A Salad for the Heroes
Would Odysseus and Achilles have have sat down with a Greek Salad in between carnage and looting?
If you go to Modern Greece and order a salad you will probably get a bowl or plate including onions, cucumber, tomatoes, feta cheese and olives. Drizzled with olive oil this makes a fantastic meal. If you, like me, have wondered what the heroes and ordinary folks ate this could be a good place to start. Did they have a Greek salad?
The answer is yes…and then also no. As in no tomatoes!. They are indiginous to the Americas and brought to Greece much much later than the Bronze Age. What about other ingredinents, then.
From song 11 of the Illiad, we are told of onions, honey, barley, and grated goat cheese as well as Pramian wine. As always we should bear in mind that the Homeric poem of the Illiad is not contemporary with the alleged events of the late Bronze Age that are portrayed. So, as the poems are written centuries later, we can’t be sure if this is true. But if we accept the source, onions are available to archaic cooks. Note that we should be careful not to think of onions as modern day onions. They would have looked different, perhaps smaller like shallots. Or the term onion may refer to other vegetables af the onion(alium) family. Like leeks.
Ok, so we have onions available in some form. What about cucumber?
Cucumber is supposedly originated in India and then spread to the Middle East. The Egyptians used it and it mentioned in literature as a Mycenean foodstuff (Fischer 2017 p 10).
Next, we must check to see if olives are part of the culinary arsenal. We know that the Minoans on Crete as well as the Myceneans cultivated olives for oil (Kelder et al. ) and from the Mycenean Linear A tablets we have an ideogram for “olive”.
So olives were know in the Bronze Age and Myceneans probably ate olives as table olives, like we do (Fischer 2017 p10). And used them for their oil. Olive oil was used for culinary as well as other purposes. So we can add olives to our salad without too much fear of anachronism.
One more ingredient, and for many the most delicious and “Greek” one, in classic Greek salad is the feta cheese. In or out? Probably in, in some form or other. Milk from cows as well as sheep and goat, was well known. Also as mentioned above, grated goat’s cheese appears in the Illiad, song 11. Also, in the Odyssey, cheese is mentioned. In the Odyssey, The cyclops Polyphemus , a one-eyed giant who also happens to be the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. Odysseus and his men are captured in the cave of the cyclops and here we find descriptions of cheese made from his sheeps’ milk and stored in baskets. Could this be feta? well, there is no mention of salt or brine but other than that, this mention of sheep’s milk cheese that may be what later evolved into feta. If you prefer, you could replace feta with other nice cheeses. Italian pecorino is a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk that could resemble what is mentioned in the homeric poems. There is to my knowledge no concrete evidence aas to the hardness of cheese in Archaic times. But I prefer feta.
I have seen many Greek salads that include lettuce. Would that be possible in late Bronze Age or early Iron Age Greece? Well, the Egyptians surely knew about a wild, bitter lettuce that is an almost identical forebearer of modern lettuce. The Egyptians used the sap as an aphrodisiac (Lorenzi 2005). A later Greek source, physician Hippocrates who in the 5th century BC mentions lettuce sap as a calming remedy for sexual appetite(ibid). Furthermore, Atheneus from ca. AD 200 describes Adonis being slain or laid in a bed of lettuce. Lettuce is thus sometimes associated with impotence through Adonis and the death of love associated with his fate (theoi.com). Pliny the Elder, also mentions lettuce as a means of cooling sexual appetite. So, there is the possibility of lettuce being know to archaic people as well as greeks of Antiquity whatever purpose it might have been used for. Therefore, the archaic heroes may well have ordered lettuce in their salads.
Eat like a hero
So, let us sum up the ingredients for a Myceanean Greek salad:
NO TOMATOES, remember?
Olive oil? yes
Cheese? Yes, feta is probably ok
If you want, lettuce.
here’s a recipe to follow:
- Finely slice one onion into rings
- Remove the soft part of one cucumber (if you prefer) and cut into suitable pieces. I prefer not to chop it too fine.
- Mix the two ingredients in a bowl.
- Add a good slash of olive oil
- Then add ½–1 jar of table olives
- Crumble 200 grams of feta on top.
Serve yourself or your fellow heroes and heroines.
Rossella Lorenzi 2005: “Egyptians ate lettuce to boost sex drive” , ABC Science, (Visited August 14th 2022)
Encyclopdia Brittanica, Athenaeus https://www.britannica.com/biography/Athenaeus (Visited September 12th 2022)
On lettuce and Adonis: https://www.theoi.com/Flora1.html (visited September 12th 2022)
Fischer, Josef: “Food in Mycenean Greece” 2017 Available at https://archive.org/details/FoodInMycenaeanGreece/page/n1/mode/2up (visited September 12th 2022)
Kelder J. , Cole S., Cline HC: ““Memphis, Minos, and Mycenae: Bronze Age Contact between Egypt and the Aegean”. In Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World, ed. by J. Spier, T. Potts, and S.E. Cole, 9–17.
Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum.” available: academia.edu (visited September 12th 2022)