Dear readers, tonight with me is a man, working in a profession we do not normally come across. He’s a former slave, originally bought as a cook.
However, he found himself the cook of none other than the Roman empire’s most notorious gourmand, Apicius. As anyone who have met Felix and me know, we are forever indebted to that great man, for relentlessly documenting the ancient cuisine we all know and love.
This makes this interview one of the most anticipated on our little blog, as the interviewer is a big fan of the interviewee.
Without further ado, let us have Thrasius tell us about his life.
Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?
My very early childhood was in Greece. I was a twin, born to a slave woman who died in childbirth and whose name I never knew. My sister and I were raised by another slave in a respected house in Pompeii until we were four. When that patrician died, the household slaves were willed to several different relatives and we were separated. I never knew what happened to her. I barely remember anything about her, except her name, Thecla. I was lucky and my master saw that I was smart and had me taught to read and write from a very young age. I think he thought I might eventually become a scribe.
Did you have any favourite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?
One of the slaves in the household where I grew up carved some wooden animals for me. I played with them often and even back then I think my true colors as a cook were showing through. I often would pretend to capture and slaughter the animals, then take them home and roast them over the fire.
What do you do now?
I am a freedman working in the household of Marcus Gavius Apicius, one of the wealthiest men in Rome. I began my time in his household as a cook but eventually have become one of his most trusted advisors. My duties are wide. I do have a secondo, what would you say—a sous chef? But I am generally responsible for every dish in the kitchen, overseeing all the banquets, for managing the extensive guest lists and advising my master who should be invited; and I also am in charge of the Apicius School of Cooking.
What did you first think when Apicius bought you?
I was terrified when Apicius bought me. I had just come from an abusive household and I was tired of being taken advantage of. I wanted to cook, and I was, at first, relieved to learn that was what Apicius wanted of me. But right after he purchased me, we went to receive a divination in the market—my new master wanted to know if it had been a good decision. The fortuneteller (we call him a haruspex) cut open a goose to read the entrails. It was dismal. I will forever remember the words he uttered.
“This is most unfortunate. A healthy liver and a rotten gall bladder. You will feel the blood of life mingling with the pang of death. Your good fortune will be as a disease throughout your life. The more you work toward success, the more your sky will darken. Look here,” he said, pointing to a piece of rounded pale blue glass amid the slimy debris. “This means unusual judgment. It means that, ultimately, you will be judged in the Underworld by how our world and the world of the future perceive you.”
I was shocked when Apicius seemed to completely ignore the divination—all except the last line. It is his singular obsession, making sure that he is seen and remembered for his banquets and his life as the greatest gourmand Rome has ever seen.
What is the worst thing about cooking for the empire’s most notorious gourmand?
He is exacting and demanding. He wants perfection and he wants excess. Sometimes his demands are very unreasonable. But he is not cruel about mistakes like some masters. For example, there is a patrician, P. Vedius Pollio, a once-friend of the Divine Augustus, and who is a minor acquaintance to Apicius. A cupbearer recently broke a precious crystal goblet at one of his banquets and in a rage Pollio cut the slave’s hands off and hung them around his neck. The slave was forced to parade among the diners before Pollio mercilessly threw him to his death into a pool of lamprey eels that he kept in his garden specifically for the purpose. I thank Jupiter that Apicius is not usually cruel to me. I do, however, hate how he deprioritizes his wife and child, who want to love him so much. They are the ones who ultimately have it worse than even me, a slave.
What is the best thing about it?
The food and the banquets! I love that I have endless freedom to discover new tastes and that I have at my hand the most luxurious ingredients. If I have an idea, Apicius is generous and usually lets me run with it. For example, I had the idea that instead of fattening up birds by confining them and force-feeding them, I would fatten up pigs then let them gorge themselves on figs. When they are too full to eat anymore I force them to drink wine, causing the figs to expand and explode, killing them and leaving us with meat and organs that are full of flavor. It was a terribly expensive experiment but Apicius loved the thought of it.
What was the scariest or saddest thing in your adventures?
We—my Domina Aelia; her body slave, Helene; my lover Passia; and my friend and Apicius’s bodyguard, Sotas—recently went to the family mausoleum in the dark of night. We bribed the guards at the gate with food (runaway slaves are all too common) and slipped through the mausoleums that lined the Appian Way leading out of Rome. The Appian Way is a strange and sinister road at night. The cobbles are lined for miles with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of gravestones and elaborate multilevel mausoleums rising at varying heights. That night the moon was only a slim crescent, giving us just enough light to discern our surroundings and to enable the stones and buildings to cast their shadows on the ground, creating a supernatural atmosphere down the length of the street. Once we reached the family mausoleum, we placed a curse on Apicius’s worst enemy. We used a clay poppet and a curse tablet. In the middle of the ritual some squirrels ran across the top of the crypt, nearly scaring the life out of all of us. And the curse itself…I pray to the gods every day that the blood we shed that night won’t be for naught.
Crystal King is the author of FEAST OF SORROW, about the ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius. A culinary enthusiast and marketing expert, her writing is fueled by a love of history and a passion for the food, language and culture of Italy. She has taught classes in writing, creativity and social media at several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University, as well as at GrubStreet, one of the leading creative writing centers in the US. She lives in Boston with her husband, Joe, and their two cats, Nero and Merlin.
You can find Thrasius on the pages of Feast of Sorrow.
Join us next week to meet hear from an enchanting Regency-era couple, talkign about sea life and sorceresses. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right), via Twitter, or like our Facebook page to be notified when the next interview is posted.