It always used to be thought that the big jars set into their counters held wine and cheap hot food, soups and stews – ladled out to a poor and hungry clientèle by an accommodating landlord or landlady. But the jars are not glazed, and could not be removed for cleaning. It doesn’t take long to see that they would be completely inappropriate for liquids, hot or cold – not to mention a deadly health risk. Amedeo Maiuri, who directed the excavations over several decades of the 20th century (adeptly navigating both the fascist and post-fascist periods), claimed that at Herculaneum he had discovered all kinds of pulse and grain in them. But this turns out from the detailed excavation reports to have been largely wishful thinking (the beans and grains were actually found in amphorae on the upper floors). As Holleran notes, the only food that we know for sure was found in a counter jar at Herculaneum is walnuts. That suggests rather sparser fare for the average Roman takeaway customer (though presumably the beans and grains upstairs were cooked up into something).
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