Ancient Roman cooking course inspires 2,000 UB students to dine as Romans did thousands of years ago

A flat pancake-colored bread.

One of the dishes offered during the “Eat Like a Roman” dinner is Staititai, or honey and sesame “pizza.” Prepared by the “Eat Like a Roman” class, the dough is similar to modern pizza. However, it is fried rather than baked, and topped with feta cheese. Credit: Martha Malamud

Meal to include culinary delights such as Parthian chicken, melon with mint dressing and baked ham with figs

Release Date: April 1, 2014 This content is archived.

Don’t expect to find the tomato- and garlic-heavy dishes of modern Italian cuisine. Tomatoes were a New World plant, and garlic was considered unfit for consumption by the middle and upper classes.
Four balls of slightly flattened dough with a rolling pin on a red table.

The dough for the pizza, divided into four discs before being rolled out. Credit: Martha Malamud

A cookbook next to a dish of food.

A copy of the only surviving Roman cookbook alongside Moretum, a garlic and cheese dip. Many of the meals for the “Eat Like a Roman” dinner are derived from the ancient cookbook. Credit: Martha Malamud

Dumplings in a frying pan.

Basynoi is a small pastry stuffed with figs and walnuts that was often eaten by the inhabitants of the Greek islands. Although Basynoi will not be served at the “Eat Like a Roman” dinner, the “Eat Like a Roman” class sampled the dish fried and coated with honey. Credit: Martha Malamud

BUFFALO, N.Y. — On April 6, 2,000 University at Buffalo students will join Julius Caesar and other historical figures for an authentic ancient Roman feast of cinnamon lamb soup, carrots and parsnips with cumin and honey glaze, Cato the Elder’s cheesecake, and more.

The themed dinner, “Eat Like a Roman,” is hosted by UB’s Department of Classics and Campus and Dining Shops.

The dining center will be transformed. It will be as if guests are stepping out of a time machine into ancient Rome.

Roman music will set the mood, and diners will be greeted in Latin. Classics students will demonstrate toga wrapping. A fountain and chariot will serve as backdrops for photos, and exhibits will display examples of ancient pottery and cookware. Dining staff will dress the part, donning gear including typical Greco-Roman clothes, Roman armor and a Julius Caesar costume.

“Eat Like a Roman” will take place from 5-8:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 6 at the Crossroads Culinary Center in the Red Jacket Quad of the Ellicott Complex on UB’s North Campus. Media are invited to attend.

The dinner is 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,” says McGuire, also 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.”

At Sunday’s “Eat Like a Roman” dinner, the course’s students will staff informational booths on various aspects of ancient Roman eating, such as domestic architecture; the spice, grain and wine trades; and household slaves. Guests are encouraged to wear a costume, with the best-dressed receiving prizes.

“We do several themed events each year, but nothing to the extent like this event will be,” 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.”

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 roasted pork with pine nut sauce.

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.

And 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 tastes of the Middle East and Asia.

The students cook in every class: “That is the whole point,” says McGuire. “Each group has to read their assigned recipe, think through the preparation in advance, and then actually prepare a dish that the whole class will eat.”

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

“We have a diverse class that reflects America today, and that is perfect for the course, because the Roman world was so diverse,” says Malamud. “Our first blog assignments asked the students to describe the contents of their refrigerator when they were growing up, and to talk about ritual food in a holiday they celebrate.”

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.

The menu includes:

  • Soups: cinnamon lamb soup, chicken pottage with meatballs, and lentil soup
  • Appetizers and Salads: tuna leek salad, olive and celery pate, 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
  • Sides: 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

Media Contact Information

Marcene Robinson is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.