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Ancient Romans sought out citrus fruit as status symbols more than food

How much would you pay for a fruit that’s mostly rind, doesn’t taste good, and can make you vomit if you eat too much of it? If you were a citizen of ancient Rome, probably a lot. Citrus fruit, originating in east Asia, was hard to come by in the Mediterranean two thousand years ago, and so even something as difficult to enjoy as citron (Citrus medica) made a big impression on people. While most of us would pass over less appealing options like citron in favor of a lime or mandarin orange, Roman elites worked hard to appreciate them, largely thanks to citrus’ scarcity in that part of the world.

If you’ve never eaten a citron yourself, you don’t worry too much. Compared to other citrus fruits, citron are nearly entirely rind, leaving little fruit or meat to eat fresh. Some recipes capitalize on this by cooking with the rind itself, such as pickling it in brine before coating it in sugar to make a candy. Thanks to citrus’ hallmark tricarboxylic, aka citric, acid, the Romans enjoyed citron’s striking scent, both as a breath freshener and moth-repellent in clothing. Some citron was certainly eaten, although consuming the fruit was also tied to the ‘medicinal’ purpose of helping someone vomit up toxins if deemed necessary.

Fruit worth flaunting

There was one more good reason to avoid eating one’s citron fruit, which is the need to display it. Citrons, followed later by lemons, were most prized just because they were hard to come by. They were exotic goods imported through Persia, and owning them was a mark of a family’s wealth. They have been depicted in mosaics and even on coins, and seeds have been discovered in the ruins of wealthier villas around the Mediterranean. Citrus was a great food to have in your home, at least until everyone could have it.

As technology and trade routes modernized, Muslim traders made more citrus fruit available to the western world. However, sour oranges, limes and pomelos just didn’t have the same cache, possibly thanks to this increased availability. Food that was accessible to more people wasn’t worth putting on coins anymore, even if it was probably more worthy of a spot on your plate. As petty as that sounds, it wouldn’t be the last time wealthier people abandoned tasty food over its social status. By the time sweet oranges arrived in Europe in the 15th century, citrus fruits weren’t turning many heads anymore. To fully complete the cycle, when thin-skinned mandarins arrived in Europe in the 19th century, the clout once commanded by ancient citrons was long gone.

Source: In Ancient Rome, Citrus Fruits Were Status Symbols by Natasha Frost, Atlas Obscura

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