Cena Classica: A Foodie’s View

The Ides of March is such an important date for classics people, it should be celebrated and honored in style. This year, Monmouth College marked the Ides with the first annual Cena Classica, in remembrance of the late Bernice Fox.

The Cena Classica was held this year in conjunction with the 20th annual Fox lecture. Established in 1985, this lecture series honors Bernice Fox, who taught classics at Monmouth College from 1947 to 1981. This evening’s lecturer was Dr. James DeYoung, who spoke on the Greek play Trojan Women, by Euripides. Crimson Masque, the college’s theatre group, was to present the play that weekend, and Dr. DeYoung spoke on the challenges of producing an ancient Greek play for modern audiences. I arrived at the college looking forward to the lecture. But dinner was to come first.

I was the last diner to arrive (due to a 15-minute quest to find a parking spot on campus). So when I got to the dining room, the tables were already groaning with food. Carafes of water and grape juice stood at intervals along the table. The grape juice was a nod to the no-alcohol-at-official-dinners policy of the college, although everyone at the table agreed that Miss Fox would have preferred wine. There were small bowls of dates and olives to nibble on, too, but the centerpiece of the first course was the bread.

Enormous loaves of soft, chewy Italian bread were topped with a perfect mix of olives, rosemary, garlic, olive oil, and blue cheese. Each bite exploded with salty cheese and fragrant spices, and there was a constant undercurrent of muttering: “Oooh, do you think we could get the recipe for this?”

When each of us had wolfed down at least two slices of bread, the servers unleashed their second masterpiece: the main course. Each server brought out gigantic platters, decorated all over with greens. Each platter was really a work of art for anyone remotely interested in food. In the middle of the platter, a thick bouquet of watercress stood in a clear glass bowl, like the centerpiece on a table. The watercress was topped with a white creamy dressing. (It must have been fish-based, because I could taste tuna, or maybe anchovy, on my second helping of salad.)

Around the centerpiece of salad sat the other stars of the main course. There were huge chunks of some quiche-like dish. (I regret to say that although this had lots of spinach in it, which looked really good, it also had lots of olives. So I didn’t have any of this particular dish, although I’m sure if one liked olives, it would have been delicious.) On the opposite side of the platter, there was a pile of what looked like cocktail weenies in a dark barbecue sauce. We all figured they were little Roman sausages of some kind, but actually, they were baby carrots cooked in sauce. (I made up for not eating my spinach with these.)

And at each corner of the platter, nestled on beds of greens, were small, perfect little Cornish hens, four to each tray. The neat little birds were seasoned and grilled to perfection, and drizzled with smooth, purply-red plum sauce. The meat on these birds was moist and succulent, and I would just love to know how the chef managed to cook 40-odd birds to such moist tenderness all at once, because the one I had was exquisite.

It was at about that point in the meal, filled with good conversation and toasts to Miss Fox and to the cooks and servers, that someone asked if we could simply repeat this menu for every year for succeeding dinners. Uncle Tom, being the generous host, said of course we could. So now we can all look forward to the Ides of March with the same anticipation as to the best Thanksgiving dinner.

After we had picked our lovely birds down to the bones, and had second helpings of sauce-soaked carrots, and third helpings of watercress (because greens are good for you), the servers brought out dessert. This, in contrast to the rest of the dinner, was an individually plated dish. Each diner was served a pear half, poached in red wine. This light, chilled dessert was a gracious end to a luscious meal.

We pushed back from the table. Some of us wandered away to the library, while others remained at the table, picking at the last few dates in the bowls and continuing our dinner conversations. An hour later, after dinner had settled, we all went upstairs to hear Dr. DeYoung’s lecture on The Trojan Women. At the end of the evening, I drove home, my mind and my tummy both pleasantly full. On the seat next to me were a couple of pieces of olive bread neatly wrapped in plastic. I was re-enacting yet another charming Roman custom, of taking leftovers home with me. I breathed in the scent of garlic, and I was content.

-- Sylvia (Zethmayr) Shults, MC'90 (Classics major)

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