“Food & Feasting in Elizabethan England”
Francine Segan, lecturer
S. Dillon Ripley Center
Francine Segan is a cultural historian who has published a number of food-related books. The launching point for this evening’s was her book Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook. I was expecting the talk to be more Shakespeare oriented: there were a few quotes from Shakespeare, but that was about it. One of the most interesting Shakespeare observations came in the promotional material for the Elephant & Castle Pub and Restaurant (which has two locations in DC), which was one of the “sponsors” (read “providers”) of the post-lecture reception.
Shakespeare mentions the Elephant Lodgings in Twelfth Night. In Act 3 Scene 3 Antonio says “in the south suburbs, at the Elephant, is best to lodge.” Although the play is set in Illyria in the Balkans, Shakespeare often used local London references. The theatres were all in Southwark, so Shakespeare’s line may represent an advertisement for a local hostelry. “The Elephant” is a common present-day nickname for the Elephant and Castle.
So maybe one of the earliest examples of product placement?
I also was expecting a little more in the way of recipes. There weren’t any real recipes, but there was lots of interesting information about general cooking methods, ingredients, and the general practice of grand feasting.
Apparently pies were really big—meaning both popular and large. Some pies could be four feet high, and they contained everything imaginable: all sorts of game, fruit, even pasta. They often had highly decorated crusts, ranging from elaborate bas reliefs to fish heads poking out above a crusty surf. Yes, four and twenty black birds baked in a pie was a real thing: and if birds were too difficult to wrangle, you could also use frogs or garden snakes.
Segan talked about her experiences accessing rare book collections to do her research. (One such experience was getting to look at a book here at the Folger, which required all sorts of preparations.) She attracted a couple of librarians because she was laughing hysterically while reading an etiquette book. Concerned that they were going to shush her or kick her out, Segan was relieved to find out they only wanted to know what was so funny in an etiquette book that hadn’t been checked out since 1917. It turns out that the book had a chapter on how to be an entertaining guest, so it included lots of puns, jokes, riddles, and stories you could tell between courses to entertain your hosts and other guests. Joke #17: “A ship at sea was caught in a terrible storm, so the captain came up on deck to ask the passengers if they had anything heavy would be willing to toss overboard to lighten the ship. ‘Yes’, answered one of the passengers, ‘my wife!'” So apparently (she said) Henny Youngman’s material is even older than we thought. She also recited a riddle in rhyme, which, much like the old Anglo-Saxon riddles, led you to believe that the answer was X-rated, while the real answer was perfectly G.
Thus my riddle doeth begine;
A mayde would haue a thinge put in.
And with hir hand she brought it to;
It was so meeke, it would not doe:
And at the length she vsed it soe,
That to the hole she made it goe.
When it had done as she could wishe,
“Ah, h!” quoth she, “I’me glad of this!”
Or as worded in a more modern vernacular, “To make it stiff and stand it up, she rubs it. To make it slip and slide it in, she licks it. What is she doing?”
Get your minds out of the gutter: she’s threading a needle.
Segan also described the Elizabethan love for trompe l’oeil food, such as meatball appetizers filled with grapes and shaped like pears, with a sprig of herb for a stem. There was also a roll shaped like … something, I forget what, with a wine jelly center, so that when you cut it or bit into it, it appeared to bleed. Oh, the were really jolly, those Elizabethans.
Segan touched on Elizabethan cooking techniques for measuring time and temperature, such as cooking asparagus only as long as it took to recite the Pater noster (in Latin, of course), or gauging the the heat of an oven by being able to hold your fist in it for twelve seconds. She also explained some idioms, such as “upper crust” meaning the best part of the bread, because (due to the vagueness of oven temperatures) the bottom crust was often burned, and the loaf would be sliced horizontally, rather than vertically.
Cookbooks also contained recipes for home remedies, some of which actually had some merit. She asked an ENT about one remedy, which called for roasting an onion and squeezing its juices into the ear to cure deafness. Sure, the doctor replied, the onion juice contains an enzyme which would be good for clearing out ear wax, which would have caused degraded hearing for many people. And there were lots of recipes on how to build up “courage” (a euphemism for sexual prowess)—that is, the Elizabethan equivalent of the little blue pill. Prunes (and fruit in general) and sweet potatoes were considered aphrodisiacs.
Segan mentioned a number of spices that sound interesting, and she says they’re available cheaply on the internet: cubeb, long pepper (which isn’t really a pepper; it looked like a miniature pine cone), and grains of paradise. And she refuted the notion that spices were used to cover up the smell or taste of rancid meat. A lot of recipes included timetables, such as, if you’re going to serve dinner at three, then you need to butcher your goat at ten, and then marinate it for however long.
Apparently the Elizabethans were real jokesters, creating mugs with lattice sides, that could only be drunk from if you covered up certain holes and drank through a built-in straw. They also had pitchers like that; one, mad of glass, looked for the world like a Klein bottle. (The guy behind me had the same thought.)
Segan walked through the whole process of putting on an Elizabethan feast, describing the invitations and the cooking, and showing samples of the different courses. Such a feast would have been a multi-hour event, starting at 11:00 AM, and possibly lasting until 3:00 PM or 4:00 PM. Dessert would have included fruit, nuts, and cheese. And more pies: she described a spinach and almond pie which would have been considered a sweet dish. (I thought of the Indian carrot-based gajar halwa.) One of the recipes I want to track down is peatelli, made from just four ingredients: flour, honey, almonds, and pepper.
There weren’t copies of her book to buy and get signed, because it was published in 2004, and is out of print. But there are copies available online, so I may hunt one down.
In the atrium where the post-lecture reception was held, there was a curated photography exhibit of pictures taken by Smithsonian Institution employees. There were seven categories: SI places; non-SI places; selfies; SI people; non-SI people; SI objects; and non-SI objects. Pictures on display were the first through third places and honorable mentions in all categories, plus a best in show. Needless to say, there were some really interesting photographs.