Have you tried cooking with roses? What about a warbler or two? They sound like epicurean fantasies today, but in antiquity, when Apicius concocted recipes and guided the eating habits of Romans, these were among the tours de force in gastronomy. Archestratus of Gela, who lived in the time of Aristotle, observed and advised Greeks on the refinements of eating. His writings, too, have been handed down through the centuries and are looked upon as a gastronomical Baedeker for food writers and researchers.
These chroniclers of antiquity tell us that the Greeks and Romans preferred pureed, finely chopped foods because they ate in a reclining position, leaving one hand free to manage their food while the other was used to prop the head. They were masters at inventing and preparing croquettes, forcemeats, meatballs, and chopped seafood.
These are only fragments of the knowledge contained in ''Culture and Cuisine, '' which is about man's preoccupation with food as something more than nourishment. Jean-Francois Revel, formerly director of L'Express magazine, is well known for his writing on social, cultural, and literary themes, and in ''Culture and Cuisine'' he brings all of his erudition to bear in a fascinating study of gastronomy. A part of one chapter also deals with the rise of drinking in ancient cultures.
Revel touches lightly, but intriguingly, on the cuisine of China, writing that it was already 3,500 years old during the European Middle Ages, and was considered an art by the Chinese. Men of letters - philosophers, poets, scholars , moralists, political thinkers - all wrote treatises on food and put together collections of recipes. For 4,000 years, they were the gourmets in Chinese civilization, which may account for the aesthetic quality of Chinese cuisine, its delicate blending of aromas and fragrances as well as colors.
Western man, however, approached the ritual of eating in his own, more ostentatious, fashion. As the class structure changed, eating became feasting, food became a spectacle - food glorified as an adventure and novelty. The era of the chef was born.
In the 14th century, the great Taillevent, known as the ''first Christian 'star' of gastronomy,'' produced culinary innovations in the kitchens of the elite by his deft combinations of ingredients, but his virtuoso contribution was in saucemaking.
The important influence of the Medicis is discussed extensively, and the book ends with a chapter on the ''great age of Careme'' - '' 'the king of chefs, and the chef of kings' '' - in the early part of the 19th century.
Throughout, the book is illustrated with enchanting lithographs and paintings , depicting food preparations and utensils and hardware from pagan times to the 19th century.
''Culture and Cuisine'' is a veritable cornucopia of food facts and lore. It appeals to our imagination and arouses our curiosity. It's definitely worth a nibble.