How to Cater a Roman Orgy

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Photo by [MC]/Flickr CC


As a very young caterer in the late 1970s, I needed money and experience in equal amounts. I took on every challenge knowing I would inevitably curdle or burn. But taking on a Roman orgy was a whole different kettle of fermented anchovy sauce.

A Harvard professor asked me to cater a Roman dinner, hereafter known as the Orgy. I went to the lowest level--of Harvard's Widener Library--and conducted serious research on Apicius and other ancient texts giving clues to the foods of the Roman Empire. With no orgy cookbook in front of me I had to use my imagination.

I opened the door on a perfectly matched pair of most fetchingly attired male undergraduates, wearing tiny chitons covering their toned bodies minimally in draped cloth.

Translations to 1970s Cambridge weren't always easy. Stuffed larks? No problem--frozen quail, stuffed with a parmesan herb stuffing. Anchovies in oil with herbs, straight from Boston's Little Italy. Nightingales' tongues? I thought, what would a nightingale's tongue resemble? Little, slippery, wormy...snails! Periwinkles from Chinatown! With a hatpin, I plucked each of the little buggers out of their chambers and stir fried them with garlic and green herbs.

Honey cakes...well, those seemed to epitomize the evening and I made them in buttocky shapes drenched in a nut-honey mixture.

I carried the boxes of delicacies through the Doric columns of the host's Victorian Cambridge home. The house had been swept free of furniture, the floors laid with oriental carpets and strewn with pillows. Our host said, oh just leave directions for the servers. At that point, the door bell rang, and I opened the door on a perfectly matched pair of most fetchingly attired male undergraduates, wearing tiny chitons covering their toned bodies minimally in draped cloth, with those Demetrius and the Gladiator sandals, trussed up the legs. I was to return by noon the next day to pick up my dishes. (NOON? What low expectations he had! Surely orgies go on for days?)

I came back the following day, a tad early, expecting/hoping to find the floor littered with sated bodies, spilled wine and pieces of clothing. It was disappointingly empty and clean, and our host, clad in monastic pajamas and robe, had a bowl of Cheerios in his hand.

Was the orgy a bust? Perhaps I neglected to add some crucial ingredient to the nightingales' tongues. NEXT time I'll leave out the saltpeter. You're only as good as your last orgy.

Note: a full-length version, including a recipe for honey buttocks cakes, will be published in the Annals of Improbable Research, editor, Marc Abrahams.

Presented by

Corky White is a professor of anthropology at Boston University. More

Corky White is a professor of anthropology at Boston University. She is really happy to be called a food anthropologist. She leads students to Boston's food secrets and hopes they don't see the course as a gut. In the past she wrote cookbooks and food travel guides and is glad she got tenure so she can put it all back on the resume. Her dream field work project allowed her two years of study of Japanese culinary tourism in Italy.

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