Grabbing a bite to eat in the days of the Roman Empire wasn’t all that different from sitting in an American diner, if the dishes described in a Roman cookbook are anything to go by. Milkshakes and waffles may not have been on the menu just yet, but one delicacy called isicia omentata bears a strong resemblance to a staple of modern cuisine – the hamburger.
The recipe appears in a book called Apicius, which contains 10 separate volumes relating to different categories of food, such as meat, seafood, birds, and vegetables. Thought to have been written in the 4th or 5th century, Apicius contains recipes dating all the way back to the 1st century, mostly using ingredients that would have been available to the wealthier classes living in and around Rome.
Like an extravagant burger, isicia omentata is essentially a minced meat patty that is flavored with pine nuts, peppercorns, and a fish-based sauce called garum, and accompanied by a bread roll that has been pre-soaked in white wine.
It’s not the sort of thing that would have been available to the lower classes, although Roman laborers did used to eat at fast food joints called thermopolia, which were kiosks that served ready-to-eat dishes to workers on their lunch break.
The origins of Apicius remain an issue of contention, with some historians crediting one Apicius Caelius as the author, due to the letters API and CAE appearing on the front cover of some editions. Other accounts, meanwhile, credit the book to a famous glutton named Marcus Gavius Apicius, who was known for his indulgent tastes and is the subject of several outrageous culinary anecdotes.
It is claimed, for example, that he once sailed all the way from Rome to Libya after hearing that the shrimp off the coast of the North African country were tastier than those found elsewhere. However, after being immediately disappointed by the flavor of the Libyan shellfish, he apparently turned around and went straight home without even stepping ashore.
Marcus Gavius Apicius is also said to have had a fondness for flamingo tongue, and supposedly committed suicide after realizing that he no longer had enough money to maintain his scandalous diet. Now there’s a man who’s committed to his food.