food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

Feasting on Fig-peckers and other delights

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Feasting… on Fig-Peckers!

In Diversoria (Book of Inns), published first in August 1523 in Basel, Erasmus presented a less than complementary picture of the accommodations afforded sixteenth-century travelers who, despite socio-economic variables, have one thing in common: they are covered with mud! As for the fare fed to travelers at these fine establishments, Erasmus offers the following:
– Once the innkeepers have determined that the arrival of further guests is unlikely, they begin preparations for dinner. Waiting with little other than bad wine to ease hunger pangs, the guests sit, and sit, and sit. Finally, “amidst much ceremony, dishes start to arrive. The first plates generally has bits of bread dipped in meat broth; or, if it’s fish day, in bean juice. Next another broth; after that some warmed-over meat or salt fish. Again, porridge, followed by more solid food; next they serve to the thoroughly tamed stomach roast meat or boiled fish – not altogether despicable, but they’re stingy with it and quickly take it away. They arrange the whole meal in this fashion, alternating solid food and pulse, as actors alternate choruses and dramatic scenes. But they’re careful to make the last act the best.” This appears to have been cheese, “which is hardly acceptable to them unless full of mold and worms.” (The Colloquies of Eramus, trans. Craig R. Thompson, University of Chicago Press, 1965, p. 151)

The meal described by Erasmus stands in contrast to one served in August of 70 BCE, which was hosted by the chief priest Q. Caelius Metellus Pius in honor of Cornelius Lentulus Niger, the new Priest of Mars (flamen Martialis). The menu of this inaugural dinner (cena aditialis) was preserved by Macrobius. (Saturnalia III. XIII.12)
The first course included an array of shellfish: urchins, oysters, and mollusks, as well as thrush on a bed of asparagus, a fatted hen, and black and white chestnuts. The food that followed was varied and costly: fattened bird wrapped in pastry, roast fig-pecker (see recipe below), haunches of venison, roast loins of doe, boiled teal, boar’s jowl, “a fricassee of fish and one of sow’s udder, udders served alone, a meal pudding and Picentine* bread,” but no dessert. (Phyllis Pray Bober, Art, Culture, & Cuisine, Chicago, 1999, p. 165)
-Picentine bread references those living in Picentine in eastern Italy: see:


As this suggests and John d’Arms explains, the meal was an especially sumptuous one. It also tested the restrictions of sumptuary laws.


“By providing fattened fowls at this inaugural dinner, Metellus was flagrantly defying a provision that had been repeated in every piece of Roman sumptuary legislation from the lex Fannia onwards: the stipulation that any dinner be limited to only a single winged creature and that one not fattened (by cramming:
Pliny Historia Naturalis [HN] 10.139). To be sure, these inaugural dinners became and remained notorious for the high degree of their culinary experimentation, for their exotic refinements, and for their astronomically high costs: it was at one of these, about the same time as Metellus’ dinner, that the orator Hortensius first served a peacock. The solitary item on Metellus’ entire menu that derived from a domestically bred mammal were two dishes of sows’ udders (sumina, and a patina suminis): further evidence that at this banquet the pontifex maximus was parading the culinary privileges restricted to the members of this highly exclusive feasting group, while flagrantly defying prevailing social and cultural norms. For sows’ udders, too, were among the dishes proscribed by the sumptuary laws (as must be inferred from Pliny HN 8.209).”

Although Livy (History of Rome, book VII. 1. 5ff.) fails to inform us about what was consumed at a banquet some 300 years before Metellus hosted the inaugural dinner honoring Cornelius Lentulus Niger, he adds to the list of occasions worthy of a banquet:

All was right with the world. Neither domestic political strife nor warfare abroad disturbed the peace, “but lest there should ever be freedom from fear and danger, a great pestilence broke out.” It lasted two years, from 365 BCE – 364 BCE. Confronting the calamity and “with the objective of appeasing divine displeasure,” which surely was responsible for the pestilential, the Romans made a leclisternium, or banquet to the gods. Sadly it did not fulfill its intended purpose. The pestilence continued, prompting the populous to “give way to superstitious fears” and “institute scenic entertainments” with the hope that singing “uncouth verses” and dancing in a like manner would do the trick.

For those living in the 16th century who wished to stage a dinner similar to the one given by Metellus, Bartolomeo Scappi offered in 1570 a recipe for Roast fig-peckers (Book 2, recipe no. 136)
“Get a fig-pecker in its season, beginning in July and ending mid-October.” Take the small bird, plucked but not drawn, and roast it “on a spit, separated by slices of pork fat and sage leaves. A crust of flour, sugar, grated bread and fennel flour is made for them. When they are done they are served hot. They can also be cooked under the coals wrapped in slices of pork fat, grapevine leaves and greased paper.”


Author: Pulcinella Pasta

Fredrika Jacobs, professor emerita of Art History at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the author of three books focused on the art and culture of Renaissance Italy ("Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa: Women Artists and the language of art history and criticism" (1997/99); "The Living Image in the Renaissance" (2005); and "Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy" (2013). Additionally, she has contributed essays and articles to dozens of books and scholarly journals and spoken at symposia and conferences around the world.

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