Pompeii takeout and American assumption


Archaeologists have uncovered another fascinating glimpse into pre-eruption life in Pompeii — the recently excavated termopolium, or takeout counter. I’m agog at the brightly painted counter, still vivid after 2,000 years, and the fact that the physical design is so recognizable: we modern folks still use removable containers set into the counter. But what really struck me was this explanation:

Grabbing a takeout meal at a food counter like this one, or sitting down to eat at a local taberna, would have been part of the daily routine for most people in a Roman city like Pompeii. Today, we think of eating out as a pricey convenience or a splurge…

No, “we” don’t think that. Americans think that, because it’s true in the US. But in much of Europe, and certainly Portugal, eating out is an affordable and often daily event. I say this with the assurance of an American expat who once sat down with pencil and paper to determine how many meals we could get out of two “doses” of lunch takeout, and what that worked out to in cost per meal. (This arithmetic was made slightly more complicated by the variable of a teenaged boy, whose consumption equalled that of 2.5 adults.)

It took me years to shed my old American understanding (eating out is a treat we must budget for) and accept the Portuguese understanding (eating out can be cheaper than cooking at home, unless you choose the places that cater to tourists and expats). These days, the culture shock goes the other direction. When I visit family and friends in Oregon, I’m stunned by the realization that a muffin and hot cocoa at Starbucks costs as much as a full, healthy takeout meal back home: half a roasted chicken basted with a delicious sauce of olive oil and spices, a fresh salad, and a serving of rice or fries. (Okay, that last bit isn’t quite so healthy, but dang it’s good.)

These days, commentary like the paragraph quoted above tend to yank me out of the article as my brain says “Waitaminit, that isn’t true.” But before moving abroad, I would have mentally nodded my acceptance of that “fact” and kept reading.

Which could lead to a whole discussion on what other assumptions are accepted as fact in the US while being demonstrably false elsewhere…but I’d rather look at the cool photos of the Pompeii termopolium, especially the paintings. Seriously, click that link and check it out.

In the meantime, I have a sudden craving. It’s going to be chicken takeout for dinner tonight.

1 thought on “Pompeii takeout and American assumption”

  • I read that article earlier, and never made the connection that you did about the differing customs. I have read about US industrial workers building the New York skyscrapers who would stop at a shop on their way to work and get a pizza (much different than today’s offerings) that would keep until lunchtime. I think that is the origin of “food trucks” in this country, who will go to construction sites, large warehouse/industrial employers, and the like to serve up often ethnic foods (I’m thinking of “taco trucks” that cater to the hispanic population that fills so many of these jobs). I was thinking today (after reading Heather Cox Richardson’s post on Wounded Knee) that almost every culture has some sort of “transportable food” that workers can take away from home to work; burritos, sandwiches, calzones, gyros come to mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *