Sausages and Meat Preservation in Antiquity I
By Frank Frost
“My wicked belly always gets me into trouble,” complained Odysseus 1, and indeed our general impression is that hunger was a frequent companion of the Greeks, Romans, and other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world. A number of recent works have attempted to quantify the relationship of the Greeks with their food supply, and the picture they draw is one of small farmers leading a marginal existence and city dwellers forced to import grain from abroad 2. It is implied that the ordinary person, unable to afford the dishes described in the cookbooks by Archestratos or Apicius 3, would make do with diet primarily composed of cereal grains –wheat bread or barley cakes— relieved only by legumes, and fruits and vegetables in season.
These studies investigate the cereal crops of antiquity, extrapolating the yield of wheat and barley by comparison with yields in modern developing countries, and factoring in rainfall and climate, generally assumed to be virtually the same as today in the eastern Mediterranean. The consensus is gloomy: the annual rainfall in Attica might produce a crop of barley every year but a decent crop of wheat only once in four years. And other sources of nourishment are regularly discounted. It is said that at certain times of year there was a surplus of young sheep and goats. But the lack of pasturage forced farmers to cull their flocks severely and to preserve primarily females who promised to be good milkers and wool producers, plus a very few vigorous males to keep the line going. Therefore, it is said, the average Greek and Roman person could never rely on meat in the diet 4.
Because most of us in prosperous first-world countries eat too much meat and are being continually counseled to eat less, the role of meat as protein in the diet is sometimes overlooked or even scorned. But animal meat and fat, for both young, growing people and for frail elders, is a superb shortcut to nutrition. Jane Brody, a respected nutritionist who continually counseled moderation in the consumption of meat and fat, nevertheless conceded that if the average youth or adult could eat 150 grams of pork or beef liver once a week, they would satisfy most of their dietary requirements for a whole range of vitamins and minerals 5.
The picture we get from Homeric descriptions of communal meals is definitely pre-Brodyite. The liver is eaten just as a snack, to start, then whole beeves are skewered and roasted over open flame and smoking gobbets dripping with fat are passed around to the banqueters. But a few short years later Hesiod barely mentions meat. The annual cereal crop is his entire preoccupation. And from that time on, the literature of dining is split between descriptions of haute cuisine and the perennial hunger that afflicted everyone else. Is this a true picture?
Sheep and goats, on the other hand, were culled every year, sometimes twice a year, and the occasion called for great festivities as the surplus animals were slaughtered and devoured. At all times of year, as well, sheep and goats were slaughtered on the altar of sacrifice and were often distributed among the members of the sacrificing cult. But normally these flocks were too valuable for their wool and for the cheese that could be made from their milk to be used as food animals during the rest of the year.
The pig produces neither wool nor milk, therefore one might wonder at the prominence of pigs mentioned in the Greek and Roman diet. What the pig does produce is more pigs. Whereas a sheep or goat rarely produces more than one or two offspring a year, the pig will produce at least eight per farrow, and even as many as twelve. The Roman agronomists, in fact, favored a triage of any more than eight in order to keep all the survivors healthy and well fed (Varro Rust. 2.4.19). Both sheep and goats have a relatively long gestation of five months. But a sow carries her litter for only 110 days, and when she is young and healthy she can bear two litters a year. The pig is also easier to feed. Pigs are basically omnivores; they will eat any kind of vegetable matter, whether leaf, seed, fruit, root, or the residue from oil or wine-making. They will eat any other living or dead thing and even the remains of other pigs that have been slaughtered. They are easy to raise and their meat and by-products go a long way. “It is a lazy man who buys his side meat from the butcher,” said Varro (Rust. 2.4.2). The relative values of sheep, goats, and pigs can be calculated in the prices established for sacrificial animals. In the great calendar of the deme Erchia, sheep and goats are priced at ten drachmas or more while the piglets are always three drachmas 6.
It is obvious that meat was available in the Greek diet but subject to seasonal surpluses or shortages, particularly in the case of the pig, which at the age of eight months, dressed out, can produce as much as fifty kilos of usable meat, meat by- products, and fat, four to five times as much as a sheep or goat 7. It seems obvious that the very first person to slaughter a pig for a meal immediately began to wonder how to save the remainder for another day. Therefore we should consider the various strategies for preserving surplus meat in every analysis of the ancient diet.
Salting as a means of preservation was well understood in antiquity and salted fish ––generically called τάριχος–– may have been the primary commodity. The verb ταριχεύω generally means to preserve by pickling 8. Theophrastos’ shameless man, while at dinner at the house of another, takes part in the sacrifice before dinner and slips some of the meat away to be salted later (Char. 9.2). Hams are referred to as κωλῆνες τεταριχευμένοι. The verb is also used to describe Egyptian mummification, although in that case saltpeter was used instead of salt 9.
While Greek authors were generally too fine to discuss the daily business of animal husbandry, the Roman authors who were actual farmers and not afraid to get their hands dirty provide most of our details.
Cato describes step by step the procedure for salting hams. Salt is laid down in the bottom of a large jar. The hams are placed skin side down on the salt and are covered with another layer of salt. Then more hams and layers of salt are added until the jar is full and covered with a final layer of salt. After five days the hams are taken out and put back in reverse order. After twelve days the hams are taken out, brushed off, and dried for two days. They are then cleaned, coated with oil, and cold smoked for another two days before being hung to store in the meat house (Rust. 162.1–3).
Columella gives two methods for preserving hams. He partially repeats Cato’s instructions for salting in jars, or what might be called the wet process, for the hams remain in their brine. He also describes a dry process in which the pig is boned. Salt is rubbed all over the pieces and into the cavities where the bones were. Then the pieces are pressed between weighted boards for three days to extract as much moisture as possible. The pieces continue to be rubbed with salt and a little saltpeter for 9–12 days and are then rinsed and hung to dry (Rust. 12.55.1–4). This is virtually the identical method used today in northern Italy to make prosciutto crudo and elsewhere to make country ham. The only variable is the amount of salt used. With enough salt any piece of meat can be made to last forever, although in mariners’ journals from the great age of sail we find uncharitable remarks about barrels of salt meat that had been to the Indies and back.
To preserve meat in a way that produces something tasty requires a light hand with the salt. As the salted meat rests at ambient temperature there occurs another process of preservation that ancient writers, so far as we know, did not recognize. Certain bacteria begin to break down the muscle tissue, causing it to ferment and produce lactic acid. Lactic acid not only helps to preserve meat by lowering the pH and killing off harmful bacteria, the resulting fermentation also eventually produces enough lactic acid to stop the fermentation itself. At that point the chemistry of the meat is stable; only drying is needed to make the product resistant to spoilage. The catalogue of Burger’s Smokehouse, a famous producer of pork products in Missouri, gives a short history of the establishment. The original Mr. Burger began ham processing in the days before refrigeration. The pigs were slaughtered in the fall when the temperature had dropped. The hams were rubbed with salt, just as Columella described, and then were hung in an airy place––a corn crib was perfect––all winter long. The warmer days of spring and the hot days of summer completed the cure as the hams sweated out their moisture. The best hams, at least to Missouri tastes, had hung for a whole year 10. Country hams are made exactly the same way all over Europe, the only difference being that Europeans generally consume this kind of ham raw, while the country hams of the midwest and south are cooked.
Hams will therefore have been a form of storable wealth. The official called the κωλακρέτης, found at both Athens and Kyzikos 11, eventually became simply a paymaster, as we see him in Ar. Vesp. 695, but in archaic times he was a priest who distributed the hides and hams after sacrifice (Suda s.v.). By the same token a tamias, or treasurer, was originally a person designated to divide and distribute food (Hom. Il. 19.44).
Hams are large, serious reserves of food. Probably the most convenient way of saving smaller pieces of meat or by-products was by converting it to sausage. To salt minced meat and fat and stuff it into casings was a convenient way to give leftovers some shelf life. It also had the advantage of concealing from the squeamish exactly what the contents were. The most frequent generic term for sausage seems to have been ἀλλᾶς. The first extant mention of allâs leaves no doubt about its form or shape. A line of Hipponax cited by Hephaistion can be translated: “drawing from the tip down, as if stroking a sausage.” In 1941 a papyrus bearing a long selection from Hipponax provided the context, including the previous line, ἐγώ δ’ ἐβίνε[ον, “I was copulating…,” leaving no doubt about what it was the sausage resembled 12.
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1 Homer Od. 18.53–54; cf. 7.16ff.
2 T. Gallant, Risk and Survival in Ancient Greece (Stanford 1991); R. Sallares, The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World (Ithaca 1991): P. Garnsey, Food and Society in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge 1999). See my remarks on Gallant and Sallares in “Staying Alive on the Ancient Greek Farm,” AHB 6 (1992) 187–195
3 S. D. Olson, A. Sens, edd., Archestratos of Gela (Oxford 2000): J. André, ed., Apicius. De re coquinaria (Paris 1965). Although Apicius was a famous esthete ca A . D . 30, the work we have under his name is a compendium from the 1st–4th centuries of our era: André 9–10.
4 The consensus is expressed in Garnsey (supra n.2) 16–17.
5 J. E. Brody, Jane Brody’s Nutrition Book (New York 1982) 196–198; cf. Lavon J. Dunne, Nutrition Almanac 3 (New York 1990) 243.
6 G. Daux, “La grande démarche: un nouveau calendrier sacrificiel d’Attique (Erchia),” BCH 87 (1963) 606–610. In Daux’s “Le calendrier de Thorikos,” AntCl 52 (1983) 153–154, lines 29–30, 55–56, sacrificial oxen are priced at 40–50 drachmas. On full grown pigs, see next note.
7 This would explain the price of forty drachmas for a full grown sacrificial pig in W. S. Ferguson, “The Salaminioi of Heptaphylai and Sounion,” Hesperia 7 (1938) 5.
8 LSJ 9 s.v. On the biochemical process see A. Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford 1999) s.v. “salting.”
9 Hams, Pollux 6.52; mummification, Hdt. 2.86, where we find litron, an older form of the word nitron.
10 The history of Burger’s Smokehouse, in California, Missouri, may be found at www.smokehouse.com
11 Athens: Arist. Ath.Pol. 7.3 with comment by P. J. Rhodes, Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford 1993) ad loc.; IG I 3 86.9, 395.4, 435, etc. Kyzikos: CIG 3660.
12 Hipponax 84 West, in Hephaist. Ench. 5.4 Conabruch; P.Oxy. XVIII 2174 fr.16 col. ii.16–17.
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The source of this excellent work by Frank J. Frost is Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies | GRBS library.
GRBS: Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies
GRBS is a peer-reviewed quarterly journal devoted to the culture and history of Greece from Antiquity to the Renaissance, featuring research on all aspects of the Hellenic world from prehistoric antiquity through the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods, including studies of modern classical scholarship.
Selected Publications by Frank Frost:
Plutarch’s Themistocles. A Historical Commentary. Princeton University Press, 1980. Second edition, Chicago, Ares: 1998.
Politics and the Athenians. Twenty-four essays on Athenian History and Historiography. University of Toronto Press, 2005.
“Tectonics and History at Phalasarna,” Res Maritimae. Proceedings of the second international symposium, “Cities on the Sea,” Nicosia, 1994. Atlanta
Greek Society. Fifth edition, Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Previous editions 1971, 1980, 1987, 1992, Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath.
“Sausages and Meat Preservation in Antiquity”, Greek Roman Byzantine Studies 40 (2001) 241-252.
Frank J. Frost, Department of History, at the University of California, Santa Barbara: Frank J. Frost at UCSB Department of History.
Frank J. Frost books can be found at Barnes and Noble bookstore: Frank J. Frost books at barnesandnoble.com.