published on 27 February 2012
They [fundamental elements] prevail in turn as the cycle moves round, and decrease into each other and increase in appointed succession. For these are the only real things, and as they run through one another they become men and the kinds of other animals, at one time coming into one order through love, at another again being borne away from each other by strife’s hate, until they come together into the whole and are subdued.
In the above quote, Empedocles, a Greek philosopher-scientist of the 5th Century B.C., describes the genesis of the universe. In many cultures one can find a set of close and extensive relationships between food and cosmological beliefs such as those of Empedocles. The spiritual conception of cuisine that prevailed among many élite Romans was most likely based on their interpretation of such Greek philosophical thoughts about creation.
The early Greek perspective on genesis focused on how primordial opposites came together in a “brew,” the original blending of elements that created the universe. Empedocles and his contemporaries saw life beginning as a blend of opposing elements: hot, cold, wet and dry. These fundamental elements commingle to produce the universe. Ancient “blends,” culinary or otherwise, were thus entwined with cosmological viewpoints and, as we shall see, with issues of spirituality, tradition, and social structure. The blending of elements that transformed ancient food into complex dishes, such as the stews and sauces in our only surviving Roman cookery book, De re coquinaria, bore a metaphorical significance.