What’s in my teaching bag: Roman Carbohydrates

Food is a great vehicle for learning. In addition to the fact that students tend to enjoy creating and consuming it, food is vitally important; it has sustained us as a species and defined our societies. It stands at the crossroads of history, language, culture, biological and agricultural science, and economics. In short, as a focus of study, it has a great deal of potential. However, in terms of bringing food studies into the Latin classroom, the Roman palate offers certain impediments. Romans commonly favored dishes like baked mackerel, grain mush, and liquified, fermented fish guts (liquamen or garum). While you can titillate a few students by describing black fish juices and porridge, ultimately, as a teacher in Middle School I needed a recipe or type of food that would pull the whole class’s interest and make them all clamor for more. 

Several years ago, after learning about the ancient loaves of bread preserved in the ash of Mt. Vesuvius, I realized that this might be just the ticket: an appealing, familiar, tasty cornerstone of Roman cuisine with direct links to our modern diet. Every so often I would come across a resource–a helpful tutorial from the British museum, the website Pass the Garum, as well as plenty of other sites–and at last I came to the conclusion that Ceres was on my side. It was time to bring this idea to the classroom. Why let French class have all the fun?

I picked out helpful terms and ideas from the resources available on Roman bread-making, double checked with my school’s kitchen to ensure that baking could take place, designated a day for the project on our calendar, and we were ready to go. I also created a post-project reflection to punctuate our work and to give students a chance to delve back into their materials and consider the significance of what they had done. In addition to complementing our unit on Pompeii and daily life for this quarter, the project provided ample opportunity to cross the border into other areas of study, as we discussed the amazing properties of yeast and gluten and the processes of refining grains, in addition to Roman farmers, the horrea where grain was stored, the bakeries in Pompeii, the Roman diet, and the derivatives of panis in English and Romance languages. It was an experiential project and led to some pretty interesting lines of inquiry.

For the purposes of time and space, instead of detailing the project in its entirety, I will include a few take-aways for me from this project:

I. dē fermentō: Yeast is fascinating. When I started this project, I knew that yeast was responsible for leavening bread and I wondered where Romans got it. The only bread yeast I used came in packets or jars at the grocery store. I soon found out that this perky little fungus is so plentiful in the environment that in order to create a bread starter, the Romans had to do no more than mix flour and water and wait. They probably did it by mistake. When the bubbles appear, you know your yeast is alive and you feed it until it is highly active. For the sourdough starter, I had my class make one sample of the initial starter and I cultivated it until it was time to use. There are myriad recipes for sourdough starter online, all of which I’m sure will work. I have tried making starter with different types of flour (white unbleached, white bleached, and rye) and water (both filtered and chlorinated from the tap) and the yeast have never failed to spring to life. The yeast industrial complex apparently has us all fooled.     

II. dē gaudiō: Students do indeed love making and eating food. It was a field trip within the confines of the school. They enjoyed the messy work of mixing, kneading, and shaping their loaves, and they couldn’t get enough of the baked product, which turned out to be beyond delicious. Fluffy, warm, and nutty. The room smelled like a million denariī:


III. dē cibō: If you’re not into baking, this might not be the project for you. In the process of tailoring the recipe and designing the activity, I made a half dozen different loaves of bread and babied sourdough starter for days. As a lover of food–and bread in particular–I enjoyed the process, but it may not be your cup of tea.

IV. dē labore: As an addition to our unit on Pompeii, this was a lovely project. Students were invested in the process of making bread and learning about it along the way. This said, it took hours of planning, shopping, coordination, and a day of dedicated class time. If you are already running short on time, it might not be your first choice. Nonetheless, it could be a fun activity for a Latin or History club at your school.

V. dē faciendō: Here is the recipe I used (dē faciendō panem). I adapted and simplified it somewhat from several recipes for Roman bread and sourdough bread. I hope you can try it out and let me know what happens!


Project Domus

For the past couple of years, I have enjoyed leading my eighth-grade Latin class in a project on Roman houses. I am sure that many teachers of Latin have some sort of domus-related activity, and this is mine. The project aims mainly at introducing students to this important aspect of Roman daily life; it also offers plenty of opportunities for students to compare and contrast their own lives to ancient ones and to engage in Latin language composition and communication through simple descriptive sentences.

I like to start this project by discussing different the living situations of Romans, from the insulae of cities to urban domī to elaborate villas in the countryside. They study a number of houses that were preserved and excavated around the bay of Naples. We hone in on the typical Roman domus, discussing different generic rooms in the Roman house and their apparent uses and features (e.g. the vestibulum, atrium, culina, peristylium etc.). An impressive array of resources are available to students, and here are just a few that I have enjoyed using:

VROMA does a lovely job of clearly labeling rooms with links to names and longer descriptions of the rooms’ apparent uses. I love the simple floorplan as well.

This site does a similar job with a few more rooms added to the layout.

This virtual tour is a neat video, and it works for activities where you want students to identify different rooms (they could even do it in Latin!).

This video was created by a student (of either History or Latin). He brings up some interesting points and identifies room names for a quick and dirty review.

Khan Academy has a number of resources as well, like this article on the house of the Vetii.

After discussing and describing the Roman house, students are tasked to create their own domī. They go about choosing features, frescoes, and furniture for their houses, which would appeal to Roman taste as well as their own. In years past, the final products have come in the form of posters, dioramas, and google drawings, and I also ask students to describe their houses and the function and/or appearance of the rooms and the objects within.

Students tend to enjoy this project because of the degree of personal choice and creativity that goes into designing their own home. Some students–and even some adults–may never have given any thought to the architecture and design that they might want in their own house; this project gives them an exciting opportunity to do just that. I will add lastly that the project brings together culture and language learning and is easily tailored to students’ ability and comprehension.

A Response to Mary Beard 3

I wanted to write a response to Mary Beard’s August 11th “A Don’s Life,” entitled “What does the Latin actually say?” because I think it hits on a lot of the struggles Latinists are having but don’t talk much about, and why I think it means we should as a community start to reconsider at the collegiate level what we actually want graduates of our programs to be able to do. You should go read the essay (and even the comment thread if you dare) but in essence Professor Beard grapples with the idea that she “would never quite feel [she] had mastered the languages I thought I was trying to learn.”

In it she also talks about how difficult Latin can be for her. While reading classical canon authors there’s always a translation to fall back on, but with a set of 16th century texts she’s consulting for a project there are no translations or commentaries, and she (bravely, I think) discusses her difficulties in reading them.

In her essay I see my own past and struggles. I’ve had the opportunity to work with many people (professors to teachers to undergraduates from all kinds of backgrounds), and so I know from experience that many people have had the same experiences as Professor Beard. The fact that most graduates of Classics programs, and even Classics professors themselves have a hard time reading texts outside of their specialty is I think an issue worth talking about. We’ve focused so long on grammatical knowledge, philology, and close readings that, while we’ve produced excellent analysts, we don’t generally experience Latin as a language in the same way we do English or another modern language, and that can have consequences.

Take the AP Latin course as an example.  It never asks students to work in Latin, and translation is always the end goal.  That back and forth can be slow and inefficient.  It sometimes means that students don’t really understand what they’re reading – I’ve heard many stories from AP scorers of beautiful translations they’ve read but that come from a different passage than the one the candidate was asked to translate. How many times have you overheard a student complain that “I know all the words, but I don’t know what it means?”

And if we ourselves in the course of our research find something difficult, we compensate by reading translations and referencing commentaries because, as Professor Beard puts it, “most of the classics we have to read…are so damn difficult.” She suggests that “Thucydides or Tacitus…was probably almost as baffling for native speakers too”, and in a post-essay comment dated August 13 at 10:36 am (Eastern) she challenges “anyone who has taught Tacitus’ Annals not to have used [the hunt for the verb method]” and bets “that was true for the teachers of the second century AD too!”

Except that that can’t possibly be true. Plenty of people in antiquity and in the Renaissance were able to read ancient authors without more trouble than we would read Shakespeare or Chaucer today. Universities and the Catholic Church regularly used Latin as internationally as we use English today to discuss heady problems of science, theology, law, and philosophy. Was everyone’s Latin superb? Of course not – but then we have a wide range of English proficiency today as well.

Professor Beard admits we can’t read those authors with the same level of fluency today because we don’t learn Latin actively as a language. Many modern language studies show that real fluency at the levels needed to understand these kinds of texts comes from use and from extensive reading. I’d like to ask an honest question – are we satisfied as a profession about the level of reading proficiency personally and with our graduates? And if we’re not, what could we be doing differently? Looking to the past (the humanist tradition in Erasmus and others) and the present (modern language studies) can provide insight into improving our reading proficiency across a wider range of authors and time periods.

I’ve seen first hand what a more active approach to Latin – treating Latin as the language it is rather than a cultural artifact to study – can do for proficiency. I’ve seen people who can read a wide variety of authors from different time periods without much more recourse do a dictionary than I would for something written in English. I’ve seen people give both prepared and ex tempore lectures in Latin on topics ranging from philology to history to science. The Paideia Institute offers a weekend conference in New York where nearly all the lectures and discussions are done in Latin. The University of Kentucky offers a Master’s program in Latin where students read, write, and discuss only in Latin. I’d like to think that the people involved in these programs aren’t any more extraordinary than you or I, but simply have taken a divergent path in the yellow woods, and that has made all the difference.

So I come back to my original question – what is it that we want students with Classical degrees to be able to do?  What should be the expectations for fluency for those with a BA in the Classics, a Master’s, or a PhD?  Why don’t we think it’s important to train our students to discuss, read extensively, and write in Latin?

These are questions well worth exploring.