The closure of El Bulli, the world’s most highly rated restaurant, has been greeted with cries of anguish from the world’s foodies. Lament no more! Romans were in the joke food business long before El Bullshit.
Around ad 65, as Nero was going more and more crackers, the great Roman satirist Petronius produced his Satyrica (a title encompassing both lechery and satire). What survives of it contains an account of a feast put on by one Trimalchio, an ex-slave made very, very good in property and now a multi-millionaire. The absurd Trimalchio naturally regards himself as the coolest man in town, and is especially proud of his cook. For dessert, the cook serves up pastry thrushes stuffed with raisins and nuts, quinces with thorns implanted in them to look like sea-urchins and then a fat goose surrounded by a fish and every type of bird, but in fact made of pork. Trimalchio comments: ‘There can’t be a more valuable man anywhere. If you ask him, he’ll make fish out of tripe, a pigeon out of bacon, a turtle out of ham, a chicken out of a pork-knuckle.’
Similarly, Livy tells of a host who served game out of season and explained that ‘by clever seasoning these various forms of wild game were in fact made out of swine’. The poet Martial mocks one Caecilius who produces a complete meal out of pumpkins, turning them into cakes, lentils, beans, mushrooms, sausages, tuna fish, sprats and sweetmeats. Horace describes a feast in which the host lectured his guests on every course and why it bore no resemblance to anything anyone would expect (guests fled before another disquisition on the quality of the charred blackbirds and rumpless pigeons). The boy emperor Elagabalus was famous for his different coloured meals — all blue, green, or glass-coloured. Sometimes paintings of food were served up; sometimes different courses in different houses miles apart. He enjoyed camel’s heels and cocks’ combs. Peas were served with gold pieces, lentils with onyx and rice with pearls.
It all makes El Bulli look desperately dull. Perhaps it will give the cook some much-needed new ideas.