Nowadays fast food comes in all forms throughout the world. A life on the go means quick fare at affordable prices. Whether hamburgers, tacos, satay, samosas, crepes or today’s recipe of fish and chips, fast food is ubiquitous.
Modern convenience? Not if you take a page from Roman culinary history.
Thermopolia (s., thermopolium) were eateries found aplenty in the Roman Empire. In fact, Pompeii boasted around 150 thermopolia. A thermopolium was an open air room with an L-shaped counter distinguished by large storage urns called dolia containing dry edibles such as nuts. Each day the thermopolium featured different dishes available for purchase. People could select such standard victuals as “coarse bread with salty fish, baked cheese, lentils and spicy wine.”1 Other fare included pizza (tomatoes were not yet brought to Europe at the time) made of cheese and onions, soups, pickles, eggs and ham.2 A tempting array of palate pleasers no doubt. And like our 21st century fast food menus, thermopolia meals were based on their convenience and simplicity. Customers knew what to expect and would merely point to the blue plate specials they wanted.
Thermopolia were frequented largely by the poorer populations who, unlike the wealthier residents, had no kitchen facilities in their homes. The word thermopolium comes from Greek and means literally “a place where (something) hot is sold.”3
Mary Beard is a classics professor at Cambridge University and author of the book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found. Here’s how she describes the concept of take-out food in the city of Pompeii:
“The best way to escape a diet of bread, cheese and fruit, eaten in small lodgings over a shop or workshop, where there were limited or no facilities for cooking anything more interesting, was to eat out. Pompeii has long been thought of as a cheap café culture, with bars, taverns and thermopolia (as they are often called in modern guidebooks, though this was certainly not the standard ancient term) lining the streets, catching the passing trade—from visitors with time on their hands to local residents with nowhere nice of their own to be. In fact, the masonry counters facing the pavements, with large jars (dolia) set into them and display stands behind, are one of the most familiar elements of in the Pompeian street scene.”4
Fast food was big business in Pompeii. And while people came for the affordable, simple fare, a thermopolium also offered a convenient place to socialize and meet people. To hang out, Roman style. However, unlike our modern view of fast food havens as universally appealing, the wealthy in Pompeii thought thermopolia encouraged drunkenness and vagrancy. Indeed, some people reportedly inbibed so much they couldn’t return to their duties after lunch.5
Pompeii has been revealing its secrets since the first excavations started in 1748. Recently, archaeologists found an ornately frescoed thermopolium counter in Regio V, a 21.8-hectare (54-acre) site to the north of the archaeological park. The excavation is not open to the public yet. But according to the site’s outgoing superintendent Massimo Ossana, this has been an exciting discovery: “A thermopolium has been brought back to light, with its beautiful frescoed counter.” 6 As we see, even with the most common of places such as a thermopolium, Pompeii continues to be a trove of surprises of unquestionable beauty.
Since many people enjoy fish for Good Friday, we thought a quick and easy but nonetheless delicious recipe for fish and chips would be in order. Italian style in honor of our Pompeii visit. And while we’re at it, may we add another interesting historical footnote? Fish and chips may have originated in Italy and been brought to England by Venetians. At least that’s the heretical view by some who want to stir the pot over this popular dish.
Who knew that our modern love of fast foods had antecedents so far back? Apparently, fast food on demand may be in our DNA.
Pompeii was destroyed in 79CE when Mount Etna erupted. Click here to see a spectacular animation of that day.
Click here for some recipes based on thermopolia menus.
Click here for more pictures of frescoed thermapolia.
Italian Fresh Herb Baked Fish and Chips
Recipe courtesy of An Italian in My Kitchen
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cook Time: 30 mins
Total Time: 40 mins
- 4 thick slices perch, halibut, cod or trout
- 5 medium potatoes thinly sliced
- Oregano to taste
- Salt to taste
- 1/4 cup fresh chopped Italian parsley
- 2-3 sprigs fresh chopped rosemary
- 1/4 cup olive oil (more or less to taste)
- 1 clove garlic minced
- Pre-heat oven to 350°F (180°C).
- In a medium bowl soak potatoes in cold water for approximately 15-20 minutes, rinse and drain well and towel dry. Place potatoes back in dried medium bowl.
- Drizzle a little olive oil on a non-stick cookie sheet, place fish filets on top, sprinkle with salt, oregano, parsley, rosemary and a little minced garlic.
- Toss potatoes with oregano, salt, rosemary, garlic and olive oil.
- Place potatoes on cookie sheet with the fish, and if desired, sprinkle with extra salt and oregano (and olive oil if needed). Bake for approximately 30 minutes. (I raised the temperature to 425°F (225°C) for the last 5 minutes to brown a little more the potatoes.) Serve Immediately. Enjoy!
Calories: 429kcal | Carbohydrates: 33g | Protein: 39g | Fat: 15g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Cholesterol: 153mg | Sodium: 132mg | Potassium: 1556mg | Fiber: 6g | Vitamin A: 1% | Vitamin C: 40.6% | Calcium: 21.6% | Iron: 56.8%