Cooking vol. 2: Mithaecus of Syracuse (400 b.)

The art of cooking originated in the Middle East. But the first great cook we know of, came, like so much of our civilization, from classical Greece. However, not from the centers of Athens or Sparta, but from the so-called Magna Graecia, in the Greek colonies of today's southern Italy. Of the first ever author of a cookbook, only one recipe has been handed down.

5 mins read

The first cookbook author

Page from Athenaois "Philosophers at Dinner"
In “Philosophers at Dinner” of Athenaeus the only recipe of Mithaecus is handed down.

What distinguishes the art of cooking from simple good food? Or from the luxury on display? Certainly it lives from the variety of good, sometimes rare ingredients. It requires a developed agriculture and trade relations. It requires a level of professional training and specialization that is only achieved in developed, hierarchically organized societies. In early cultures, this meant that cooking was no longer done by women at home, but by men in the courts of the powerful. It meant that food was no longer associated only with utility, health, religious rites, or attachment to social codes, but also with pleasure and enjoyment. And that finally cooking became part of a public of connoisseurs who could critically evaluate what was presented.

Thus it happens that the first cook known by name does not come from the first advanced civilizations in the Near East or from Egypt, but from ancient Greece, a society that had also created democracy and philosophy. But as much as art and culture, politics and intellectual life flourished there in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E., the conditions for the art of cooking were poor. The Greek heartland had survived first the Persian Wars and then the Peloponnesian War in the course of a century. And it possessed only a meager soil, on which only little agriculture prospered.

Macchia landscape in Greece
Macchia landscape in Greece

Sicilian land of plenty Sybaris

Campania fish plate
Campania fish plate

Instead, it flourished in the colonies to the west, in Sicily and on the coast of Calabria. Sybaris there was considered a kind of land of milk and honey. The comedian poet Metagenes says that the neighboring river “pushes toward us a surge of cheesecake and meat and boiled rays, while the smaller tributaries flow with baked squid, with sea bream and armored crabs.”

There was a splendor otherwise known only from the despotisms of the East. The historian Herodotus tells of a certain Smindyrides who surrounded himself with the greatest luxuries the world had ever seen, and who had a thousand cooks and fowlers accompany him on his travels. No wonder that the lifestyle of the “Sybarites” eventually became proverbial in ancient Greece and is today considered synonymous with gluttony and hedonism – although it should not be forgotten that such elementary cultural achievements as the bathtub, the chamber pot and the legal regulation of noise protection originated in Sybaris.

Greek syposium on a fresco from Paestum
Representation of a Greek syposium in a fresco from Paestum

But it was not until a hundred years later, in Syracuse, Sicily, that Opsartytics, the art of cooking, was also theorized. There are only few testimonies about it. A mention and an allusion of a contemporary, the philosopher Plato, three fragments in the “scholars’ meal” of the later writer Athenaeus and few scattered testimonies more. And yet these traces are enough to give us a reasonably well-defined idea. Thus, in his Socratic dialogue “Gorgias”, the Athenian Plato names Mithaecus, the author of the “Sicilian Cookery”, as someone exemplarily dedicated to the care of the body.

Amphora with the depiction of olive harvest
Olive harvest in ancient Greece

In the eyes of Socrates, this is not too outstanding an achievement – but the mere mention in such a prominent place suggests that Mithaecus – as the first cookbook author of which we have knowledge – must have been quite popular in his time. Athenaeus will then continue to quote from this cookbook many centuries later – including the oldest recipe that we can attribute to a specific person. Another hundred years later, the orator Maximus of Tyre will write that for the Greeks, Mithaecus had done for the art of cooking what the sculptor Phidias had done for sculpture.

Between Sparta and Athens

Helmet of a Spartan warrior
Helmet of a Spartan warrior

During his lifetime, however, Mithaecus of Syracuse was more than controversial. According to an anecdote of Maximus of Tyre, the cook is said to have come one day to his original home Sparta to practice his art – and was immediately expelled again, because there the bodies were “insensitive to flattery” and cooks were needed as little as in a pack of lions. The food of the warrior society there was proverbially “spartan”. The main meal, besides simple barley bread in the legendary “black broth”, consisted of pork cooked in blood and seasoned with vinegar and salt. It was said that the soldiers ate raw onions before every battle to increase the adrenaline level.

Bust of the philosopher Plato

But even classical Athens was anything but a gastronomic oasis. Moral austerity and asceticism dominated the cuisine, at least until the beginning of the fourth century. Plato gives an example in his “State”. There he sketches the ideal education for the guardians of the republic. Abstinence from alcohol and plain food led to the necessary virtue; after all, even the forefather of Greek literature, the poet Homer, mentions neither spices nor sweets. It is no wonder that Plato is disparaging about “Syracusan tables” and the “Sicilian variety of dishes” – a clear dig at Mithaecus.

Hardly in the world, the culinary art stands thus immediately with the back against the wall. Lowly esteemed by leading thinkers and statesmen, it flourishes not at the center of civilization but on the periphery – in the opulence of the colonies of Magna Graecia or Asia Minor, under the patronage of politically dubious princes and magnates. It will be a long road that will lead the culinary art to the heart of the Republic.

The plate: Tainia (Red Bandfish or Cepola macrophthalma)

Red Bandfish
Freshly caught red bandfish in the wholesale market of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain.

The only recipe we know of mithaikos is handed down in the “Deipnosophistae” (in English: Philosophers at Dinner) of Athenaeus:

Tainia: gut, remove the head, rinse, slice; add cheese and (olive) oil.

Short as it is, it contains many question marks. Tainia is a Mediterranean fish, still common today, usually prepared fried. The recipe does not say in what form the tainia was heated before consumption or whether it was even eaten raw. At the same time, it opens a controversy that still exists today: The combination of fish with cheese. The cook Archestratus (see next chapter) will then warn his readers a few decades later that cooks from Syracuse would spoil the fish with cheese. Since red bandfish are hardly sold for consumption in Germany, I have chosen not to recreate the recipe.

Picture rights:

Featured image: August Wilhelm Julius Ahlborn (after Karl Friedrich Schinkel): Blick in Griechenlands Blüte (1836, detail). Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin: HAESsJ_MthhX5g at Google Arts & Culture

Page from the “Deipnosophistae” of Athenaeus: Sotheby’s

Macchia landscape in Greece (Old Polyrrhenia on Crete): Ziegler175/Wikimedia CC 3.0

Terracotta fish plate from Campania (ca. 350-325 bc): The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Symposium scene from a fresco in the Tomb of the Diver (475 b.c.): Paestum Museum

Attic amphora depicting olive harvest (520 b.c.): The Trustees of the British Museum

Helmet of a Spartan warrior (ca. 510 b.c.): The Trustees of the British Museum

Bust of Plato from Trinity College, Dublin: Erik Bolstad/Wikimedia CC 3.0

Red bandfish: Stefan Pegatzky/Time Tunnel Images

Literature:

Andrew Dalby: Siren Feasts. A history of food and gastronomy in Greece. London and New York. 1996

Andrew Dalby:  Food in the ancient world from A to Z. London and New York 2003.

Shaun Hill and John Wilkins: „Mithaikos and other Greek cooks“. In: Walker Harlan: Cooks and other people. Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1995, p. 144−148.

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