Casual Vomiting Between Courses, Parrot Tongues, and Mid-meal Naps: How the Ancient Romans Ate

Let's just say things have changed since the Ancient Romans were in power.

The Romans of the Decadence, 1847, by Thomas Couture (1815-1879), oil on canvas, 466x775 cm. Ancient Rome.
The Romans of the Decadence, 1847, by Thomas Couture (1815-1879), oil on canvas, 466x775 cm. Ancient Rome. Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images

While Thanksgiving is a day for American indulgence, rest assured that no one, and we mean no one, could indulge like the Romans did.

Feasting was like a sport that only ancient Romans could excel at. They were usually reserved for the wealthiest class, took several hours into the night, and were filled with copious amounts of (sometimes unique or extraordinary) foods as well as bodily functions that modern society would frown upon –– or be genuinely concerned about.

"Eating was the supreme act of civilization and celebration of life," said Alberto Jori, professor of ancient philosophy at the University of Ferrara in Italy, to CNN.

Let's start with the food.

While we normally marvel at the Thanksgiving table, filled with turkey, stuffing, yams, casseroles, and cranberry sauce, these things don't hold a candle to a Roman menu. In addition to comparatively normal offerings like pastas, roasted game meat like venison or boar, seafood like raw oysters or shellfish, and sweet cakes, the tables of ancient Rome also had exotic or strange concoctions like stuffed dormouse (yes, a rodent) and parrot tongues, according to CNN. Wine was also consumed, of course, but it was often spiked with other ingredients — like tar.

To top all the food off was a condiment called garum, a fish sauce made by crushing and fermenting meat and intestines from fish, eel, anchovies, and other animals, in the sun, according to CNN. In all fairness, it was apparently similar to fish sauces in different Asian cuisines.

But a Roman feast isn't just how much you eat, but how you do it. According to CNN, Romans would often eat by lying on their bellies in order to aid digestion. "The left hand held up their head while the right one picked up the morsels placed on the table, bringing them to the mouth. So they ate with their hands and the food had to be already cut by slaves," Jori told CNN. Unfortunately, owning slaves was also considered a status symbol in ancient Rome, so anyone who did have the means to throw a feast also had slaves who would clean up after it.

Romans also saw certain bodily functions, ones modern people might find unseemly, as a norm or even a necessity during a feast. According to CNN, breaking wind was not uncommon at these functions since Romans believed that trapped gas could kill you. While a little gas might sound funny, we can only assume that this got overwhelming pretty quick.

And with all that eating, Romans also normalized the practice of vomiting between courses. It was pretty common that feasters would eat, leave the table to expel what they had just eaten, and then come back for more, CNN reported. Aside from the ick-factor, modern people might just be medically concerned for someone if they did this at Thanksgiving.

The combination of lying down and eating a lot also meant that guests would take little naps between courses, according to CNN, which actually sounds nice.

The feast was also the home of many superstitions, like the idea that spilling salt was a bad omen or bad luck, according to CNN..

When you gather in person or virtuall for your next feast, maybe you should leave the parrot tongues and casual vomiting out of it.

Andrea Romano is a freelance writer in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @theandrearomano.

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