In the beginning when the world was young, I had no concept of a cookbook. Instead, my late grandmother would make notes of ingredients at the back of an old telephone directory that was so ancient that it still contained Melburnian numbers of only six digits. Such entries would be made in her spidery writing in an amalgam of phonetic Samian dialect and Hellenised English, hence ‘κάστα σούγκα’ for caster sugar, ‘λαδ’ for olive oil, but ‘όλιου’ for vegetable oil, ‘πάουντα’, for powder and ‘κουραμπιέδις’ for kourabiedes. Charitably, family members now consider that this reflected both her inherited phonology and long sojourn in Australia. Having been brought up by my grandmother, however, I would argue that the whole thing was an elaborate code, deliberately designed so as to lead anyone astray who would attempt to crack its secrets. How else can one explain the cryptic entry ‘σάμθιγκ’ within the list of ingredients for carrot cake? Even today, after some seventeen years of us poring over the recipes, most of them still defy decipherment.
In our household, my grandmother’s cookbook was referred to awe-inspiringly as ‘του βιβλίου’, much in the same way as is the Bible. Yet it was only much later that I learned, when travelling to Greece, the cookbook in the Greek parlance is generally referred to as ‘Ο Τσελεμεντές’. At first, I laboured under the impression that this was but a charming retention of an old Ottoman word in the Greek language but this is not so, for the Turkish word for cookbook is yemek kitabı. As is turns out, Tselementes is purely Greek, in the sense that it refers to Nikolaos Tselementes, one of the most influential cookery writers of modern Greece.
Born on the island of Sifnos at the turn of the last century, he studied cooking for a year in Vienna and, on his return to Greece, began to publish his Cooking Guide (Οδηγός Μαγειρικής), which in addition to recipes included nutritional advice, international cuisine, cooking news, and sundry other items.
A polite and genteel Gordon Ramsay of his time, in 1919 he became manager of hotel ‘Hermes’ and in the next year, departed Greece for America, where he worked in some of the more expensive restaurants of the world, while also undertaking higher studies in cooking, confectionery and dietetics. In 1920, decades before the advent of Nigella and mass cookbook marketing, he published the influential cookbook, Cooking and Patisserie Guide.
Returning to Greece in 1932, he founded a small cooking and confectionery school and brought out his most famous known book of recipes, which, being the first complete cookbook in Greek, had over fifteen official reprints during the following decades. He even published a cookbook in English in 1950, entitled Greek Cookery.
Purists abjure and execrate the name of Tselementes, for influenced by French cuisine, he is responsible for the introduction of such abominations as béchamel sauce and vinaigrette to our once innocent palates. Yet centuries before, ancient Greek cookbook writers were similarly cursed by prudish Romans for the bastardisation of their own cuisines, for Tselementes apart, food writing within Greek culture enjoys an ancient and most noble pedigree.
Take Lynceus of Samos for example, brother of the historian Duris a classical Greek author of comedies, letters and humorous anecdotes. Living in the late 4th and early 3rd centuries BC, he is the celebrated author of the essay ‘Shopping for Food’, and his writings betray a special interest in gastronomy. He was also the addressee of an important letter by Hippolochus on dining in Macedon. He would be practically unknown if it were not for numerous quotations from his works in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus. A single surviving fragment from his play Kentauros (The Centaur) is quoted by Athenaeus. This is a scene set at Athens in which a dinner menu is discussed with reference to the guests’ cities of origin and probable food preferences.
Fusion cuisine also appears within the writings of the ancients. Mithaecus, a cook and cookbook author of the late 5th century BC, was a Greek-speaking native of Sicily, who is credited with having brought knowledge of Sicilian gastronomy to Greece. Being expelled from Sparta as a bad influence, he even crops up in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias.
Mithaecus is the earliest cookbook author in any language whose name is known. One recipe survives from it, thanks to a quotation in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus. It is in the Doric dialect and describes, in one line, how to deal with the fish Cepola macrophthalma, known in modern Greek as kordella and in ancient Greek as Tainia:
Tainia: gut, discard the head, rinse, slice; add cheese and oil.
The addition of cheese seems to have been a controversial matter; Archestratus, another food writer is quoted as warning his readers that Syracusan cooks spoil good fish by adding cheese. The same Archestratus pioneered poetic food writing, a genre that appears to have died out in the modern world and is in dire need of resuscitation. His humorous didactic poem Hedypatheia (Life of Luxury), written in hexameters, advises the gastronomically inclined reader on where to find the best food in the Mediterranean world. The writer, who was styled in antiquity the Hesiod of gluttons, pays great attention to fish, although some of the early fragments refer to appetisers, and there was even a section on wine.
As can be seen, most of our knowledge of Greek food writing comes from the work of Athenaeus Deipnosophistai, meaning dinner table philosophers. Though the author of a treatise on a species of fish known as the thratta, Athenaeus’ most famous work includes extensive quotations of other contemporary writers. Thus we learn from him that Timachidas of Rhodes composed a work entitled Deipna, or Dinners, which included a section on the
correct way to mix Rhodian wine. Similarly, Epaenetus is extensively quoted as the author of a treatise On Fishes and another On the Art of Cookery.
Similarly, the description by Hippolochus, a Macedonian writer, of a wedding feast as quoted by Athenaeus is vital in advising us as to how meals were repaved in the northern Greek kingdom. The brilliance of Athenaeus lies not only in his remarkable description of what may be considered the first patents but also in proving the ancient provenance of Masterchef. He mentions that in 500 BC, in the Greek city of Sybaris in Sicily, annual culinary competitions were held. The victor was given the exclusive rights, not to a television show or a spin off restaurant but rather, to prepare his dish for the state, for one year.
Unlike the Romans or earlier Greeks, Byzantine cookbooks seem to be rare indeed. In fact, the only very tempting references to Byzantine cooking are found tucked into diplomatic reports and biographies of the Imperial family. We know that the Empress Lupicina of the Danube Valley was a cook, and that Theodora, wife of Justinian, imported cooks from Persia, India, Syria and the Greek mainland to serve at her court.
The last proper cookbook to come out of Byzantium was that of the doctor Anthimus, shortly after 500 AD. However, we do have a description of omelettes that were very popular throughout the Empire and were known as sphoungata, ‘spongy’, penned by Theodore Prodromos. And of course these recipes, emerging from the darkness of the obscurity of centuries past, are infinitely fresher and more appealing than those emerging from the pretentious pages of Kyria Vefa, hapless erstwhile star of ANT1 television morning shows and author of cookbooks, in the most Tselemdrian of traditions.
* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.