- Butcher Blocks, Vegetable Stands, and Home-Cooked Food:Resisting Gender and Class Constructions in The Roman World
In his Metamorphoses, Ovid shares a tale about an elderly couple's home-cooked food (Met. 8.616–724). Preparing a meal for two impromptu guests who knocked on their door, Baucis brings her small kitchen flame back to life by mingling her own breath with the previous day's embers, leaves, and dry bark. She trims the cabbage that her husband, Philemon, brought in from the garden before placing it in a copper pot to be cooked. A bit of smoke-cured pork is then added to the boiling mixture. As the stew simmers, the elderly couple talk with their guests while placing cushions on their couch frame so that their two visitors can recline. Baucis freshens up a table by rubbing it with mint after steadying one of its wobbly legs with a piece of tile. She sets out olives, preserved cherries, lumps of cheese, and eggs roasted in the embers of the fire to enjoy before the cabbage and pork stew is done. The couple and their guests share some wine, eat some stew, and then consume nuts, grapes, figs, dates, and slices of honeycomb.
Afterwards, Baucis and Philemon notice that their wine cups begin to fill on their own. The phenomenon gives away their guests' divinity, and the elderly couple beg forgiveness for the modest meal they offered the gods. Despite their concern about the unremarkable nature of their food and drink, it was on account of these humble offerings that the previously incognito gods ensured the deliverance of Baucis and Philemon from the dreadful fate of their neighbors. Jupiter and Mercury reveal themselves to the elderly couple, lead them away from the destruction that consumes everyone else in their town, turn their home into a temple, and grant the [End Page 115] couple's wish to live out the rest of their days together before dying at the same moment so neither has to suffer the loss of the other.1
Ovid's gentle rendering of Baucis and Philemon's kitchen labors is at odds with the majority of other Latin authors' accounts of the type of cooking that occurs at home, yet it hints at the possibility of different material experiences and sensorial knowledge for the non-elite living in the Roman world. Home-cooked meals, butcher blocks, and vegetable stands may seem to be unlikely avenues of resistance to class and gender constructions in the world of the early principate. However, small acts with daily objects allow momentary and repeated opportunities for enacted personal agency in a person's life-world (Dyck 2011.348). Indeed, passages from Roman literature in combination with visual evidence suggest possibilities for embodied experiences that countered or stood outside of elite Roman culture. In this essay, I explore how objects associated with food preparation and production became subtle yet powerful tools of ordinary Romans' experiential knowledge and resistance to that elite culture. Activities surrounding the body's nutritional needs are some of the most repetitive tasks that must be performed frequently—sometimes multiple times a day. I contend that a few literary representations of cooking and kitchen tools (once the thick patina of elite authors' moralizing agenda is scrubbed off) reveal instances when enslaved and ordinary Romans could momentarily upend, or at least muddy, social hierarchies and gender expectations. Additionally, reliefs of food vendors and butchers refigure the tacit cues that are inherent in the visual language of domestic cooking and thereby create a visual language that counters elite culture and mastery.
While it is challenging to investigate the embodied interactions of non-elite Romans with the materiality of their daily routines and life-worlds, it is even more so to claim that these quotidian interactions between people and tools are expressions of resistance to elite Roman culture. It is difficult to get at the lived experiences of non-elite Romans; slaves and ordinary Roman men and women did not leave firsthand accounts of the details of their daily lives, their experiential knowledge of the physical world they [End Page 116] navigated, or their perceptions of elite...