Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat

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9780312428143: Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat
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Today the things we eat and drink have crossed oceans, continents, and even airspace before reaching the dinner table. The complex systems and technologies devised throughout the centuries to deliver our food supply reveal surprising things about politics, culture, economies--and our appetites. In Mumbai, India's chaotic commercial capital, men use local trains, bicycles, and their feet to transport more than 170,000 lunches a day from housewives to their husbands, with almost no mix-ups. Modern shipping containers allow companies to send frozen salmon to China, where it can be cheaply thawed, filleted, and refrozen, before traveling back to the United States where it's sold in supermarkets as fresh fish. Moveable Feasts takes a novel look at the economics, logistics, and environmental impact of food, and brings new perspective to debates about where we get our meals.

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About the Author:

Sarah Murray is a travel writer and longtime Financial Times contributor who reports on the relationship of business to the environment. She lives in New York City.

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Chapter 1 Professor José Remesal Rodríguez holds a piece of pottery up to the sunlight. He is standing at the top of Monte Testaccio, a small, unassuming hill on the southern fringe of the Aventine, a short ride from Rome’s city center and within sight of some of Europe’s greatest monuments. The Pyramid of Cestius and the Protestant Cemetery are nearby. In the distance, the majestic dome of the Pantheon, Borromini’s extraordinary spiral tower at the Church of St. Ivo, and the pompous Monument to Victor Emmanuel II rise up above the low-slung buildings of the city. It is an impressive display—a visual excursion through Italian history from Roman times via the Renaissance and on to nineteenth-century unification.
But the professor is not paying much attention to the view. He is too busy examining the chunk of clay in his hand. It is pale brown and bears a deep mark that appears to have been stamped into the clay while wet. There is nothing refined about this thick fragment of earthenware. Its form is clumsy; its surface rough. It was clearly not part of any sort of decorative or ceremonial object. It is in fact a piece of a Roman transport amphora—a ceramic pot about the size of a small barrel that almost two thousand years ago carried food to Rome, capital of an empire stretching from the lowlands of Scotland to the deserts of Africa, from Spain to the Persian Gulf.
“It is Baetican, of course,” pronounces the professor. Baetica is today’s Spanish province of Andalusia, the southernmost region of the Iberian Peninsula, home to flamenco and known for a simple, unpretentious cuisine that includes gazpacho, fried fish, and cured ham. Spectacular Andalusian architecture such as the Mezquita in Córdoba, a cathedral that was once a mosque, provides a reminder of the presence of the Moors, the Muslims who ruled from the eighth century to the fifteenth.
Long before that, however, the Romans were in charge. That was when Baetica was part of Hispania—an area now occupied by Spain, Portugal, Andorra, and Gibraltar. Roman soldiers first arrived there in 218 b.c., and as direct imperial rule was established, Hispania became a prized part of the empire. Three emperors—Trajan, Hadrian, and Theodosius I—would be born there.
As one of Hispania’s imperial provinces, Baetica was an important source of food for the empire. And this dry, mountainous swathe of land was the starting point for the piece of pottery Remesal is holding. The fragment is part of a second-century transport jar that set out to Italy from a vast agricultural estate owned by a wealthy senator at a time when Rome was at the height of its power. Produce from this fertile land would have been loaded into the jar, heaved onto a vessel by bonded laborers, and shipped to Rome. There, it ended up in the homes and palaces of everyone from philosophers and politicians to manual workers and freed slaves. It may be small and dusty, but this fragment of pottery is part of the endless patchwork that is the history of the Roman Empire. The story it has to tell is one of immense wealth built on trade in an essential commodity: olive oil. 
Gathered around the professor on Monte Testaccio are students and archaeologists who have traveled from the United States, Spain, and Poland to join Remesal in his ambitious archaeological investigation of this modest-looking hill. It is not the best day for it. On an uncharacteristically soggy October morning, most of those present are wrapped in brightly colored plastic raincoats and fleece jackets. Umbrellas are at the ready. Below, the hum of traffic is accompanied by a cacophony of barking dogs, crowing roosters, and pealing church bells as the city slowly wakes. A rainbow arches briefly across the tempestuous sky as the sun attempts to break through the clouds. Softly, the rain starts to fall.
But a spot of bad weather does not trouble the professor. He is far too interested in what lies beneath his feet to worry about what is happening in the sky. A bearded, bespectacled Spaniard who seems at his happiest with a cigarette in one hand and a piece of pottery in the other, Remesal has spent the past couple of decades uncovering the stories hidden beneath Monte Testaccio’s grassy slopes. This is his stomping ground and, in blue jeans and khaki safari jacket, he looks entirely at home clambering over the uneven ground on the broken pieces of Roman amphorae scattered underfoot. “I spend a month here each year and every time we come, we find something different,” he says, speaking in heavily accented French. “I’ve gotten to know this hill pretty well, but there are always surprises.” Remesal talks with a deep, gravelly voice. It sounds as if, over the years, particles of dust from the pots he studies have become lodged in his throat.
The archaeological dig on Monte Testaccio is like no other. While most archaeologists spend days scrabbling about in the dirt in the hopes of finding something of interest, here they have no such worries. This is because the entire hill is made of archaeological material—there is no dirt here. What lies beneath the thin layer of topsoil is nothing but millions of broken pots. Each year, Remesal and his colleagues come here to carve a large square pit about ten feet deep into this archaic mound and study what they excavate.
Like the rings of a tree, each layer of pottery corresponds to a moment in time. In this year’s pit, they have got down as far as the reign of Marcus Aurelius, around a.d. 175. As the dig progresses, Italian contract workers in white plastic hard hats stand at the bottom of the hole, carefully chipping away at it and filling buckets with pieces of amphorae. Up on the surface, colleagues use a rope to heave load after load of fragments out into the fresh air and over to the center of activity—a collection of large plastic tubs filled with muddy water around which students and academics sit and gossip as they wash two-thousand-year-old layers of dust from the chunks of earthenware in their hands.
It is a busy scene. Dotted about the place are bright orange, yellow, and green plastic crates into which the shards are thrown—one box for each category of fragment. Some boxes contain those with “form” (handles, necks, or bases). Others store pieces on which stamped marks, rough scratches, or painted inscriptions are visible. Then there are boxes for the bulk of the pieces—shards without recognizable shape or markings known as “no form.” At a large table, several archaeologists are working on what must be one of the world’s more difficult jigsaw puzzles as they try, mostly in vain, to re-create entire pots by fitting together some of the larger pieces retrieved from the same excavation level.
At the end of the dig, much of what has been heaved up from below the hill’s surface will be thrown back into the hole. It is a strange phenomenon. A single one of these shards found in a field anywhere else would generate great excitement among historians and archaeologists. Here on Monte Testaccio, however, pieces of Roman amphorae are being heaved up from below the hill’s surface in bucketloads throughout the day. After washing the fragments, the volunteers casually throw them into the plastic boxes as if they were vegetables, scrubbed and ready for cooking. It looks as if they are preparing for a mammoth vegetarian feast.  Monte Testaccio is one of the world’s more curious ancient relics. It is actually a vast rubbish heap. For more than two centuries, olive oil amphorae were dumped here after their contents had been unloaded and distributed to consumers. As Romans used up more and more oil, the pile of shards grew, creating over two centuries a hill made up entirely of bits of pottery. Bases, handles, rims, necks, and body fragments all ended up here. Roman emperors came and went, battles were lost and won, and nations beaten into submission, but the mountain of pots kept rising. Some of the amphorae were shipped from North Africa, but at least 80 percent of Monte Testaccio’s unlikely treasures originated in Baetica. “We are standing on Spanish territory,” declares Remesal with a grin. And he is right: what lies below our feet is a gargantuan mound made from the clay of southern Spain, a chunk of foreign soil that ended up on Italian shores.
Today, few notice this bizarre monument to ancient Rome’s commercial might. After all, it is hardly located in the most glamorous setting. The modern district of Testaccio is one of the city’s seedier areas, now famous for taverns, gay bars, and nightclubs with names such as Caffé Latino Jazz Club, On the Rox, and Chattanooga—places where Rome’s night owls like to spend their time and money. But even these trendy establishments have a history rooted in the mountain of jars around which they cluster. In the Middle Ages, the hill became the focus for all kinds of religious festivals and secular revelries, and a collection of taverns and restaurants opened around Monte Testaccio’s slopes. From the seventeenth century, wine merchants who dug caves out of its slopes found that the dense ceramic makeup of the hill provided a cool atmosphere that was ideal for storing wine.
Today, disco music thuds out from the caves at the base of the hill and, in packed restaurants, hungry diners enjoy the oxtail stew and the sweetbreads that have long been popular in this district, which was once home to the city’s main slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, at the back of several of the restaurants, the pot fragments quietly watch over the proceedings, clearly visible behind glass walls.
Dining and dancing might be the order of the day now, but in the first and second centuries, all activity around here centered on waste disposal. There are several theories as to how it was organized. Some believe empty pots were hauled up the ever-expanding hill by mules—each animal might have carried about four amphorae—and then broken up at the summit. Others speculate the jars were smashed below before being taken up to their final resting place. From time to time, lime was poured on the broken shards to counter the smell of rancid oil and to prevent the spread of disease. With each cargo vessel that arrived on the banks of the Tiber, the hill grew bigger.
Today, by some accounts, the hill is about 165 feet high and it takes about twenty minutes to walk around. True, it is not much to look at compared with the Colosseum, the giant showcase for Roman cruelty, or the Pantheon with its mighty dome, but this man-made mound is one of the world’s most important archaeological sites—a critical corner of ancient Rome, offering a remarkable window on the empire’s economic life.
The nineteenth-century writer Rodolfo Lanciani certainly appreciated the significance of old trash. “The hill itself may be called a monument of the greatness and activity of the harbor of Rome,” he wrote in an 1897 description of Monte Testaccio, a quarter of a century after an Italian priest, Father Luigi Bruzza, and Heinrich Dressel, an Italian-Prussian professor, began to excavate the site. On a frosty morning in January 1872, the pair climbed up the slopes and set about analyzing what they found there. By the time their work was complete, Dressel had scrutinized and set down details of more than three thousand marks stamped onto handles of the amphorae, as well as nearly a thousand inscriptions written on the body of the pots by Roman insurance agents, ship’s captains, or customs officers. The amphorae assessed by Dressel’s project represent a fraction of the hill’s historical data. More than fifty million pots found their final resting place here. Today, while teams excavate more than five hundred cubic feet of material each season, they are barely scraping the surface of this remarkable dump.
Not all Roman amphorae were disposed of as they were here, in a great big pile. Elsewhere, in early examples of recycling, they were used for storage in domestic kitchens and warehouses, and even as urns containing the ashes of the dead. Smashed into pieces, they became part of the fabric of buildings. Packed into the rubble core of walls, they acted as insulation. In roofs and domes, they helped lighten the structure’s weight, and in the walls of theaters, the curved fragments enhanced the acoustics, amplifying the sound of music and voices. In short, these pots were extremely useful. So the fact that a mountain of amphorae accumulated in Rome, broken up, unwanted, and collecting dust, indicates the scale of demand for olive oil in the first and second centuries.
Rome was then the largest city in the ancient world with a population of about a million. It was tremendously crowded, made up mainly of residences, and had no industrial manufacturing or food production of its own to speak of. Romans were consumers, not producers, and most of what they ate had to be brought in from other parts of the empire—in extremely large quantities.
Olive oil was among the most important of the imports. An extraordinarily nutritious food product containing edible fats and high levels of vitamins A and E, olive oil was used by the Romans to fry, bake, and roast their food. It was a key ingredient in bread as well as in salad dressings. By night, olive oil lamps provided lighting in domestic households, temples, baths, and palaces. At sporting events, athletes smeared themselves with oil before competing, and olive oil was the base for most perfumes and cosmetics. Each Roman citizen probably consumed up to thirteen gallons of the liquid a year (by comparison, Italians today use 4.5 gallons a year) and larger homes or taverns stored hundreds of gallons in a dolium, a huge jar that was dug into the ground to provide a cooler storage vessel. So Monte Testaccio’s amphorae fragments are evidence of consumption on a massive scale. Some estimate that its well-traveled pots would collectively have carried an astounding 1.6 billion gallons to their destination (the same amount of liquid that would be generated by flushing a toilet once a second for thirty-two years).
Monte Testaccio has more secrets to reveal. A wide variety of markings on the pottery shards make the hill rather like a giant accounts book detailing the export and import of olive oil. Instead of ledgers recording income, expenditure, and accounts receivable, the stamps, scratches, and painted inscriptions tell of the estates producing the oil, the companies that shipped it, and the customs officials in Spain and Rome who checked the goods on departure and arrival.
The painted inscriptions are the most intriguing of the marks. The beauty of these strange and ephemeral hieroglyphs, with their elaborate flourishes and curls, is made more entrancing by the rarity of their occurrence elsewhere. When such pottery is found at other sites, exposure to light or moisture means any ink inscriptions have long since disappeared. At Monte Testaccio—a giant time capsule in which every shard has been protected and kept dry by a layer of topsoil and grass—details remain that allow us to trace each stage of a pot’s passage from the olive estate to the docks of the Tiber. The month a particular pot left Spain can be pinned down. The exact date it arrived in Italy is also recorded.
Here in Rome, we learn of the fortunes of the Spanish businessmen who profited from this valuable liquid. When a group of shards bearing the same markings are found at the same level, it becomes possible to start building a picture of certain families and the years in which their olive estates produced good harvests. The Baetican landowners and merchants made wealthy by olive...

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