6 Examples of Early Fast Food From Ancient History


Fast food is often derided as a modern scourge, one that has made us fatter and ruined family dinners everywhere. But fast food isn’t an American invention. It’s been around since ancient times. Here are six ways people have satisfied their needs for greasy to-go fare throughout history: 

1. Pompeiian takeout 

The residents of ancient Pompeii did not like to cook, as archeologists discovered when they began to excavate the famously preserved city, which was covered in ash during the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Barely anyone had a home kitchen. Instead, residents of Pompeii (except for the wealthy) ate on the go, at cook shops that functioned kind of like ancient takeout restaurants. These “popinae” had masonry counters inset with cooking pots, and customers might have selected their choice of porridge, ham, stew, and other culinary delights. The walls were often painted with frescos bearing images of the available food items. 

2. Mesopotamian McDonalds

Godin Tepe, an archeological site in western Iran that was inhabited by humans as far back as 5000 BCE, features evidence of takeout windows. A few years ago, archaeologists discovered that some of the buildings in the ancient Mesopotamian town had windows, an unusual feature for the time, around 3200 BCE. The building they excavated contained a fireplace, food remains, and a lot of bowls—indicating that it might have been a takeout joint. 

3. The Roman hamburger

A recipe from Roman times by an unknown author, included in Apicius (a cookbook published in the 4th or 5th century CE), features a dish, Isicia Omentata, that’s fairly similar to the modern hamburger. It was a patty made of minced meat mixed with pepper, wine, pine nuts, and a sauce. They probably didn’t have the option to super-size that, though. 

Modern Roman fast food. Image Credit: iStock

4. Odysseus and the hot dog

The American incarnation of the hot dog didn’t come onto the culinary scene until the 1800s (and the term itself might not have appeared until 1891), but sausages have been referenced in some of our oldest texts. In The Odyssey, for instance, Homer compares a sleepless Odysseus to a sausage rolling around before a fire. There are several variations of the translation, but in one, the passage describes the warrior’s tossing and turning as being like “when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted.”

5. Chinese restaurant culture

In 1200 CE, Chinese peasants enjoyed blood soup, which was both sold at cheap restaurants and featured in upscale banquets. In big cities, vendors sold this and other hot food out of cauldrons and baskets in storefronts that catered to people who worked until late at night. Public restaurants, a fairly rare feature of the ancient world, catered to both the wealthy and the poor, and most restaurants were open late (just like your neighborhood Burger King). In fact, Hangzhou, China may have been the site of the first real restaurant, where diners could order food directly from a menu instead of taking whatever was available for the day. 

6. Endless tamales

Father Bernardino de Sahagun, a priest who served as a missionary and ethnographer during the initial Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 1500s, described visiting Aztec street markets that sold hot sauce and tamales of near-infinite varieties—filled with meat, fish, frog, mushroom, rabbit, and more. Centuries later, in the 1890s, tamale carts would become L.A.’s first blockbuster street food

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

Big Questions
Why Don't Valentine Hearts Look Like Real Hearts?

Love is in the air this month, and images of two-lobed hearts are all over everything: candy, cards, decorations, you name it. That the heart is symbolic of love and passion isn't surprising—ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, including Aristotle, thought the organ was the center of all emotions. Why the heart symbol you see everywhere in February doesn't look anything like an actual human heart, though, is a little less clear.

The symbol goes at least as far back as the 1400s, when it appeared on European playing cards to mark one of the red suits, though it may even be older than that. The shape is pretty much a mystery, though. There are a few different hypotheses to explain it, but none of them have been confirmed.

One suggested origin for the symbol is that it comes from the ancient African city-state of Cyrene, whose merchants traded in the rare, and now extinct, plant silphium. The plant was used to season food, but doubled as a contraceptive. A silphium seedpod looks like a valentine's heart, so the shape became associated with sex, and then with love.

Another possibility is that the shape is a crude representation of a pubic mound, the vulva, a pair of breasts, buttocks, or a pair of testicles. It may even have come from a poor attempt at drawing an actual heart. A lousy artist, an inaccurate description of the subject, or a malformed model all could have led to that shape.

The Catholic church explains the symbol as coming from a vision that Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque had, where the "Sacred Heart of Jesus"—associated with love and devotion by Catholics—appeared in this shape surrounded by thorns. But Alacoque didn't have this vision until the late 1600s, well after the symbol was already documented. This makes it the unlikeliest of origin stories, but the church's frequent use of the shape was probably a driving factor in popularizing it as a symbol of love.

This story originally appeared in 2012.


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