weakness.
For Pandora, it was the box thing. For the Trojans, hey, they bet on the wrong horse.
VOICE OF JAMES WOODS, HERCULES, 1997
Greek athletes, including the legendary Hercules, had a weakness for figs and ate them as a regular part of their strength-building diet. The role of Hercules has been played in films by real-life strongmen Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steve Reeves.
Dried figs, plumped in wine and then filled with either prosciutto, mascarpone, or pistachios, make for an irresistible appetizer that doesn’t require herculean efforts to prepare.
18 DRIED FIGS
1 CUP WHITE WINE
1 TABLESPOON MASCARPONE CHEESE
GRATED ZEST OF 1/2 LEMON
2 TABLESPOONS FINELY CHOPPED PISTACHIO NUTS
1 TEASPOON HONEY
2 OUNCES THINLY SLICED PROSCIUTTO, CUT INTO TWELVE 1/2-INCH-WIDE STRIPS
1.In a small saucepan, bring the figs and wine to a simmer and cook until the figs are soft, about 5 minutes. Remove the figs and continue cooking the wine until very thick and syrupy, about 10 minutes. Reserve.
2.Cut about 1/4 inch off the tops of 6 figs and set the figs upright on a serving platter. Top each with 1/2 teaspoon of the mascarpone and sprinkle with the lemon zest.
3.Remove the stems from 6 more figs and halve the figs lengthwise. Put the pistachios on a plate and dip each fig half into the chopped nuts. Drizzle with the honey. Arrange on the serving platter.
4.Remove the stems from the remaining 6 figs and halve the figs crosswise. Make a small indentation in each fig center with the tip of your finger or edge of a knife. Roll a strip of the prosciutto into a bundle and stuff into each fig half. Drizzle about 1/2 teaspoon of the wine syrup over each fig half and add them to the serving platter.
To play a sleep-deprived character in Marathon Man, Method actor Dustin Hoffman went three days without rest. When his costar Laurence Olivier saw Hoffman’s ragged state, he quipped, “Dear boy, you look absolutely awful. Why don’t you try acting? It’s so much easier.”
The marathon got its start in ancient Greece, where, according to legend, a soldier ran 24.8 miles from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce Greece’s victory over Carthage. The Olympics, too, originated in ancient Greece, where beginning in 776 b.c., the games were held in the town of Olympia to honor the god Zeus. The very first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896.
From the Trade Paperback edition.