Chapter XVIII. Athenian Cookery and the Symposium.
154. Greek Meal Times. - The streets are becoming empty. The Agora has been deserted for hours. As the warm balmy night closes over the city the house doors are shut fast, to open only for the returning master or his guests, bidden to dinner. Soon the ways will be almost silent, to be disturbed, after a proper interval, by the dinner guests returning homeward. Save for these, the streets will seem those of a city of the dead: patrolled at rare intervals by the Scythian archers, and also ranged now and then by cutpurses watching for an unwary stroller, or miscreant roisterers trolling lewd songs, and pounding on honest men's doors as they wander from tavern to tavern in search of the lowest possible pleasures.
We have said very little of eating or drinking during our visit in Athens, for, truth to tell, the citizens try to get through the day with about as little interruption for food and drink as possible. But now, when warehouse and gymnasium alike are left to darkness, all Athens will break its day of comparative fasting.
Roughly speaking, the Greeks anticipate the latter-day "Continental" habits in their meal hours. The custom of Germans and of many Americans in having the heartiest meal at noonday would never appeal to them. The hearty meal is at night, and no one dreams of doing any serious work after it. When it is finished, there may be pleasant discourse or varied amusements, but never real business; and even if there are guests, the average dinner party breaks up early. Early to bed and early to rise, would be a maxim indorsed by the Athenians.
Promptly upon rising, our good citizen has devoured a few morsels of bread sopped in undiluted wine; that has been to him what "coffee and rolls" will be to the Frenchmen, - enough to carry him through the morning business, until near to noon he will demand something more satisfying. He then visits home long enough to partake of a substantial dejeuner ("ariston," first breakfast = "akratisma"). He has one or two hot dishes - one may suspect usually warmed over from last night's dinner - and partakes of some more wine. This "ariston" will be about all he will require until the chief meal of the day - the regular dinner ("deipnon") which would follow sunset.
155. Society desired at Meals. - The Athenians are a gregarious sociable folk. Often enough the citizen must dine alone at home with "only" his wife and children for company, but if possible he will invite friends (or get himself invited out). Any sort of an occasion is enough to excuse a dinner-party, - a birthday of some friend, some kind of family happiness, a victory in the games, the return from, or the departure upon, a journey: - all these will answer; or indeed a mere love of good fellowship. There are innumerable little eating clubs; the members go by rotation to their respective houses. Each member contributes either some money or has his slave bring a hamper of provisions. In the find weather picnic parties down upon the shore are common.[*] "Anything to bring friends together" - in the morning the Agora, in the afternoon the gymnasium, in the evening they symposium - that seems to be the rule of Athenian life.
[*]Such excursions were so usual that the literal expression "Let us banquet at the shore" ([Note from Brett: The Greek letters are written out here as there is no way to portray them properly] sigma eta mu epsilon rho omicron nu [next word] alpha kappa tau alpha sigma omega mu epsilon nu [here is a rough transliteration into English letters "semeron aktasomen"]) came often to mean simply "Let us have a good time."
However, the Athenians seldom gather to eat for the mere sake of animal gorging. They have progressed since the Greeks of the Homeric Age. Odysseus[*] is made to say to Alcinous that there is nothing more delightful than sitting at a table covered with bread, meat, and wine, and listening to a bard's song; and both Homeric poems show plenty of gross devouring and guzzling. There is not much of this in Athens, although Boeotians are still reproached with being voracious, swinish "flesh eaters," and the Greeks of South Italy and Sicily are considered as devoted to their fare, though of more refined table habits. Athenians of the better class pride themselves on their light diet and moderation of appetite, and their neighbors make considerable fun of them for their failure to serve satisfying meals. Certain it is that the typical Athenian would regard a twentieth century "table d'hote" course dinner as heavy and unrefined, if ever it dragged its slow length before him.
[*]"Odyssey," IX. 5-10.
156. The Staple Articles of Food. - However, the Athenians have honest appetites, and due means of silencing them. The diet of a poor man is indeed simple in the extreme. According to Aristophanes his meal consists of a cake, bristling with bran for the sake of economy, along with an onion and a dish of sow thistles, or of mushrooms, or some other such wretched vegetables; and probably, in fact, that is about all three fourths of the population of Attica will get on ordinary working days, always with the addition of a certain indispensable supply of oil and wine.