Food & Drink (godiamoci la vita)

Ancient Rome: Aqueducts, Gladiators and Thanksgiving Pie?

Whoa, that lattice top crust almost reminds me of a bird's nest.

Here in Rome, putting together a Thanksgiving feast is no easy feat. You need to reserve your turkey ahead of time (apologies to anyone just reading this now…). Cranberries are smuggled in from overseas. Ovens are small. Pie plates are nigh impossible to find. And just try finding someone with an apartment big enough to cram everyone around the table. Not that Italians don’t love giant meals and giving thanks and celebrating the harvest and whatnot, but you know, the Pilgrims didn’t exactly land at Plymouth Roccia.  And so, here in Rome, we make due with the bounty from the Italian harvest, roasting whole pumpkins instead of popping open cans of pumpkin puree, picking up some extra veal hearts from the butcher to make stock since the turkeys arrive clean and innards free, and compromising to make our green beans with pancetta instead of the traditional, born in America, smoked, thick slab BACON.

But as we pause tomorrow (or tonight, or this weekend…) to give thanks for friends, family and fabulous food, those of us here in Rome will be surprisingly close to a piece of the history of this feast. We all know the legacy of the Ancient Romans extends well beyond the modern incarnation of the ancient city – I’m not even begin to parse the physical, political, artistic, etc etc etc presence Caesar and friends have on our contemporary lives. But for all the arches, fountains, salad dressings, and vacations on a 12 month calendar, one of the least expected gifts bequeathed to us is found on the Thanksgiving table – well, on the table once the turkey has savored and it’s time for pie.

While some form of sweet or savory goodness baked inside a crust can be traced all the way back to the ancient Egyptians in the stone age days (had chocolate been available, I’m sure brownies would not have been far behind), it is in fact the etymological legacy we can attribute to the Romans.  The magpie, or pica in Latin, was a common bird in ancient Rome, known for its high level of reasoning and intellect, and for being an attribute of Bacchus, Roman god of wine.  Since two syllables was apparently just too much to handle, pica was eventually shortened to “pie” and as the birds outlasted the Roman empire, Middle Agers across Europe continued referring to these birds as “pies”.

But here’s where it gets interesting. In addition to their intellectual prowess, magpies are also the avian precursor to “Hoarders” – collecting anything and everything they can carry in their beaks, and storing it all in their nests. A roundish shell filled with all kinds of delicious treasures? Well, friends, that sounds to me like a pie.

So no matter where you are tomorrow, the turkey won’t be the only heritage breed on your table – that delicious dessert’s got a bit of history to it as well.

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