4 Feb 2011

The Pompeiian diet of the poor

When reading the article Pompeii skeletons reveal secrets of Roman family life on the BBC website and the part about the diet of the poor, we're told that the diet may not have been so impoverished as one might assume. This reminds me a lot of the theory of the original affluent society.

Despite some criticisms against the idea of a relatively more leisurely ancient lifestyle in comparison to our hectic modern environment, one can hardly pretend that the excessive modern urbanization that we now have hasn't led to a large segment of our population being all too dependent on other entities to handle food gathering and production, sometimes to the point of crippling dependence. Afterall, how many of us city-folk pick our own berries, fish our own trout or grow our own radishes? Most have lost this ancient knowledge.

We most often go to grocery stores and buy the items we need. Yet we can't do this without first earning monetary tokens from someone else. We therefore struggle in dead-end, highly demanding, even mentally or physically toxic jobs just to acquire the means to obtain food and shelter. Our complete inter-reliance on apathetic strangers through a multi-layered economic system for even the most basic necessities is somewhat unique to modernity. And it's precisely our lack of personal autonomy in so many ways that makes us, in a manner of speaking, "less wealthy" than even our Roman antecedents.

We shouldn't feign too much shock at the notion that the poor in ancient times may have had a healthier diet than what we're capable of or are willing to supply our most vulnerable population despite all our showy technology and superficial symbols.


  1. I've been learning about foraging for about a year now. It's pretty amazing how much in the wild is actually edible. I wonder how many people could avoid starvation if they just knew what to look for in the wild.

  2. Even a lot of cultivated stuff that no one eats is edible - daylilies, chrysanthemums - that is probably why people started growing them in the first place. Squirrels, racoons and opossums are very edble too. Squirrels are supposed to be quite good and opossum is oily but delicate.

    Someone went through anthroplogical sources for the Puget Sound and found that something like 200 plants are mentioned as food, and it makes sense, since each species would be in flower or fruit for only a few weeks.

    The Larousse Gastronomique records the same kind in information except that it covers all of France. It mentions the most insignificant weeds as having this or that food use, and of course there appears to be no kind of bird that isn't edible.

    Back to the post - this was an urban population, and not a huge one, in a society where a lot of land still was not devoted soley to grain production. Food production methods were about on par with what people had in 1800 - no reason to think that people didn't eat at least as well as in Italy of that later period.

  3. This reminds me of a snippet from a great cooking/culture show I love, No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain visits the Greek Islands and talks about Crete's recent war history and forage-based diet.

  4. Forage-based diet - we tned to forget hwo important forgaing was ot a lot of people in so-called agricultural societies unitlv ery recently. In most of England right up to the Industrial revolution people grew grains on arable land and had no room for vegetables - they forgaed for edible herbs for the soups that they ate with bread or mixed into gruels. And even after moving into mill towns, the most easily aavailable vegetable was nettles harvested form along the canals.

    Rural people in the American south and lots of other areas have fond memories of eating small game in gravies and fried like chicken.

    Michael Pollan details a foraged meal in The Omnivore's Dilemma. He did the foraging in Northen California, which is at least as bountiful as Crete; actually quite a bit richer. He didn't even have to resort to a full foraging economy - he didn't for instance collect acorns in season and store them for the starch portion of his meal, unlike indigenous Californian societies.