Date of Completion

Spring 5-11-2023

Project Advisor(s)

Alexia Smith, Roger Travis, Molika Chea

University Scholar Major

Individualized Major

Second University Scholar Major

Nutritional Sciences


Anthropology | Classics | Other Nutrition


Apicius is the sole surviving cookbook from classical antiquity; as such it is invaluable for what it tells us about ancient feasting customs. Yet the gluttony typically associated with classical antiquity has no place in Apicius beyond the art that is inherently associated with food; we are not so much given a seat at the cena (dinner) as we are led into the kitchen, handed an apron, and instructed to cook. This critical analysis explores each recipe not only on the surface—i.e., examining the ingredients and recreating selected recipes—but also on a deeper level, lifting food above its concrete reality to examine it as an abstract concept, what I have deemed “meta-food”; this uplifting allows us to better understand humanity, for we are the sole definers of food, and thus we are reflected in what we eat.

Throughout this thesis, I analyze the ever-changing perceptions of food, from meaningless to meaningful, over the thousands of years that connect us to our ancestors. My intention is not merely to point out coincidences across history but instead to emphasize the ways in which food has shifted from an entirely meaningless concept (i.e., being simply fuel) to one that is entirely meaningful (i.e., reflecting humanity). As meta-food as a concept is entirely relational—i.e., food is not food until we define it as such, and what each of us considers food is largely dependent on societal constructions—it is constantly in flux. Thus, examining a society’s perceptions of “food” provides great insight into human dynamics—not just in terms of religion, poetry, art, culture, or literature, but also in terms of power. Food is quite readily co-opted as a status symbol; numerous dishes in Apicius and other contemporary culinary texts evince attempts by the upper classes to distinguish themselves from the lower classes through food. Interestingly, many of these “gourmet” dishes (such as boiled eggs) are seen as commonplace today and vice versa. This seemingly arbitrary line between what is considered gourmet or not demonstrates the concept of hegemonic struggle; by drawing boundaries between what is eaten or considered food, societally-constructed hierarchies persist. Each of us must eat to survive, but food is more than survival, and it is certainly more than just food. It is a reflection—a beautiful yet powerful mirror—of all humanity.