BEING CLEOPATRA: Dine in Style Like Queen of the Nile

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dine in Style Like Queen of the Nile

Photo: University of Chicago Oriental Institute
Ancient Egyptians loved food and had plenty of it. In this painting from Thebes dating from about 800 B.C., a woman pours libation over food offerings in honor of the god Re-Horakhty. The food includes round bread loaves, grapes and dates

"Cleopatra didn't care about walking like an Egyptian.

She wanted to party like one.

When entertaining powerhouse guests like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, ancient Egypt's most famous queen had to be the world's hottest hostess. Visitors to the Milwaukee Public Museum's upcoming "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt" will get a taste of her style from the gold artifacts that may have decorated her palace around 51 B.C.

But the main attraction at her royal banquet would have been Queen Cleo's cuisine. She ruled the Mediterranean's richest breadbasket, so "Cleopatra would be distinguished in what she served," says Emily Teeter, Egyptologist at the Oriental Institute in Chicago who has taught ancient Egyptian cooking. "There was a real interest in epicurean meals."

Lavish pharaonic feasts made even the Roman Empire tremble. The audio tour for the Milwaukee "Cleopatra" exhibit has Cleopatra boast: "The fabulous banquets we served astonished many of our Roman visitors. Our ways of celebrating the gods Dionysus, Osiris and Sarapis shocked the Romans, who considered our behavior undignified . . . decadent."

Perhaps mummy told them not to come.

But Cleo was a queen who considered herself a goddess, so she thought it quite proper to "serve the most expensive foods at her parties - beef, pork, lamb - to set her cuisine apart from anyone else's. She'd have the use of a lot of spices, and they were expensive. She'd have sesame seeds, and ground them into oil. She'd also have salt, vinegar, cumin, coriander, parsley, mint, sage, carob, almond and maybe rosemary," Teeter says.

Cleo's banquets were famous for the huge quantities of food served.

"There would be a fruit course, fowl, honey, cheese, a lot of fish and fowl, stewed lentils or broad beans, with seasonings, leeks and onions with the beans - mmm," says Teeter.

Cleopatra's royal wine cellars would, but of course, have been among the best and "most complicated in the ancient world," Teeter says. They'd contain wines made of grapes, figs or other fruits, and brought from all over the Roman Empire and Middle East. Egyptologists have uncovered almost a dozen Egyptian wine designations from "Very, Very Good" to the best vintage label: "For Merrymaking."

No wonder Hollywood has never been able to resist re-imagining Cleopatra's banquets, with the likes of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton cavorting on her golden barge. But can 21st-century party-lovers re-create the real feasts Cleo threw way back in B.C.?

No need to be in de-Nile, experts say. It's relatively easy to stage your own banquet fit for a pharaoh.

First, set the mood. Fill the home with the scent Cleopatra used to drive Roman noses wild. "We know that she liked roses in particular and you can use intense rose oil as perfume," says Joan Ledvina, manager of Egyptian International Art at Mayfair Mall. Rose oil sells for $10 a bottle at the store.

Don't worry about seating arrangements. Teeter notes that Cleo, Mark and Julius would have been the poster kids for decadence by dining "Greek-style triclinium - lying down on couches mobbed by servants bearing trays."

You may want to ensure your guests' gastric health by setting buffet tables, instead. To recapture the feel of ancient royal décor, try using beaded Egyptian scarves in lapis lazuli - the color favored by pharaohs - as tablecloths ($39 to $58 at Egyptian International).

Entertainment? At any of her gigs, Cleo would have had musicians who rocked the Sphinx. Tomb reliefs show that party planners preferred nearly nude female musicians to get guests in the groove.

Today, Haytham Kamel, an Egyptian native now living in Brookfield, says any pharaonic-style feast he'd plan today would "absolutely include a belly dancer." Failing that, Kamel suggests choosing background music performed by Nubian singer Mohamed Mounir. "His music dates back to the pharaohs," says Kamel

As for libations, welcome guests with a pair of cocktails created especially for this Cleopatra bash by Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz, the mixologists at Milwaukee's Bittercube. They craft cocktail menus for everything from restaurants to corporate events.

They named one drink the Nea Isis. "Cleopatra often referred to herself as Nea Isis, referencing the idea that she was the reincarnation of the ancient goddess, Isis," Koplowitz says. "Ancient Egyptians were very familiar with cinnamon, and this cocktail uses Blackstrap Bitters, which feature three types of cinnamon. Roaring Dan's Rum is a Milwaukee rum, produced in the Fifth Ward by Great Lakes Distillery."

If there were hieroglyphs labeling Bittercube's second cocktail, they would translate into "Queen of Kings." Koplowitz explains: "Mark Antony, one of Cleopatra's lovers and eventually her husband, anointed her the Queen of Kings."

Or perhaps Your Highnesses would prefer wine. Two Wisconsin wines have tastes that would "have been familiar to Cleopatra." says Anne Schamberg, the Journal Sentinel's On Wine columnist. They are the Sweet Mead honey wine made by White Winter Winery in Iron River ($15 a bottle) and the sweet pomegranate wine made by Three Lakes Wintery in Three Lakes ($10 a bottle).

Then - bring out those trays. First course must be a hummus dip, says Azmi Alaeddin, chef and owner of Aladdin - Tastes of the East at the Milwaukee Public Market. This chickpea spread dates back 7,000 years to the temple festivals of ancient Egypt. Serve with pita bread.

But "any Egyptian party must be centered around rice," says Alaeddin, and it should include onions. Alaeddin sells Egyptian rice already prepared, or you can use their recipe (above) to make it yourself.

Main dishes at your Cleopatra party can also feature roast lamb, spiced chicken or fish. But be sure to also serve the sort of finger foods that Cleo would have snacked on while wearing gold-foil fingertips. Those snacks included such delights as pickled lemons or stuffed cucumbers ($4 a bottle each) at the Holy Land Grocery and Deli, 2755 W. Ramsey Ave.

And lastly, dessert. Almost any sweet or fruit dipped in honey would have made a rich Egyptian smile. "They found powdered honey in the pyramids," says Andy Hemken, owner of the Hemken Honey Co. in Big Bend. Wisconsin's own wildflower honey, which Hemken calls a "full-flavored honey," comes colored a deep gold. Queen Cleo would have approved.

Modern hosts also can serve a sample of Turkish delight-style Bisco Misr cookies from Egypt, sold at Holy Land Grocery.

Whatever you plan for your ancient Egyptian party, be sure to tell your guests that Queen Cleopatra would have had one unbreakable rule.

No one, but no one, may make an asp of himself ..."

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