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Course inspires students to ‘eat like a Roman’

This gladiator and chariot greeted diners attending the "Eat Like a Roman" dinner Sunday in Crossroads Culinary Center. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi


Published April 10, 2014

“We’ve studied the Romans for 25 to 30 years, and it’s fascinating to taste what they tasted.”
Donald McGuire, adjunct associate professor
Department of Classics

Students line up in Crossroads Culinary Center for the "Eat Like a Roman" dinner. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

More than 2,000 UB students recently spent an evening dining like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra did thousands of years ago.

Students filled their plates with cinnamon lamb broth, honey and sesame “pizza,” a unique cheesecake recipe from Cato the Elder, and more.

Certainly not the typical Italian fare one would expect at a “Roman” dinner.

The themed dinner, “Eat Like a Roman,” was held April 6 and hosted by UB’s Department of Classics and Campus and Dining Shops. Guests traveled back in time to Ancient Rome as Crossroads Culinary Center was transformed for the event.

Student manager Nikkole Beadle, aka Aquilia Severa, wraps Peter Fowler, a freshman electrical engineering student, in a toga. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

Roman music set the mood, as guests passed through a row of gold pillars at the entrance and were welcomed with greetings of “salve” — the Latin for hello — by Latin-speaking Classics graduate students. Other classics students demonstrated toga wrapping and staffed informational booths on various aspects of ancient Roman culture, such as domestic architecture; the spice, grain and wine trades; and household slaves. A chariot and Roman armory served as backdrops for photos; other exhibits displayed examples of ancient pottery and cookware.

Dining staff dressed the part, donning typical Greco-Roman clothing, Roman armor and Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and gladiator costumes. Guests were encouraged to wear costumes as well, with the best-dressed receiving prizes of Campus Cash. ‘eat like a Roman’

C3 employee Brandon Cooley dressed as a gladiator. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

“We do several themed events each year, but nothing to the extent of this event,” said Jeff Brady, Campus and Dining Shops executive director. “Our executive chef, Neal Plazio, has out done himself with the menu — everything is very authentic and each dish tastes absolutely amazing.”

The dinner was inspired by a one-credit course of the same name offered through the Undergraduate Academies’ Discovery Seminar Program, which provides first- and second-year students with thought-provoking learning experiences in a small-class environment.

Donald McGuire, adjunct associate professor of classics, and Martha Malamud, professor of classics, meet with 19 students every other week in a kitchen on campus to discuss, cook and dine on Ancient Roman cuisine.

“We’ve studied the Romans for 25 to 30 years, and it’s fascinating to taste what they tasted,” said McGuire, who also serves as undergraduate program director in the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Education. “We want the students to understand how important food is in everyday life and that there are social conventions and customs that surround every meal.”

For the “Eat Like a Roman” course, McGuire and Malamud often prepare the main dish — usually a meat — at home and the students cook condiments and side dishes during class. The fare has included the Roman equivalent of pita bread, barley and vegetable soup, cinnamon- and almond-stuffed dates, and roast pork with pine-nut sauce.

The students also record their cooking experiences with Roman food, as well as meals from their own culture, on a class blog,

Many of the dishes for Sunday’s dinner were taste-tested in the “Eat Like a Roman” class. Others were served to a select gathering of faculty from the UB Academies.

Meals were developed from the recipes of Apicius, a source and inspiration for the only surviving Roman cookbook, as well as from a variety of recorded recipes from ancient writers.

But don’t expect to find the garlic and tomato-heavy dishes of modern Italian cuisine. Tomatoes were a New World plant and garlic was considered unfit for consumption at the time by the middle and upper classes. Most ancient recipes relied on wine- and vinegar-based sauces, barley, sesame and herbs to create a sweet-and-sour contrast. This is fusion food — tastes of the Mediterranean melded with those of the Middle East and Asia.

The menu. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

The menu included:

  • Soups: cinnamon lamb soup, chicken pottage with meatballs, and lentil soup.
  • Appetizers and salads: tuna leek salad, olive and celery pâté, melon with mint dressing, marinated olives with herbs, and assorted breads and cheeses.
  • Main courses: rustic pasta with chicken (although pasta was not ancient fare, the sauce is from an ancient recipe), patina apiciana, baked ham with figs, Parthian chicken and porchetta.
  • Side dishes: spring cabbage with cumin, carrots and parsnips with cumin and honey glaze, and honey and sesame “pizza.”
  • Desserts: peaches in a cumin sauce, Cato the Elder’s cheesecake, and rice pudding.

Plazio’s favorite dish to prepare was the patina apiciana, which consists of bacon, chicken, chorizo, grape jelly, onions, mushrooms, soy sauce (a vegan-friendly substitute for fish oil), pepper and pine nuts.

Students line up for their Roman meal. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

“The patina in the pasta area is really super because it’s got a great backstory,” Plazio said. “I call it the prototypical lasagna because it’s layered and made with bread. And back in ancient Rome, bread was called ‘lagana.’ It may have been a corruption of that word that lasagna got its name.”

Students also enjoyed the change in taste.

“It was nice to have something different,” said engineering major Michael Lukomski. “I’m used to the same old fried foods, day after day. So getting to have something I’ve never ate before was pretty cool.”

The food of the Romans

Photos by Nancy J. Parisi