Waste Not Want Not: Leftovers – the Afterlives of Early Modern Food

By Amanda E. Herbert

Grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) on strawberries. Credit: Macroscopic Solutions. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)
Grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) on strawberries. Credit: Macroscopic Solutions. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

As part of Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a $1.5 million Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’ll be working on a new book, Leftovers: the Afterlives of Early Modern Food. In this book I aim to explore the instability of food in this period.  This was of course literally true, as it was easy for early modern food to go bad.  But early modern food was also intellectually and philosophically unstable.  What food meant, what it tasted like, where it came from, how to put it to its best use, its moral and cultural symbolism: all of these were in constant flux. The book project will consider things like food preservation, food charity, artificial or faux food, the British colonisation of dishes, and the recycling and reuse of food containers, all of which will offer some insights into the ways that early modern women and men treated and thought about their food, and how these reflected the practical as well as the philosophical food insecurities of the past.

Today I’ll offer a glimpse into the project through one evocative example: faux or artificial foods, which enabled early modern people to reimagine what they ate.  Much has been made over early modern food follies at feasts, and for good reason; some of these, whether they existed in the historical record or only in the imaginative one, were remarkable.  My favourite of these is from Robert May’s Accomplish’t Cook, first printed in London in 1660. 

Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1665).
Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1665).

May, a British chef who trained in France and served in elite British households, designed food entertainments for higher-status women and men.  These edible entertainments worked to manipulate diners’ senses of reality and fantasy. One of May’s most well-known food performances instructed cooks to take a whole deer and roast it, cut a hole in it, and fill ‘his body… up with claret wine’. The hole was then to be stoppered with ‘course paste’ [thick dough] and the cook was to place ‘a broad arrow’ into the dough on the roasted deer’s side. During the dinner entertainment, May explained, ‘order it so that some of the Ladies may be perswaded to pluck the Arrow out of the Stag, then will the Claret wine follow as blood running out of a wound’.   

This juxtaposition of what was real and unreal – an animal, which likely had been hunted with bows and arrows, was then butchered, cooked, and presented so that diners could imagine themselves back at the site of the kill, but in such a way that they could then immediately eat the (cooked) deer and drink its (wine) blood – would surely have offered early modern women and men a strange sense of slippage.  Were they valued guests, enjoying an elaborate meal in elite society? Or were they vicious, impulsive, and animalistic? Given the opportunity to reimagine themselves, their meal, and their relationship to it as consumers, May assured his readers that they would evoke not horror or confusion, but senses of ‘admiration to the beholders’.[1]

For home cooks, artificial foods could take on different forms of re-imagination.  Many such acts of culinary creativity were undertaken out of necessity, lack of resources, or thrift.  A recipe in an anonymous c. 1720 manuscript cookbook included instructions for how ‘to keep Mushrooms without Pickle for sauce’, which was really a guide to making mushrooms (common all over Britain) taste like truffles (typically imported). Readers were told to ‘take large Mushrooms peel them & take out all the inside, lay them in Water some hours then stew them in their own liquor…with a little Mace & Peper’. This process was to be repeated ’till they are quite dry’. As a result, the author claimed ‘they eat very well thus & look like Troufles’.[2]  A 1740 recipe book created by a Mrs. Knight explained how to make ‘artificial venison’ by beating ‘a rump of veal or a large shoulder of mutton…[with] a rolling pin’ before seasoning it ‘with peper & nutmeg’ and soaking it for ’24 hours in sheeps blood’.[3] This supposedly produced the richness, gaminess, and flavour that early modern people associated with venison (a food intended only for the elite) but utilised ingredients that would have been available to most middling-sort people (veal, mutton, spices, and sheep’s blood).  

Faux foods – whether they were constructed purely for fun, or purely out of need – changed the ways that early modern people perceived what they ate.  It’s certainly possible to see these substitutions as efforts on the part of middling-sort people to mimic the wealthy, or to pretend to eat beyond their means.  But we should not ignore the imaginative resonances produced by these fantasies. When an early modern person ate fake venison, false truffles, or even took in the spectacle of a roasted deer bleeding wine onto a table, did they know that it was not real? Were they merely enjoying the sensation of the forbidden or unavailable food, or were they truly fooled? What was old food, and what was new?

[1] Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mastery of Cookery… (London, 1660).

[2] Anon., Cookbook, W.b.653, Folger Shakespeare Library.

[3] Mrs. Knight, Mrs. Knight’s receipt book, W.b.79, Folger Shakespeare Library.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Amanda Herbert (February 27, 2020). Waste Not Want Not: Leftovers – the Afterlives of Early Modern Food. The Recipes Project. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/td92


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