There’s a local chef celebrity in my neighborhood. Jim Stacy, owner of the Pallookaville restaurant, is known for his clever takes on traditional southern foods. His outsized personality (which matches his 6’6″ frame) has turned his latest creation into a huge hit. Gourmet corn dogs and liquored up milk-shakes? Yes, please.
I didn’t think I could love the place anymore–until I heard Stacy was creating a series of “anthropological dinners.” First up: “Eat Like an Ancient Roman.” Yes! Only one problem. By the time I learned about it, it had been sold out. (You know how last week you woke up in the dead of night, shivering at the echo of someone’s tortured scream? Yeah, that was me.)
Anyway, no amount of pleading made any difference. Until an hour-and-a-half before the event when I got the call: “We’ve had a cancellation.”
“I’m there!” I yelled. Sadly, there was just an opening for one, so hubs couldn’t go (I’m not sure he’s forgiven me yet). Anyway, I showed up to find some friendly faces from the neighborhood and then, to my delight, I saw Liz Bouis, former Latin teacher and head of the National Junior Classical League’s 2014 convention at Emory University, along with two other Latin teachers–her husband Randy and friend Amy. To sit with folks who share my love of all things ancient Roman? I couldn’t believe my luck.
The evening started off with Jim explaining the concept behind the dinners and his love for anthropology and history. He talked about the books he used for research, including the recipes of one Marcus G. Apicius. He and his team worked incredibly hard to be as authentic as possible, which included everything from finding non-hybridized boar for the main plate to offering soft boiled quail eggs for us to mix into our garum-laced salad. Throughout the evening, his staff served honeyed water, honeyed wine, anthropological beer (beer brewed from the yeast/recipe found in a tomb), a red wine so strong and so authentic it burned the tips of my eyelashes, and even barley water.
First, came the salad. With every plate, Jim explained the preparation and the way the Romans ate it. Our salads came with two barely boiled quail eggs sitting in oil.
“Poke a hole in the top of each egg and then squeeze out the contents into the bowl,” he instructed. “Then whip it together and pour it over your salad.”
It was weird and I definitely heard a couple of murmured, “Ewwwws,” around the room but everybody went with it. To my delight, the salad was delicious. Light, refreshing, and like so much of the food to come, filled with the rich flavors of coriander, mint, raisins (Randy swears some Roman called them “tired grapes” but we couldn’t find a source for the claim) oil and the ever-present garum sauce.
The next entree was wild caught cod cakes steeped in a rich veal consomme. Jim reported that they spent DAYS cooking and reducing the broth. I could believe it. Fabulous.
The main dish was roasted boar topped with an apricot ragout over barley and boiled cucumber and celery. It was amazing! I wasn’t sure I was going to like the savory boiled vegetables but to my surprise, I did, though nothing could beat the rich flavor of the boar and apricot ragout. I even liked the well seasoned barley! (Who knew barley could be made to taste good?)
Finally, came dessert–roasted red pear with crunchy rosemary over a coriander custard made with boiled honey and (yup, you guessed it,) garum. It was amay-zay-zing! A fascinating mix of sweet and savory, firm and silky.
We ended the meal with an aperitif that sounded like “oxy-garum”–a drink Jim swore would get you buzzed even though it contained no caffeine or alcohol. The trick, he explained, was to slam it down fast. Easier said than done–the drink was vinegary and salty. I could only take the occasional sip but Randy and Amy valiantly downed theirs. Both said it felt like a real “pick-me-up.” I was okay with taking their word for it.
Overall, it was an extraordinary meal! A lot of love and time went into perfecting these dishes, that was clear. From using Italian volcanic salt crystals and importing garum made the “ancient way,” every effort was made to be authentic. At the end of the meal, Jim reminded us that “not a smidgeon of butter” was used the whole evening (the Romans did not cook with butter and thought the Gauls were barbaric and GROSS for doing so!)
There’s something really special about seeing passionate, creative people pour their curiosity and intelligence into a project like this. I wasn’t alone in thinking so. Jim and his crew received wild applause at the end of the meal.
Pallookaville is offering a series of these meals, including, “Eat Like a Native American,” “Eat Like an American Colonist,” and “Eat Like the Victorian Upperclass .” But, like the Roman one, they fill up fast, so sign up early. Thanks, Pallookaville, making my night!