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.

January 2020: a Taste of “Before ‘Farm to Table'” Part IV

Dear Recipes Project community,

Happy 2020! This month we’ll mark the new year by highlighting some discoveries from the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Several of this month’s posts feature products from the BFT team, all of which were featured on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog. Produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare & Beyond covers a wide range of Shakespeare-related topics: the early modern period in which he lived, the ways his plays have been interpreted and staged over the past four centuries, the enduring power of his characters and language, and more. The Recipes Project is delighted to partner with Shakespeare & Beyond as we explore recipes in Shakespeare’s world.

What can you expect to learn? In this post, Michael Walkden discusses early modern European ideas about mushrooms: edible or poisonous? Nutritive and tasty, or actually…the “excrements of the earth?”  

-The RP Editors
*****
“Excrements of the earth”: Mushrooms in early modern England

By 

Edmund Gayton, The art of longevity, or, A diæteticall instition (1659, call number: 156- 338q), Folger Shakespeare Library.
Edmund Gayton, The art of longevity, or, A diæteticall instition (1659, call number: 156- 338q), Folger Shakespeare Library.

From the full English breakfast to the chicken and mushroom pasty, the mushroom is a staple of modern British cuisine. In Shakespeare’s England, however, the edibility of mushrooms was considered by many to be an open question. Writing in the 1630s, the Bath physician Tobias Venner declared that:

“Many phantasticall people doe greatly delight to eat of the earthly excrescences called Mushrums; whereof some are venemous, and the best of them vnwholsome for meat: for they corrupt the humors, and giue to the bodie a phlegmaticke, earthie, and windie nourishment … Wherefore they are conuenient for no season, age, or temperature.”

Venner’s view of mushrooms represented the dietetic standard in early seventeenth-century England. The London doctor Stephen Bradwell likewise observed that “Some have (from strangers) taken up a foolish tricke of eating Mushroms or Toadstooles.” Bradwell’s advice to mushroom-eaters was unequivocal: “let them now be warned to cast them away; for the best Authors hold the best of them at all times in a degree venomous.”

This is not to say that no one in seventeenth-century England cooked or ate mushrooms. Manuscript recipe collections from the second half of the seventeenth century contain numerous recipes for pickling and preserving mushrooms. The printed cookbook of Sir Kenelm Digby, published after the Restoration, contains a recipe for “pickled champignons,” perhaps inspired by his time in Paris during the English Civil War. The recipe collection of Lady Grace Castleton, held in the Folger Shakespeare Library, includes a receipt “To dress mushrooms my Lord Digby’s way,” which, since it didn’t appear in the published edition, may have been communicated in person.

But Digby, a Catholic and royalist who had spent years in exile in Paris, was viewed by many English Protestants as a figurehead of foreign decadence and effete continental pretensions. The Anglican clergyman Alexander Ross even described the difference between himself and Digby as analogous to that “between solid wholesome meats, and a dish of frogs or mushrooms made savoury with French sauce.”

One obvious explanation for these hostile attitudes is that fungi can be notoriously treacherous as a source of food. Although most fruiting fungi are considered safe to eat, consuming the wrong kind can cause illness or even death – a fact that Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew all too well. “Who then that is wise,” asked Dr James Hart in 1633, “will venter on a doubtfull dish, when God of his infinite goodnesse hath affoorded us such plentie of profitable and pleasant food?”

The fear of accidental poisoning appears to have cast doubt over the nutritional value of mushrooms in general. The language used around mushrooms was often viscerally hostile, drawing upon images of filth and waste – several writers referred to them as “excrements of the earth.” Much was made of the fact that they grew in dark, moist places, and they were thought to be engendered by decaying vegetable matter: Bradwell viewed them as “a bundle of putrefaction, arising of a cold, moist, viscous matter of the Earth.”

Want to learn more about mushrooms in Shakespeare’s world? Read the rest of Michael’s post at Shakespeare & Beyond: https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2019/08/20/mushrooms-in-early-modern-england-excrements-of-the-earth/#fungi

January 2020: a Taste of “Before ‘Farm to Table'” Part III

Dear Recipes Project community,

Happy 2020! This month we’ll mark the new year by highlighting some discoveries from the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures project, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Several of this month’s posts feature products from the BFT team, all of which were featured on the Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog. Produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare & Beyond covers a wide range of Shakespeare-related topics: the early modern period in which he lived, the ways his plays have been interpreted and staged over the past four centuries, the enduring power of his characters and language, and more. The Recipes Project is delighted to partner with Shakespeare & Beyond as we explore recipes in Shakespeare’s world.

What can you expect to learn? Michael Walkden will discuss early modern European ideas about mushrooms: edible or poisonous? Nutritive and tasty, or actually the “excrements of the earth?” And next up, below: Jack Bouchard discusses beer-drinking, beer-making and celebrations around beer in early modern Europe.

-The RP Editors
*****

By

Willem Delff. “Cask of Heidelberg.” 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Willem Delff. “Cask of Heidelberg.” 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library.

From Prince Hal and Falstaff’s hearty embrace of tavern fare and drinks, to the Duke of Clarence’s death in a butt of malmsey, alcoholic beverages are woven throughout Shakespeare’s plays. But what do we know about food, drink, and culture in the German-speaking heart of central Europe?

The tradition of Oktoberfest, celebrated among other places at its birthplace in Munich, Germany, and across the US, seems to invoke something universal and timeless about German society writ large (surely, one might think, Martin Luther and the Habsburg emperors must have enjoyed beer and pretzels each autumn). But in truth, Oktoberfest only began in 1810, and it is essentially regional, reflecting the distinct culture of Bavaria in southern Germany. The Folger collection’s wide variety of material from German-speaking lands in the 15th and 16th centuries offers a more complex story.

There was no early modern Germany, as we would understand it today, and no unified German culture. For early modern German speakers, the ways that they drank and celebrated were quite diverse. Sausage and bread varieties might differ from town to town and season to season, and wine often replaced beer in the south and west. This divided world is epitomized by an illustration in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle by doctor and scholar Hartmann Schedel. Schedel chose to portray his native land not with a map, but with a stylized image of 12 imperial city-states embedded in an imaginary countryside. Here was “Germany” as Schedel and others lived it in the early modern age: distinct and squabbling communities, stretching from Metz in modern France to Salzburg in Austria.

The modern notion of Oktoberfest, however, does capture some important aspects of older German foodways. In the early modern world, autumn was the season of plenty. A 1587 print by the Flemish artist Adriaen Collaert shows Bacchus reveling in a cornucopia of fall produce, as farmers reap the harvest in the background. In this age of communal farm labor, harvest festivals were common, and across the German-speaking lands there were festivals, prominently featuring beer and wine, in September and October. If there was no Oktoberfest, there were a variety of October-fêtes.

Autumnus. Adriaen Collaert. 1587. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Autumnus. Adriaen Collaert. 1587. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Drink was as seasonal as the food, and one of the most popular homemade beers was Märzen, a lager prepared in March and stored in a cold cellar to slowly ferment all summer long. (Summer heat could make brewing risky, so early spring was the latest that most households made beer.) The casks were taken out and enjoyed as an accompaniment to the harvest work and communal celebrations, producing what is today marketed as Oktoberfest-style lager. The drink had a wide appeal: The Folger collection includes a later English recipe for “March Beer,” brewed on the same principles.

Want to learn more about beer in the early modern world — and get a glimpse of that recipe for “March Beer”? Read the rest of Jack’s post at Shakespeare & Beyond: https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2018/10/30/in-the-spirit-of-oktoberfest-food-drink-and-changing-times-in-early-modern-europe/

…still thirsty for more? Listen to this Spotify playlist of drinking songs from early Germany curated by the Folger Consort!

 

Cooking with Others, Learning with our Bodies

by 

Courtesy of https://fabioparasecoli.com/blog/.
Courtesy of https://fabioparasecoli.com/blog/.

I am not a chef. I am just a moderately proficient homecook (you can check what I cook on my Instagram account @fparasecoli) I have not been to culinary school (although maybe… at some point…). I have never gone through any kind of formal process to learn about techniques, ingredients, or whole dishes. I have never been that good at following written recipes either: I scan them quickly, and then I do what seems right to me, based on my experience, my preferences, and my skills.

Nevertheless, I like cooking (and eating). At the end of a long day, if I have time I make one simple dish, just one, but enough to relax and focus my mind and body away from work and towards feeding myself and others. I fully realize I am very lucky to enjoy the luxury of cooking. I have time (I only work one job, and not a physically demanding one), resources (I can afford buying good quality, fresh food), and an overall positive relationship to food. I do not have a large family to cook for, and if I do not feel like making anything I can go out or order in. Care-giving is not an obligation. Spending time in the kitchen is a choice, and a pleasurable one. I am fully aware that’s privilege. Not everybody is in the same position, and it would be unfair to consider meal preparation – day in, day out – as morally or culturally superior. Or necessary to be a loving family member, or a good citizen.

My personal history explains a lot. My mother would often have people over for Sunday meals. And I don’t mean two or three. My sisters and I were asked to do small kitchen chores as children: beating the egg whites to a foam, peeling almonds, and such. I remember I felt very proud the first time I was asked to make the battuto for the Sunday tomato sauce. Using a sharp knife, I would turn a piece of cured pork fat, rosemary, garlic, and pepper, into a soft paste. As we became more independent, my sisters and I learned how to cook more and more, often under the remote guidance of my mother. When I was a teenager and stayed in Rome by myself while my parents were away on vacation. I would invite friends over and feed them dishes that I had seen my mother cook but I had never tried myself until then. At times i would read of exotic recipes, and try them out, figuring out ingredients and preparations. Once I made a meat stew with bananas and peanuts that I had read somewhere was typical in South America (where is South America was beyond my interest, at that time). When I was in London to improve my English, my landlady would make rice with coconut and shrimp, which she had learned from a Sri Lankan friend of hers. It seemed the epitome of adventurousness, at the time.

Whatever I made, however, was based on the movements, the smells, the flavors I had grown up with, mostly standing at my mother’s stove. It was not just about verbal guidance. It was rather the an immersion in the sensory environment of the kitchen, with its material objects and tools, the way they felt in my hand and needed to be used; the scents and sounds; the visual cues; the affective involvement in making sure that I was doing a good job. What is the right consistency of cookie dough? What does it have to feel like to the fingers so that it can bake properly? What is the smell that signals that the cookie is just right, not undercooked or slightly charred? What are the sounds that a tomato sauce makes, allowing us to know when it has reached the desired texture? Can we hear when the sauce has simmered too long, without waiting for the smell of burned food? As much as we can learn from recipes in the media (videos, podcasts, written texts) and as much as visual support may be useful in achieving a good result, the physical experience that it necessary to fully master a dish cannot be replaced.

In my experience, culinary memories and skills are profoundly embodied, as they relate to the sensory environment in which food preparation and consumption take place. They are also shared experiences, as the way we filter and understand what we cook depends on cultural and social frameworks, on relationships and personal connections (these are not always positives ones, of course, when learning how to cook is an imposition or a taxing duty for which one gets no recognition). Every time I am in my mother’s kitchen, even when I am not cooking myself but just chatting while she or others cook, I can’t help observing what’s in the pots and whether the dishes smell right. I am always happy to volunteer myself to taste anything. Over time, I have become able to embrace the same open attitude and to absorb embodied knowledge regardless who I cook with – friends, professional chefs, or just people in whose kitchen I happen to be. And I keep on learning, especially when I travel. I doubt I will ever stop.

For more on Fabio’s work, see: https://fabioparasecoli.com/blog/