All posts by jenshermanroberts

I hold a Ph.D. in Early Modern (Renaissance) literature and spent a fair amount of time studying the history of science and medicine. I’m now writing a novel loosely based on the life of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, a 17th-century writer, natural philosopher, and poet. I am also the mother of two daughters, partner of a family practice doctor, writing teacher, board member of a nonprofit library, and caretaker of one very freaky greyhound dog.

Of Hedgehogs, Whale Vomit, and Fire-Breathing Peacocks

rotfling hedgehogs
Hedgehogs from a 13th-century bestiary. British Library, Royal 12 F XIII, fol. 45r. Found on the “Discarded Image” Tumblr

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

I told my children we were making hedgehog pudding for Halloween.

They were horrified.

So was I when I read the title of an entry in the recipe book of Lady Ann Fanshawe (1625-1680), “To make a Hedg-hogg.” (I’ll admit to some hypocrisy in this. Why it would be more viscerally disgusting to eat a hedgehog than, say, a pig has to do with mere custom and perceived adorableness. That and the question of what to do with the sharp, prickly bits.)

The kids were relieved, as was I, to learn that the hedgehog in question was made up of only a few ingredients, and hedgehog wasn’t among them:

To make a Hedg-hogg

Take 3 pints of sweet creame, and boile in it some Nutmegg and Mace and when it boiles put in being very well beaten five Eggs white and all, and so stir it and let it boile and when it is turned to curds and whey poore it into a strainer and so hang in up to drayne for 6 or 8 houres when the whay is runne all out take halfe a pound of Almonds blanched and very finely beaten with Rosewater and temper them with the curd and sweeten it well with Sugar, and put some Rosewater and Ambergreice into it and soe make it up in the fashion of a Hedghogg and put in two Currants for the eyes and stick all Almonds all over the back of it, and put it into a dish and into the dish put white wine & Sugar or raw Creame and serve it to the table. (303)

This hedgehog, then, is not just food: it’s food art. It’s also an excellent example of the early modern period’s preoccupation with making food look like something it’s not, turning the gustatory experience into a visual pun or trick–nourishment for the eyes as well as the palate. Ken Albala, writing about the banquet in Europe between 1520 and 1660, discusses this predilection for spectacle: “a meal [was] a form of theater . . . replete with an audience, stage sets, props, and interludes.” He goes on to note that “if abundance and variety itself could no longer impress, then culinary virtuosity, wit, and allusion take their place” (12).

As the wife of Sir Richard Fanshawe (1608-66), ambassador to Madrid, Lady Anne Fanshawe’s table would have been such a place of political theater, a stage for displaying power, wealth, position, and intention.

An examination of the rest of Fanshawe’s recipe book, however, finds that the entries tend more to the useful, practical, and every day. In this, it is an example of the growing popularity of cookbooks for women in this period. Sara Mueller notes that “prior to the late sixteenth century, elaborate banquets . . . were prepared by professional male chefs for royal, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical households. However, beginning in the late sixteenth century and continuing throughout the seventeenth century, cookery books featuring banqueting receipts began to be published on a large scale” (107).

Lady Ann Fanshawe’s recipe collection was not published; rather, like other early modern receipt books, it was a highly personal and eclectic assortment of instructions for things as diverse as making laudanum, concocting a powder to aid in miscarriage, and stewing a lamb’s head.

But like those banqueting recipes in the published cookbooks, the inclusion of this recipe points to a common theme in early modern aesthetics: the interplay of art and nature. In this case, that intimate connection is implicit in the cooking process: like other fields of artistry, raw materials are transformed by skill, by techne. Mueller provides an extraordinary example of this preoccupation with culinary transformation that highlights the maker’s artistry:

After giving a detailed receipt for cooking a peacock that will look even more striking dead than it did alive—a feat achieved by carefully killing the bird, removing the flesh from the still-feathered skin, roasting the flesh, and then sewing the cooked flesh back into the raw skin—the English translation of Giovanne de Rosselli’s receipt book, Epulario, or The Italian Banquet, published in England in 1598, gives instructions on how to make the dish even more spectacular: ‘If you will have the Peacoke cast fire at the mouth, take an ounce of Camphora wrapped about with Cotton, and put it on the Peacockes bill with a little Aquanity, or very strong wine, and when you will send it to the table, set fire to the Cotton, and he will cast ore a good while after. And to make a greater shew, when the Peacoke is rested, you may gild it with leafe gold, and put the skin upon the same gold, which may be spiced very sweet.'(106)

Lady Fanshawe’s homey little hedgehog pudding was not intended to compete with the grandeur of the transformed (and reformed) peacock described here, but as disparate as they are, the two dishes share an emphasis on transfiguration and display.

As for our little hedgehog pudding, the kids and I agreed that we would leave out the ambergris. None of us wanted to hunt down a source for expensive whale vomit, which in any case is for the best. I’ve since learned that it’s illegal to possess ambergris in the United States. I bought some rosewater at a local Lebanese restaurant/store, and I cooked up the curds and whey while the kids were at school. Our final creation was a bit squat, a bit formless, but identifiable as a hedgehog. It tasted sweet, the rosewater a faint scent that I imagine would have been overdone by the distinctive, earthy ambergris. Overall, it was a conditional success… It worked, but I wouldn’t do it again.

Here’s the homely, humble little hedgehog we made. He’s a bit formless, but he made up for it with very yummy prickles.

I do not think we’ll be attempting the gold-leafed, fire-breathing peacock for Thanksgiving. Turkey will do, thank you very much.