Sunday dinner on the University at Buffalo’s North Campus was a real throwback – about 2,000 years’ worth.
The Red Jacket Quad in the university’s Ellicott Complex offered a menu of food that might have graced the tables of the ancient Romans, ranging from Parthian chicken to cheesecake attributed to Cato the Elder, a politician who lived about 140 B.C.
The “Eat Like a Roman” promotion was cooked up by two professors in the UB Classics Department and the 19 students who signed up for their one-credit course of the same name.
Donald McGuire and his wife, Martha Malamud, both members of the classics faculty, created the course as part of the Discovery Seminar Program, which offers short elective courses with small class sizes.
This particular class meets once every two weeks in the Greiner Hall dormitory and involves cooking in every session.
Neil Coffee, chairman of the Classics Department, said UB doesn’t have a classics requirement, so the short courses are part of an effort to entice more students into considering classical studies as a means of fulfilling a humanities or language requirement.
McGuire said Roman cuisine bore little resemblance to modern Italian cooking. The tomato wasn’t available, since it was imported from the Western Hemisphere centuries later; the Romans didn’t make pasta; and garlic was considered something fit only for “the lowest of the low class.”
UB chef Neil Plazio said Roman fare was the first fusion cooking, as the Romans melded Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian flavors.
Parthian chicken, for example, originated in what is now Iran, a country the Romans never fully conquered.
The toga-clad Lauren Brantley, general manager of Crossroads, one of the 10 dining centers on campus, said UB has offered theme dinners before, but this is the first time one was prepared in cooperation with an academic department.
But there were limits to the level of authenticity that could be tolerated.
“The Romans used to use a fish sauce made out of rotten fish carcasses. We didn’t want that for the vegetarians here or people who don’t like rotten fish,” McGuire said. “We’re using a kind of modified soy sauce.”
Plazio said the soy sauce was mixed with grape jelly.
“We had to look at some creative ways of rediscovering the flavors,” Plazio said. “A lot of the spices, some of the juice reductions weren’t really to my liking, so we came up with some substitutions.”
The menu included steak and pork dishes as well as chicken, and an admittedly inauthentic pasta dish with sauce from an ancient recipe.
“I didn’t like it,” said Alexa Zukowski of Hamburg, who tried the pasta. “Seasoning or sauce, it just wasn’t very tasteful.”
“The chicken was pretty good,” said Amanda Murray, also from Hamburg. “The seasoning was a little different.”
However, Al Leve of Rochester found the Parthian chicken dry. “It wasn’t too bad,” he conceded.
“I liked the honey pizza with sesame seeds and the antique pasta,” said Ellen Smith of Rochester.
Pete Carraa of Rochester sampled the Roman steak. “I was really hungry, so I ate it really fast,” he admitted when asked for his analysis of the flavoring.