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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of the
De Re Coquinaria


published by Walter M. Hill, 1936

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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De Re Coquinaria

 p. xiii  Introduction
Frederick Starr
Formerly Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago

No translation of Apicius into English has yet been published. The book has been printed again and again in Latin and has been translated into Italian and German. It is unnecessary to here give historic details regarding the work as Mr. Vehling goes fully and admirably into the subject. In 1705 the book was printed in Latin at London, with notes by Dr. Martinus Lister. It caused some stir in the England of that time. In a very curious book, The Art of Cookery, in Imitation of Horace's Art of Poetry, with Some Letters to Dr. Lister and Others, Dr. Wm. King says:

"The other curiosity is the admirable piece of Coelius Apicius, 'De Opsoniis et condimentis sive arte coquinaria, Libri decem' being ten books of soups and sauces, and the art of cookery, as it is excellently printed for the doctor, who in this important affair, is not sufficiently communicative . . .

I some days ago met with an old acquaintance, of whom I inquired if he has been seen the book concerning soups and sauces? He told me he had, but that he had but a very slight view of it, the person who was master of it not being willing to part with so valuable a rarity out of his closet. I desired him to give me some account of it. He says that it is a very handsome octavo, for, ever since the days of Ogilvy, good paper and good print, and fine cuts, make a book become ingenious and brighten up an author strangely. That there is a copious index; and at the end a catalogue of all the doctor's works, concerning cockles, English beetles, snails, spiders, that get up into the air and throw us down cobwebs; a monster vomited up by a baker and such like; which if carefully perused, would wonderfully improve us."

More than two hundred years have passed and we now have an edition of this curious work in English. And our edition has nothing to lose by comparison with the old one. For this, too, is a handsome book, with good paper and good print and fine cuts. And the man who produces it can equally bear comparison with Dr. Lister and more earlier commentators and editors whom he quotes — Humelbergius and Caspar Barthius.

The preparation of such a book is no simple task and requires a rare combination of qualities. Mr. Vehling possesses this unusual combination. He was born some forty-five years ago in the small town of Duelken on the German- p. xiv Dutch frontier — a town proverbial for the dullness of its inhabitants. There was nothing of dullness about the boy, however, for at the age of fourteen years, he had already four years study of Latin and one of Greek to his credit. Such was his record in Latin that his priest teachers attempted to influence him toward the priesthood. His family, however, had other plans and believing that he had enough schooling, decided that he should be a cook. As he enjoyed good cook, had a taste for travel and independence, and was inclined to submit to family direction, he rather willingly entered upon the career planned for him. He learned the business thoroughly and for six years practiced his art in Germany, Belgium, France, England and Scandinavia. Wherever he went, he gave his hours of freedom to reading and study in libraries and museums.

During his first trip through Italy and on a visit to Pompeii he conceived the idea of depicting some day the table of the Romans and of making the present translation. He commenced to gather all the necessary material for this work, which included intensive studies of the ancient arts and languages. Meanwhile, he continued his hotel work also, quite successfully. At the age of twenty-four he was assistant manager of the fashionable Hotel Bristol, Vienna.

However, the necessities of existence prevented his giving that time and study to art, which is necessary if it was to become a real career. In Vienna he found music, drama, languages, history, literature and gastronomy, and met interesting people from all parts of the globe. While the years at Vienna were the happiest of his life, he had a distaste for the "superheated, aristocratic and military atmosphere." It was at that city that he met the man who was responsible for his coming to America. Were we writing Mr. Vehling's biography, we would have ample material for a racy and startling narrative. We desire only to indicate the remarkable preparation for the work before us, which he has had. A Latin scholar of exceptional promise, a professional cook of pronounced success, and an artist competent to illustrate his own work! Could such a combination be anticipated? It is the combination that has made this book possible.

The book has claims even upon our busy and practical generation. Mr. Vehling has himself stated them:

"The important addition to our knowledge of the ancients — for our popular notions about their table are entirely erroneous and are in need of revision.

"The practical value of many of the ancient formulae — for 'In Olde Things There is Newnesse.'

"The human interest — because of the amazing mentality and the culinary ingenuity of the ancients revealed to us from an altogether new angle.

"The curious novelty and the linguistic difficulty, the philological interest and the unique nature of the task, requiring unique prerequisites — all these factors prompted us to undertake this translation."

One word as to Mr. Vehling's work in America. He was for five years manager of catering at the Hotel Pfister in Milwaukee; for two and a half years he was inspector and instructor of the Canadian Pacific Railway; he was connected  p. xv with some of the leading hotels in New York City, and with the Eppley and the Van Orman Hotels chains, in executive capacity. He not only has the practical side of food use and preparation, he is an authority upon the science in his field. His printed articles on food and cookery have been read with extraordinary interest, and his lectures upon culinary matters have been well received. It is to be hoped that both will eventually be published in book form.

There is no financial lure in getting out an English translation of Apicius. It is a labor of love — but worth the doing. We have claimed that Mr. Vehling has exceptional fitness for the task. This will be evident to anyone who reads his book. An interesting feature of his preparation is the fact that Mr. Vehling has subjected many of the formulae to actual test. As Dr. Lister in the old edition of 1705 increased the value and interest of the work by making additions from various sources, so our editor of today adds much and interesting matter in his supplements, notes and illustrations.

It is hardly expected that many will follow Mr. Vehling in testing the Apician formulae. Hazlitt in speaking of "The Young Cook's Monitor" which was printed in 1683, says:

"Some of the ingredients proposed for sauces seem to our ears rather prodigious. In one place a contemporary peruser has inserted an ironical calculation in MS. to the effect that, whereas a cod's head could be bought for fourpence, the condiments recommended for it were not to be had for less than nine shillings."​a

We shall close with a plagiarism oft repeated. It was a plagiarism as long ago as 1736, when it was admitted such in the preface of Smith's "The Compleat Housewife":

"It being grown as fashionable for a book now to appear in public without a preface, as for a lady to appear at a ball without a hoop-petticoat, I shall conform to the custom for fashion-sake and not through any necessity. (The subject being both common and universal, needs no argument to introduce it, and being so necessary for the gratification of the appetite, stands in need of no encomiums to allure persons to the practice of it; since there are but a few nowadays who love not good eating and drinking . . .)"

Old Apicius and Joseph Dommers Vehling really need no introduction.

Frederick Starr

Seattle, Washington, August 3, 1926.

Thayer's Note:

a Vehling points out in several places that to him everything in Apicius' cookbook suggests the Romans used the spices sparingly, as we do; both economy and gastronomy gain by it.

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