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

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? Julia Fine will explore the ways in which the general public contributed to and engaged with the Folger’s First Chefs exhibition. Michael Walkden will discuss early modern European ideas about mushrooms: edible or poisonous? Nutritive and tasty, or actually the “excrements of the earth?”  And first up, below: Elisa Tersigni shares her work on caffeine in the early modern world.

-The RP Editors
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Not Shakespeare’s cup of tea: Consuming caffeine in early modern England

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In Shakespeare’s plays, we find scenes that take place in taverns and alehouses – but no coffee shops – and characters who drink ale and wine – but not what we now think of as the quintessential English beverage: tea. While Falstaff spends much of Henry IV, Part 1 calling for another cup of sack (a popular Spanish white wine in the period), never does he call for a cup of coffee. That’s because alcohol was a daily component of early English diets, but caffeine was almost certainly not introduced to England until after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were among the many new foodstuffs introduced to English diets over the seventeenth century thanks to expanding global commerce. The English approached these new victuals both with great interest and with great apprehension. There were many—sometimes conflicting—theories about food, but consumption of foreign products was generally discouraged, in part because it was thought that local foods were best suited to people’s constitutions, and in part because of a concern about contamination by foreign elements. Chocolate, coffee, and tea attracted particular attention not only because they tasted good but also because their stimulating qualities were unusual to those immersed in a food culture historically reliant on the consumption of alcohol.

Henry Stubbe’s The Indian nectar, or A discourse concerning chocolate (London, 1662, call number: S6049) was one of the first English-language texts to describe chocolate, including its preparation, by stirring hot water and cocoa in a cup using a whisk called a “molinillo.”
Henry Stubbe’s The Indian nectar, or A discourse concerning chocolate (London, 1662, call number: S6049) was one of the first English-language texts to describe chocolate, including its preparation, by stirring hot water and cocoa in a cup using a whisk called a “molinillo.”

 

England was introduced to chocolate by James Wadsworth, who in 1640 translated a popular Spanish text, A curious treatise of the nature and quality of chocolate. In seventeenth-century Spain, chocolate was served as a drink that was foamy, spicy, bitter, and often mixed with additional spices, such as cinnamon, and lots of sugar; this is the recipe that Wadsworth prescribes for the readers of his text. Although chocolate eventually became incredibly popular, it was not immediately appreciated. In fact, at least one contemporary reports that, before Wadsworth’s text, English pirates even threw away the incredibly expensive cacao pods they stole from a Spanish ship, because they mistook them for sheep dung.

Of the three new caffeinated drinks, Europeans were the most ambivalent about chocolate, because it was so mysterious. It was unclear whether chocolate was a food or a drug, and if it wasn’t a drug, whether it was a food or a drink (a distinction that would determine whether it was acceptable to consume during periods of religious fasting). It was also unclear how chocolate fit into humoral theory, which was a dominant theory of health and diet: Was chocolate meant to be drunk after being heated, and therefore hot and wet? Was it meant to contain spices and be eaten solid, and therefore hot and dry? Its ambiguous nature made it suspect, and it was hotly debated in pamphlets.

Want to learn more about caffeine in Shakespeare’s world? Read the rest of Elisa’s post at Shakespeare & Beyond: https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2019/10/18/consuming-caffeine-early-modern-england-coffee-chocolate-tea/#coffee