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Forklore

Serve It Up, Fronto

April 03, 2002|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the 19th century, dishes were often named after celebrities. The last gasp of this practice was probably the late '70s' Better Than Robert Redford Cake.

But it had a respectable pedigree going all the way back to ancient Rome. The second-century cookbook of Apicius gives several dishes named after Roman big shots, including pullus frontonianus, which presumably refers to Marcus Cornelius Fronto, the greatest orator of the day.

Fronto was devoted to the art of public speaking in a way that is hard for us non-Romans to imagine. To him, rhetoric, as the vehicle of life's highest ideals, was the supreme human study, the only thing in the universe that truly mattered. In a letter to his pupil Marcus Aurelius, Fronto sternly chided the young emperor-to-be for wasting his time studying philosophy (of course, these days Marcus Aurelius is mostly remembered for his philosophical meditations).

He scolded his erring student, "You seem to me to have, in the fashion of the young, deserted the pursuit of eloquence and turned aside to philosophy, in which there is no introductory section to be elaborated, no account of the facts, bringing them together with concision, clarity and skill."

Philosophy, he continued, was a trivial business. After a philosophical discussion, "you go away carefree, with nothing to think over, or to write up at night, nothing to recite to your master, nothing to say by heart, no search for words, no adorning of a single synonym, no translation from Greek into our language."

Well, golly, when you put it that way .... And nota bene (as the Romans would say), Marcus Aurelius never got any chicken dishes named after him.

By the way, pullus frontonianus is pretty good. It's chicken fried brown and then stewed with leeks, fish sauce, dill, savory and cilantro. When it's done, you sprinkle it with pepper and defrutum, which is wine boiled down to a syrup.

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