Kiki Aranita and Chris Vacca used to teach Ancient Greek, but today they spend most of their time cooking Hawaiian plate lunches, musubis, and tacos for their award-winning food truck Poi Dog.
In 2011 the two classicists were grad students at Bryn Mawr, fresh off a Summer Session at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. They were both partway through their second graduate degrees when they decided to leave the world of academia to pursue their love of cooking full time and opened a food truck that serves Hawaiian fusion food.
The food truck is called Poi Dog, and it has become a local favorite in Philadelphia and beyond, winning awards from magazines and cook books. “Poi Dog means ‘mixed breed’ or ‘mutt’, so it’s not straight-up Hawaiian food, you’re not going to get us digging a pit on every sidewalk even though I’d like to,” said Aranita, who learned these techniques growing up in Hawaii and Hong Kong, “Poi Dog really speaks to our backgrounds, we’re both ethnically mixed, and we’ve also lived all over the place, and we also came from classics. So it’s all of these seemingly disparate things coming together really effecting the food we make, and that manifested itself into Hawaiian-ish food.”
After a few years Poi Dog became such a success that Aranita and Vacca began teaching Filipino and Hawaiian cooking classes in Philadelphia. Aranita then began talking with her friend and former classmate Dr. Melanie Subacus, a professor of classics at Villanova, about the possibility of teaching a class on Ancient Roman cooking techniques. Subacus is also an ASCSA summer session alumni, and the trio have long combined their love of cuisine and classics, hosting classical themed beer nights together or sharing stories about the cheese croquettes they enjoyed on a summer session trip.
Vacca enjoying some fish on Crete while on a ASCSA trip
But the Ancient Roman cooking class was a new step: “I didn’t know how many people would want to cook Ancient Roman food, it might be weird,” explained Vacca. “But we pitched it to the Free Library of Philadelphia and they said they would try it, and they put it up on the website and it sold out in like four hours.”
Ancient Roman recipes are usually scant, suggesting a list of ingredients without quantities or cooking methods. Many books and blogs have dedicated themselves to recreating archaic meals, but Aranita explained the Poi Dog duo are uniquely poised to intervene in a way others haven’t: “We occupy this interesting space of having been trained as classicists and being familiar with texts and ways of reading them, and knowing what would be completely anachronistic to do to these recipes. But at the same time being cooks, we know how to prepare food, and we’re not just throwing things into a pot.”
Vacca and Aranita take the Ancient Roman banquet out of ancient texts and adjust it for the modern dinner table using their favorite techniques. A recipe that called for a pork fruit ragout was given new life as a fruit infused pork belly: “instead of serving a bowl of pork and fruit stew we decided to stuff a pork belly with fruit and other aromatics, wrap it, roast it to get a nice crispy skin on it, and then slice that and serve it with a red wine ragout that we spooned over top of it,” said Vacca. “It was a Roman recipe but closer to what a home cook would do to make a Filipino lechon.” Many of the dishes have this sort of twist—their Parthian Chicken is flash-fried and they often include garlic even though it was considered medicinal in Roman times.
Vacca and Aranita in their food truck
The two have yet to cook dormice, a Roman delicacy, but are not afraid to use ingredients that some modern western cooks and scholars have eschewed. They sampled fish sauces originating from Italy to Thailand to find the proper garum, and use asafetida or hing, common in many Indian dishes, in place of extinct Roman favorite silphium. The two hope to show that food customs from cultures distant in time or space may be different, but not worse. “There are many texts that I respect and I like saying garum is the most disgusting thing on earth,” said Aranita, “And fish sauce is everywhere, we use an array of Vietnamese and Thai and Filipino fish sauces all the time in our regular cooking for Poi Dog. There’s this reputation that what they ate way back then was gross. And I feel like parallel cooking traditions exist now all over the world and they’re not gross, they’re really wonderful. And if we can marry those two things together we can have really productive conversations.”
Vacca and Aranita have discussed adding an Ancient Greek cooking class to their roster, but for now are excited to be returning to their classical roots. “The overarching mission is to get people talking about the classical world in ways that aren’t like ‘ew this is gross.’” Stated Vacca. “We have to imagine that there were people cooking and eating as an important part of their culture. Roman food might not match up to some of our meat and potatoes boring U.S sensibilities, but I think we have to have that assumption that people knew what they were doing, let’s see how we can try to do versions of that that would be delicious now.”