By Jamie Swinnerton
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By Juliet Wittman
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It may be time to bring back the vomitorium.
For those who forget their history -- don't worry, we're all condemned at this point to repeating it -- Rome was just an anno Domini teenager when excessive feasts were all the rage, with the average banquet involving five or six courses of seafood, including oysters, mussels and lobster; venison and gazelle meat, pheasant and a few other feathered friends, such as duck and peacock; maybe a 200-pound pig stuffed with quails; a dozen kinds of fruit; several pounds of asparagus per person; four or five types of savory pies; a few veggie casseroles; forty or fifty desserts, and many barrels of wine and other alcohol.
Because it was hard for the average glutton to take a bite of everything in sight, Emperor Claudius eventually came up with the idea of having special rooms set off to the sides of the banquet halls. He and other overfed feasters would retire to these vomitoriums, where slaves would tickle their throats, causing them to throw up so that they were soon ready to start stuffing themselves all over again.
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Excessive? Sure, but conspicuous overconsumption was the order of the day. Of course, not all of Rome ate this way. According to most historians, a majority of Romans at the time lived on bread, olives, some fish, meat on special occasions and whatever vegetables they could trade for at the markets. Later in the century, a wheat shortage almost caused Rome to fall early: Those who weren't affluent enough to indulge in food orgies relied on their daily bread.
Two thousand years later, conspicuous overconsumption is once again the rage, and while today we can consume many things besides food -- Sony PlayStation 2, anyone? -- big restaurant meals remain one of our favorite binges. Big restaurant meals at places like Morton's of Chicago, for example.
Throughout history, food consumption has been one of the best gauges of a country's economy. Until recently, Morton's was a special-occasion place, a fancy steakhouse where businessmen with large expense accounts took their out-of-town clients, or couples celebrated their anniversaries, or the Broncos celebrated their big win.
But nowadays Morton's is for nearly everyone, because nearly everyone has money. And Denver has so much money that it's one of just eight cities in the country that has not one, but two Morton's. The Morton's concept was only four years old when the first Denver restaurant opened sixteen years ago in the Tivoli; that outlet moved to its current spot across from Union Station in 1995. The second Morton's, which opened last spring, is conveniently located in the Denver Tech Center, so not only can corporate types wine and dine their colleagues without having to shuttle to the original Morton's downtown, but all manner of suburbanites can experience Morton's signature Tableside Menu Presentation when Mom and Dad are simply too tired to set the table themselves.
According to the Morton's Restaurant Group's Web site (at mortons.com), the company "plans to maintain its pattern of steady, disciplined growth by following its proven formula for success." In other words, it's going to continue to open franchises that offer reasonably good food in unreasonably large portions at truly unreasonable prices (with a wine list to match), brought to your table with almost painfully precious service.
I've never been a big fan of that service style, and nothing about my visit to Denver's newest Morton's changed my mind. When I first walked through the front door, the place was so dimly lit that I had to squint to find the host's podium. Because I was the first in my party to arrive, I was not so much asked if I wanted to wait in the bar as verbally nudged there, and about twelve seconds after I sat down and ordered a glass of champagne, the rest of the group arrived. But an obliging server was only too happy to carry my flute to our table, which sat at the edge of the 120-seat dining room. Although this Morton's is slightly smaller than the one in LoDo, it features the same creamy glow, the same unobtrusive decor that melts into the background as the evening progresses, and the same contented pig that sits in the middle of each table with a light fixture growing out of its midsection. And, of course, it also has aisles wide enough for the patented menu show-and-tell.
To call this presentation archaic and silly would be to dismiss its importance in the overall scheme of things, namely, the training of future thespians and politicians who are able to say, with a completely straight face, things like, "This is a four-pound lobster, which we'll split down the middle and bake for you," while holding a live crustacean that's trying to sign "Help me!" with its flailing legs. Our server -- part of a team that includes the order-taker and a variety of backup plate carriers -- also held up a tomato to show what, exactly, would be coming if we ordered a sliced beefsteak salad, and very helpfully placed a red onion on top of the tomato to signify that red onions would come on top of the tomato in the salad. In addition, he showcased a dizzying succession of steak slabs wrapped so tightly in clear plastic wrap that they looked like fat, red-faced bank robbers wearing pantyhose over their heads.