While it might seem that the foodie douchebag—the bastard child of countless food blogs, our culture’s continuously growing obsession with all things new, bizarre, or extravagant in food, and the all-documenting eye of Instagram and its #foodie vortex—is something of a new phenomenon, it’s far from modern. In fact, the origins of acting like a tool when it comes to food can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome, to the first century AD. More specifically, the life and death of Marcus Gavius Apicius, the world’s first gourmand.
Lover of luxury and all things gourmet, Marcus Gavius Apicius was a wealthy member of Roman high society who lived and breathed all things excessive. As a member of the Roman elite, Apicius served under Emperor Tiberius as a culinary adviser, often cooking for and dining with society’s elite. But Apicius is usually credited (though it is often disputed) with penning the earliest known cookbook, Apicius. Divided into ten sections covering all categories of proteins, vegetables, and desserts—even housekeeping and gardening, the Apicius cookbook has some serious cornerstone classics, like a good soufflé.
Beyond his claim to ultimate foodie fame for being the first known cookbook author, Apicius was also a man who threw an unforgettable dinner party. While most of the Roman population lived off pottage—a bland stew made of wheat and millet, with the occasional bit of offal or fish—Apicius’s lavish dinner parties were legendary, consisting of numerous dishes made with exotic and expensive ingredients, from varieties of fowl to shellfish, seafood, and other meats, sourced from far away places. Apicius disapproved of anything that was remotely close to resembling peasant food, convincing the emperor’s son, Drusus, to refrain from consuming cabbage tops or sprouts because they were too “common.” Things like fig-fed goose liver, dolphin meatballs, boiled parrot, roasted ostrich, sow’s womb, and camel heel were all regular appearances in his kitchen.
But the ingredients weren’t just exotic; they were also carefully sourced. After getting the word about some incredibly tasty shrimp off the coast of Libya, Apicius chartered a boat with a full crew to sail over and purchase some for himself. But when said shrimp were presented by the local fisherman who approached his boat, he turned back without even going ashore: the briny crustaceans weren’t up to his standards.
With a published cookbook under his belt, friends in high places, and his reputation for throwing the most raging feasts—not to mention his boatloads of sestertii, the Roman currency of the time—the Roman cooking scene in one AD was, without a doubt, Apicius’s bitch.
Everything looked like it was going his way, that is, until it wasn’t.
After years of constantly cooking luxurious meals in the midst of a life of true excess, Apicius realized—a little too late—that he had spent the majority of his rather large fortune by feeding his obsession with food.
While the amount of money left over would have been enough for him to live out the rest of his life in relative poverty, Apicius felt that having to live his life eating the peasant food he so reviled was not going to cut it. So he decided to throw on a party toga and spend the rest of his fortune doing what he did best—throwing one last over-the-top dinner party that would make even the modern eater weep. And then he poisoned himself, but not because he was worried about living out the rest of his existence in penniless obscurity, but because he was afraid of starving to death.
Let that sink in.