Thursday, February 1, 2024

And you shall anoint your beloved with cheesecake

     February already. Which means that Valentine's Day is ... two weeks away. And you have done ... nothing, right? No idea what special to do for your beloved. That's okay. Well, sad, but also okay, because I am here to help you.
     And a good thing, too. Because left to your own devices you would ... what? Merely buy something. Something random, last minute. A trinket. Some thoughtless cheap crap that will indict more than delight. What a sad commentary on both you and your love. Or would be, if I didn't save you. Which, luckily, I will. 
     Instead of doing something half-considered, why not go to trouble and expense while telling a story old as time?
     Why not be inspired, by how, two thousand years ago, the ancient Romans had trachemata — "second tables" — that were set aside for what we could consider "dessert." Laden with pancakes, sesame seeds, wine. The Greek playwright Diphilus lists a few delectables: "some myrtle berries, almonds, a cheesecake."
      Cheesecake? But what sort of cheesecake? Here the glozing hand of history is kind to us. Cato the Elder sets down no fewer than three distinct cheesecake recipes in his De Agri Cultura, a guide to managing estates written 2200 years ago, Eugenia Ricotti calls Cato's favorite cheesecake, Savillium, "the oldest known dessert" in her Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece and claims it was found in the tomb of Ramses IV in the Valley of the Kings. First you mix 14 ounces of ricotta cheese with one and a half cups of flour ... actually, it gets rather complicated. You need a cookie press or pastry bag, plus boiling fat. 

     Far easier to simply order an Eli's Cheesecake. You might have noticed the festive holiday ad at the left of my EGD home page. But if that choice is overwhelming — so many kinds — let me draw your attention to the Belgian Chocolate Hazelnut Heart, perfectly shaped for the holiday. Look at it. You could drive yourself crazy trying to make that. You could hole up with your Cato, translating from Latin, messing with jugs of olive oil and such.   Or you could plan ahead and have it tucked away and ready in your freezer Feb. 14. "Rich chocolate cheesecake topped with a crunchy hazelnut and chocolate confection, baked on a chocolate cookie crumb crust in an elegant heart shape." How could it not be received with gratitude? Who does not want to love with similar dark intensity? Or one of my favorites, the Salted Caramel Cheesecake, if only for how it echoes Homer, who in The Illiad praises "the sacred offering of the salted cake."  Of course the Romans took cheesecake from the Greeks, along with so much of their culture, including this holiday, Cupid being the Roman version of the Greek god Eros. 
     Salted caramel not your style? I recommend the Basque Cheesecake, its burnt parchment wrapped evocative of the rough simplicity that wealthy Roman philosophers like Seneca paid lip service to, along with simple baths and unadorned pottery. 
Red is the color of Valentine's Day — which began at the tail end of Roman times, first set on Feb. 14 to honor the martyred Saint Valentine by Pope Gelasius in 469 A.D., just before Rome fell and the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed ... anybody? Do they teach you nothing in these schools? ... seven years later, in 476. So you can't go wrong with Strawberry-Topped CheesecakeJust look. Are these not the "flame-red berries" Virgil lauds in Georgics? Or Cherry Vanilla Bean Cheesecake. Just say it out loud. "I love you, and so bought us this Cherry Vanilla Bean Cheesecake for us to enjoy together in bliss. "A thick layer of housemade Montmorency cherry filling and Madagascar vanilla bean cheesecake, topped with tart cherry gelée, baked on an all-butter shortbread cookie crust." 
     I know what you're thinking. Neil, was not Cato the Elder something of a prude? Yes, you are correct, no doubt remembering Pliny's Life of Cato, particularly this passage:
     Cato expelled another senator who was thought to have good prospects for the consulship, namely, Manilius, because he embraced his wife in open day before the eyes of his daughter. For his own part, he said, he never embraced his wife unless it thundered loudly; and it was a pleasantry of his to remark that he was a happy man when it thundered.
     Does that last part not contain a mischievous twinkle you could appropriate and present as your own? And a private setting is entirely fitting to the holiday. Why go out to a restaurant, on amateur night — prices up, service and quality down — when you could enjoy Eli's Cheesecake in the secluded bower of your home? 
     You could mention, opening the box, that Cato's libum was a savory cheesecake intended to be an offering to the gods. But that, like Prometheus stealing fire from the workshop of Hephaestus,, you have spirited this divine dessert away from its home on Mount Olympus and brought it here, now, for you both to enjoy on earth. Let eagles rip your liver for all time as punishment. Your loved one is worth the sacrifice....
     Okay, maybe that's corny. Maybe it's better to say nothing. Maybe you should bear in mind Cato's famous dictum: "He is nearest to the gods who knows how to be silent."
     Wordlessly remove the cheesecake from its sturdy cardboard freezer box and set a perfect slice on your best plate. Take one fork yourself, hand the other to your soulmate. Or better yet, skip the forks. Lock eyes with your adored one and whisper that the ancient Romans, soldiers or slaves or senators, would eat with their hands. Give yourself and your heart's true passion permission to do so now in celebration of your timeless bond and Valentine's Day, and let nature take its course.    


  1. Not following Cato’s dictum today, are we?! What a fun, creative column, and the research so impressive! Have studied some history, but missed all those parts. Glad to be filling in the blanks at 80. Seems you could’ve made a lot more $$ in advertising—but glad you didn’t.
    A delightful start to my day! Thank you🩷

  2. Jesus, a Classical Civ lesson, an Eli's ad, AND lover's advice worthy of Dear Abby! You sir, are truly the polymath of columnists!

  3. Ordered the cheesecake now all I need is someone to share it with. I've got a couple weeks. Wish me luck

  4. You forgot Groundhog Day tomorrow! We need a cheesecake for tomorrow with a dribbling of gummy bears or honey gram bears atop!

  5. Eli's Turtle Cheesecake is the best!

  6. My mother's birthday is February 14 and some 70 years ago my sisters and I wanted to bake her a heart shaped chocolate cake. The thought was to get some tinfoil and make a mold into which we would pour a Betty Crocker batter. Alas, tinfoil was not obtainable and aluminum foil was a disaster. Finally, our mom appeared like Wonder Woman to the rescue, baked a chocolate cake and cut off the non heartlike parts. We slathered on the frosting and voila: a perfect heart cake. Happy 103, Mom. Wish you were here.

  7. I know little of Roman history nor the works of Cato, Pliny, et. al. that I haven't read on EGD. (I could have placed the fall of the Roman Empire in the right century, but that's about it...)

    Thus, if it had been April 1 rather than Feb. 1, I'd have begun to suspect that "some myrtle berries, almonds, a cheesecake" and most of what followed was one of your inimitable, well-crafted jokes. Not the descriptions of the Eli's delectables, needless to say; I know you wouldn't joke about those. Very nicely done.

  8. Wonderful piece today! Finally, I am able to USE something from those 4 years of high school Latin and all that mythology from same. Thank you! You have made my Valentine's Day.


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