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

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: Julia Fine explores the ways in which the general public contributed to and engaged with the Folger’s First Chefs exhibition.

-The RP Editors
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Food culture and First Chefs: Appreciating the layers of meaning behind food in Shakespeare’s world and our own

By 

In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio grabs a leg of roast mutton and throws it to the ground. Doing so, he exclaims, “it engenders choler, planteth anger,/ And better ‘twere that both of us did fast.” As food anthropologist Leigh Chavez-Bush writes of this statement in Atlas Obscura, this line was not a throwaway. Rather, “eating the right foods in the proper quantities, 16th-century Britons believed, balanced mind and soul.” Here, Petruchio is invoking this idea of balance, referring to the notion that food could imbalance the humors which were thought to impact the body. In Shakespeare’s plays, then, “roasts, ales, and pies are not props, but clues to characters’ souls, moods, and motivations.”

Whether we look to Shakespeare’s world or ours today, food represents something more than mere sustenance. Food is instead a universal ritual, one in which everyone takes part. Thus, food and eating, according to Sidney Mintz in his pathbreaking work Sweetness and Power, act as “foci of habit, taste, and deep feeling,” across different cultures and times. In this sense, eating is about more than just nutrition; food evokes the feelings, memories, and stories baked into each bite.

The Folger’s First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas exhibition, which ran from January through March of 2019, demonstrated the different functions that food served in the early modern British Atlantic world. The exhibition shared the stories of several First Chefs, people like Hannah Woolley, the first English-language woman food writer, and Hercules, a chef enslaved by George and Martha Washington. After encountering these stories, visitors were invited to reflect on their own experiences with food in a special area of the exhibition devoted to food and memory, and many wrote down their favorite food reminiscences, recipes, and stories.

The textual and culinary delights that guests shared with us spanned time and space. We received recipes in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Mongolian, written by children and grandparents alike. Some detailed how food shaped their lives, acting as a catalyst to immigrate to America; others discussed yearly rituals surrounding food that united their families. Some people left recipes for cookies passed down for generations; others detailed the joy of opening a box of Kraft mac and cheese.

Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

To give you a taste, here are some of our favorite food memories shared at the First Chefs exhibition. As you read, we ask that you reflect on what stories, beliefs, and histories are encoded within these texts. What does food tell you about people’s lives and cultures? What information can you glean even from the most straight-forward of recipes?

Want to learn more about our visitors and their responses to First Chefs? Read the rest of Julia’s post at Shakespeare & Beyond: https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2019/11/01/food-memories-culture-first-chefs/#food-memories