Athenaeus, a scholar of food history who lived around 200 AD, observed that “the ancients employed many dishes to whet the appetite.Focusing now on actual dishes–i.e., plates–we couldn’t agree more.

Ancient vessels

On a recent visit to Athens’ other-wordly-wonderful Museum of Cycladic Art, we were fascinated and puzzled by a clay vessel labeled “Frying Pan” and dated 2800 to 2300 BC. Delving further we learned that the popular name of this beautiful object relates to the vessel’s shape, not its function. While most of these ancient objects have been discovered in graves, some have also been found in settlements where Cycladic Islanders lived. Many theories about the “frying pan’s” function have been put forth, including one that posits that these exquisitely crafted objects may have served as plates for food.

"Frying Pan" Museum of Cycladic Art Athens

Incised decorations on this “frying pan” are thought to represent the sun and the sea

Also from the Museum of Cycladic Art, but much more recent (dating back “only” to circa 350 B.C.) is a red-figure plate on which food would seem to be superfluous.

Red Figure Plate Museum of Cycladic Art Athens

     There’s no doubt about what the figures on this plate represent

Ancient recipes

Pondering plates created by people thousands of years ago got us thinking about ancient recipes. So we turned to our bookshelves to check things out. “Antique” cookbooks worth more than a browse include:

  • Ancient Dining by chef, restaurateur, and consultant Maria Loi (described by some as “the Martha Stewart of Greece”) was selected as the official book for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. While Loi’s cookbook is now somewhat hard to find, her food can easily be located at Loi, a restaurant she opened in 2011 on New York’s Upper West Side.
  • The Classical Cookbookwritten by historian Andrew Dalby and chef Sally Grainger and published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, is richly illustrated with scenes of food, hunters, and revelers depicted in ancient art.
  • The Glorious Foods of Greece, a compendium of recipes from many regions of Greece collected and described by chef-author Diane Kochilas, kicks off with a chapter on Greece’s culinary lineage that sheds light on the remote origins of Greek food and food lore.
  • The Philospher’s Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern Cook by food historian Francine Segan offers modern adaptations of dishes originally recorded in ancient sources, including–among others–Plato, Aristotle, and Homer.

A page from Maria Loi’s ‘Ancient Dining’

 Photo Credits: Liz Muir