Just after lunch on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius entombed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
On the Bay of Naples, Italy, a rare glimpse of Roman-era lifestyles lies frozen in time. Ash falls and pyroclastic flows destroyed and encapsulated humans and their culture.
The preservation of ingredients, cooking and dining were so complete that they are now the subject of a project, "De Gustibus" (about taste: from vegetable garden to table), that brings to life how food was raised and prepared 2,000 years ago.
Seldom do archaeologists have so rich an opportunity to learn what life was like among our predecessors.
Recovery of the cuisine of A.D. 79 is technically termed historical archaeology. Some written documents attest to past activities, but much of what we know is from the preserving of meals and larders where they stood. Preservation is chiefly by burial in ash falls or carbonization by super-heated air and cinders.
What does this marvelous preservation tell us?
Romans cooked with wood fires using ovens with food on tiles or in clay. Although bronze and iron were in use, most cooking was in or on terra cotta.
Ingredients were a mix of culinary and medicinal plants.
Wheat was critical, and during Roman times people were moving from spelt, a tough hard-hulled wheat, to more tender-hulled varieties. Large grindstones turned by small donkeys allowed bakers to process commercial quantities of wheat at their Pompeii bakeshops.
Wheat, olive oil and wine were major staples.
Herbs familiar to us were common: basil, thyme, marjoram, coriander, chervil, dill and savory.
Cultivated vegetables 2,000 years ago included cabbage, lettuce, arugula, chicory, cress, carrots, celery, garlic, onion, chard, scallions, turnips, endive, asparagus, mint, pumpkin, watermelon, cucumbers and radishes.
Among the fruits available were apples, peaches, figs, pears, grapes (and raisins) and the nuts almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and pine nuts.
Animal protein came extensively from dairy products such as cow's and goat's milk and cheese, and eggs. Typically, Romans did not butcher cows for beef, since the milk and cheese were too valuable.
Farmers raised hogs for meat. Hams and sausages were smoked or salt cured with pepper and sold in Pompeii butcher shops.
Wild game included, especially for the upper classes, peafowl, pheasant, rabbit, ostrich, parrot and flamingo.
Seafood was important along the coast of Italy. Tuna, swordfish, anchovies, clams, mussels, shrimp, lobster and squid were used. The wealthy had ponds from which to draw fresh fish at mealtime. Ranching of oysters and clams was common.
One is struck by the remarkable continuity of diet across two millennia. Salads and entrees of 2,000 years ago seem remarkably appetizing today.
Some things are as unappetizing as they must have been 2,000 years ago. Dolphin liver medicine isn't very different from the cod liver oil my mother shoved down my throat as a child.
The conclusion of a similar piece in the Washington Post adds:
"We wanted to learn what the inhabitants of Pompeii ate," said Anna Maria Ciarallo, a biologist who heads the project for Pompeii's archaeological office. "But we wanted a side of the project to appeal directly to the public as well."
Some may keep away from "garum," a pungent sauce used for flavoring and obtained by fermenting fish entrails, but Ciarallo said many Roman dishes closely resembled modern cuisine.
The recipe to make prosciutto ham has remained unchanged, while "savillum," the favorite dessert of many Romans, was a baked cream similar to today's custard, she said.
Pompeii's wealthy were known to feast on such exotic dishes as swallow's tongue and parrot meat, but the project is presenting more everyday fare, Ciarallo said.
The restaurant was located between the gymnasium, the amphitheater and one of the city's gates and mostly catered to middle-class merchants and travelers, she said.
Its six benches were probably always filled with hungry customers passing through the busy neighborhood, she said. The guests would recline on one side on the benches, as eating customs demanded at the time, to chat, play dice _ one of the Romans' favorite pastimes _ and partake of the dishes served out of large pots. The quiche-like "libum" is made with bread, bay leaves and cheese resembling today's ricotta.
"It was a sweet and sour cuisine, which blended the sharp tastes of vinegar and spices with the sugars of honey and figs," Ciarallo said. Cereals and beans were the staples of the Roman diet, together with fish, cheese and limited quantities of eggs and meat.
"The main differences were between the social classes," she said.
Slaves were kept on a high-energy diet of bread, dried-fruits and low quality cheese and wine. The upper classes enjoyed the same foods available to the middle class, but the quantities were larger, the ingredients finer, and the banquets were lavish presentations.
The project will shut down on June 26 because of lack of funds _ a perennial problem that keeps parts of the huge Pompeii site often closed to the public.
A sidebar (presumably) in Newsday offers some recipes ...