One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.
1. Tell us about your research project. What topic do you study and how did you become interested in it?
My research is on breadmaking in Cato’s De Agricultura. Cato includes a number of bread recipes, many of which are made with alica (known today as farro). He instructs the reader to soak the alica, smash it into a paste, mix it with flour, and form the dough into sheets called tracta. The tracta is paired with a cheese and honey paste and a bread crust to form multiple dishes. Many of them are iterations of placenta in which the tracta are layered with the cheese mixture and enclosed in the bread crust to make something that resembles a crossover between a muffuletta sandwich and white lasagna. Cato also includes a recipe for erneum, a placenta cooked in a double boiler setup, and globi, pan fried balls of alica, flour, and cheese that are coated in honey and poppy seeds. The majority of my work has been testing Cato’s recipes
I have been cooking for many years and became interested in ancient food after taking courses in the Carleton Classics Department and Professor Jake Morton’s experimental archaeology lab. Jake was thinking about the role of alica in De Agricultura, so I joined him as his research assistant to investigate alica from a baking angle. The goal of my research has been to decipher Cato’s recipes and discover what alica adds to a recipe as compared to a simple flour and water dough.
2. What sources or data do you use?
My research has primarily been recreating the recipes that call for alica in De Agricultura. There is some existing scholarship on alica from the mid-20th century which has been helpful to reference during my recipe testing. Most of the authors reached the conclusion that Cato’s recipes do not seem to work, so they substituted the alica for semolina or cake flour and changed ratios. My experiments adhere as closely as possible to Cato’s instructions with the assumption that doing so can create an edible product if the proper ingredients and techniques are used.
The issues with the recipes that previous scholars have identified gave me starting points for my tests. Putting multiple interpretations of ambiguous instructions to the test allowed me to make sense of what Cato might have intended to instruct. For example, Cato writes that the tracta dough should be wiped with an oiled cloth, but does not specify at what stage of the recipe this should be done. Through experimentation, I have found that the oil seems to only be useful when it is used immediately before stretching the dough. Without the oil, the soft dough stuck to my fingers and was prone to tearing.
Given the amount of experimentation I was doing with a very scientific baking process, background knowledge in breadmaking was extremely important. I needed to be able to identify when the dough had been properly hydrated (Cato does not specify an amount of water in his recipe) and when enough gluten had been developed through kneading. There are also a number of factors such as the age of the flour and kitchen humidity that can impact breadmaking. Therefore, most of my data comes from baking with intuition, within the bounds of Cato’s instructions, and recording my measurements to later analyze.
3. What have been the main challenges of undertaking this work?
I have been working from multiple translations of De Agricultura that use different terms to refer to the same Latin phrase. For example, the farina siliginea that Cato calls for in the placenta crust is translated as bread wheat, hard wheat, soft bread wheat, and common wheat by various authors. Trying to understand the differences between the listed terms, pick the most accurate one, and find the closest modern-day ingredient to use in my testing gave me a lot to think about before even stepping into the kitchen. On the other side of the process, the work that I have done after completing the recipe tests has pushed me to learn more about the chemistry of bread. Needing to know more about the ways in which every ingredient interacts and how changing ratios can create an entirely new product has encouraged me to include cookbooks and culinary textbooks in my research.
4. How does this research shed light on real people in the past?
My experimental work has been particularly helpful in understanding the lives of people in the past. The feeling of kneading dough and tasting the baked placenta are sensory experiences that cut across time. With the help of Jake’s experimental archaeology class, I have been able to experience firsthand that alica makes a real difference in the final product. The addition of extra starch in the form of farro paste allows the dough to have a higher hydration, eventually creating a desirable chewy texture. When baked in the form of placenta, the excess starches from the alica thicken the cheese mixture. Even though ancient Romans did not have the terminology to describe the chemical reactions that made the alica placenta so much better than the non-alica version, they clearly could taste the difference. Using alica amplifies the already physically draining labor of kneading two doughs by hand. Therefore, Roman cooking was about more than convenience; sometimes putting in extra labor was worth the higher quality result. Finally, Cato’s sparse directions reveal that his audience most likely had enough familiarity with alica to make tracta without being told how to do so. Recreating Cato’s recipes has helped me understand how common breadmaking was in the daily lives of Romans before bakeries took over the craft. Thus, experiments in ancient bread serve as an entry point into the study of diet, labor, and social expectations.
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Ellen Schlick will graduate from Carleton College in 2023 with a BA in American Studies. As a Classics minor, Ellen has focused on Roman and Greek history and culture with a specific interest in women’s political power during the fall of the Roman Republic. Her capstone paper titled “Cornelia and her Jewels: Mythologizing Virtuous Maternal Grief” proposed that Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, has been mythologized in the ancient world and modern United States as a symbol of idealized female mourning. Her current research on Roman bread allows her to bring her love of baking into her Classics work. Ellen plans on pursuing a legal career, starting as a paralegal in Washington, DC following graduation.
Interested in learning more about Roman bread-making? Check out our podcast with Dr. Jared Benton from Season 2, on bread-making and Roman Bakeries!