Ancient street food

The counter of the newly-discovered thermopolion in Pompeii (Photo by Luigi Spina/Parco Archeologico di Pompei via AP)

The Internet is buzzing with news about the discovery of a thermopolion in the ruins of Pompeii. The media are rushing to bridge the gap between the Roman street food culture and our own.

‘What did the Romans ever do for us? They gave us street food’, I’ve seen it printed half a dozen times recently. From the thermopolia cook-shops (thermo for hot and poleo for ‘to sell’) to tavola calda and metropolitan fast-food joints, the arrow flies straight.

The remains of thermopolia wouldn’t impress modern observers much if it weren’t for the counters with their sunken jars called dolia, where food and drinks were stored. ‘Burying’ the jars into the stone counter provided some refrigeration, preserving the food for (slightly) longer. The Romans did think of everything.

But the thermopolia hide — or disclose, depending how you look — a distressing truth. Most people didn’t have a suitable kitchen. And that has always been the curse of big cities, whether ancient or modern. For those city-dwellers who had a kitchen and perhaps a slave to cook for them, the thermopolia were an unnecessary institution — and a dangerous one to boot, as it promoted drunkenness and lewd behaviour. On the other hand, for those living in the squalid apartments known as insulae, the thermopolia provided an essential service, the only way they could get a hot meal during the day.

The history of restaurants, fast-food, street food and other types of non-domestic food are closely linked to a population’s access to kitchens. Big cities can’t provide a kitchen to every resident, but they can offer a sandwich, some Roman lentils or a cup of mulled wine to everyone for a penny. So the thermopolion will always be there as long as cities stay busy.

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