The “Cheesy” Phrase on our Great Seal

The Roman dish "moretum." Photo by Bullenwächter (2006). Taken from the website

The Roman dish "moretum." Photo by Bullenwächter (2006). Taken from the website

E pluribus unum – “out of many, one.”  So reads the Great Seal of the United States of America.  We are a nation made up of  many peoples from varied backgrounds, all of whom come together under a flag that stands for the ideals of personal liberty and equality.  This noble concept of our rich and multifaceted nation is often expressed using another metaphor: a melting pot.  Though that phrase really refers to a crucible in which different metals are (s)melted and mixed together, to be honest, it’s always made me think of fondu.  Silly as that may sound, our motto e pluribus unum really DOES have a culinary pedigree.  The first appearance of the phrase occurs in a Latin poem called Moretum (“Garlic Cheese”).  In it, the writer (who some scholars think may have been Virgil, although that is not certain) describes a man making a simple lunch dish:

“First, lightly digging into the ground with his fingers, he pulls up four heads of garlic with their thick leaves; then he picks slim celery-tops and sturdy rue and the thin stems of trembling coriander.  With these collected he sits before the fire and sends the slave-girl for a mortar.  He splashes a grass-grown bulb with water, and puts it to the hollow mortar.  He seasons with grains of salt, and, after the salt, hard cheese is added; then he mixes in the herbs.  With the pestle, his right hand works at the fiery garlic, then he crushes all alike in a mixture.  His hand circles.  Gradually the ingredients lose their individuality; out of the many colors emerges one (color est e pluribus unus) – neither wholly green (for the white tempers it), nor shining white (since tinged by so many herbs).  The work goes on: not jerkily, as before, but more heavily the pestle makes its slow circuits.  So he sprinkles in some drops of Athena’s olive oil, adds a little sharp vinegar, and again works his mixture together.  Then at length he runs two fingers round the mortar, gathering the whole mixture into a ball, so as to produce the form and name of a finished moretum.  Meanwhile busy Scybale has baked a loaf.  This he takes, after wiping his hands…” (Moretum 88-120, translation by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger).

Perhaps if we could get more people to sit down together for a simple homemade meal, we might come closer to solving some of our disagreements in this grand melting pot of a nation.


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