Cucina Povera in Pompeii

What would you like with your giraffe, sir?

It has always occurred to me that those of us in the US are quite likely to misinterpret the whole idea of the cooking of the poor—or at least the semi poor, and not just because writers tend to over-glorify the concept that basic food is better and only the poor had the time and the cleverness to deal with the offal and the tougher cuts.

After all, it’s not like marginally poor people of Italy always ate the cheapest and most icky food. There was a variety of foodstuffs that popped out of the rural countryside available for free. The most conniving, resourceful, and energetic of foraging family members were (are) often able to forage foodstuffs like truffles and porcini that aren’t considered cheap crap food at all. Sure, they likely sold some or all of their hauls in order to purchase a greater quantity of calories—survival food—but they had access to wonderful flavors that even the rural poor in the US can’t come close to procuring. The fifth quarter of the beast was cheap back then. Try buying tongue or tripe at Safeway these days. You might was well get filet mignon.

I had expected a recent article in Popular Archaeology to reinforce this idea that the marginal poor could fare decently—and it did. Sort of. After all, researches found that the “non-elites” were eating better than they expected, even eating exotic imported food like giraffe.

A drain from a central property revealed a richer variety of foods as well as imports from outside Italy, such as shellfish, sea urchin and even delicacies including the butchered leg joint of a giraffe.

“That the bone represents the height of exotic food is underscored by the fact that this is thought to be the only giraffe bone ever recorded from an archaeological excavation in Roman Italy,” says Ellis. “How part of the animal, butchered, came to be a kitchen scrap in a seemingly standard Pompeian restaurant not only speaks to long-distance trade in exotic and wild animals, but also something of the richness, variety and range of a non-elite diet.”

Of course, calling everyone who isn’t filthy rich “non-elites” paints the scene with an extraordinarily wide brush. Given the data as presented it’s not likely that the homeless poor were bellying up to the bar and gnawing on a roasted giraffe washed down with Barolo.

That’s the problem with popular archaeology (not the magazine, but archaeology that captures the public imagination); funded study usually reflects the concerns of… us.

As government produces bad policy aimed at creating an endless supply of cheap labor and the industrial crap food industry labors to supply it with cheap and inoffensive (read tasteless) fuel, we immediately focus our looking glasses on the past. When toilets first came inside the house, we looked for toilets in places like Knossos on the island of Crete. And we found them, of course. You always find what you want to find. Even if they were embalming drains.

Then space travel became possible and suddenly we’re all intently reading the pseudo-archaeology spewing from von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods.

So, it’s always like that: è sempre così. So let’s just know that we’re grasping at straws here. The ancients ate quite well at times, maybe better than USians do today, and certainly, if bad governance continues, way better than we will be able to eat in the future.

Perhaps it is time to gather some knowledge of foraging. Then you can at least be useful when you join those preservers of knowledge that pop up in wanting times, that blast from the medieval past: the Monastery.

Cucina Povera in Pompeii originally appeared on , updated: Jun 16, 2019 © .

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