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!