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.