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.

Harvesting Earth: Where Sustainability and Recipes Meet

By Jennifer Munroe

SoilFrom https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-public/dirt-not-soil

Dirt. Soil. These terms seem synonymous, but as a 2008 exhibit at the Smithsonian attests, they are far from the same thing. In fact, some would say (and I am one of them) that the vocabulary we use to describe the growing medium, the material beneath our feet, expresses our orientation to it. To call that thing “dirt” is to denigrate it, at least implicitly, as illustrated by the way we so often respond when a piece of food falls on the ground–“It’s dirty,” we say, unfit for consumption, and then we discard it. To call that thing “soil” gives it a purpose, assigns it value in the general context of using it–to grow food and other plants–which also values that particular relationship between humans and nonhumans.

And so, in the context of thinking about how vocabulary matters, I come to a recipe from the Lady Frances Catchmay book with an eye toward soil. Or rather, “earth.” It is “A good Receypte to make metheglin,” about a third of the way through the book. In it, the person preparing the drink, “gather[s] around Michelmas or Lammas” an assortment of herbs: fumitory, fennel, rosemary, hyssop, chamomile, thyme, marigolds, ribwort, parsley, selfheal, and others. And then we get the following instruction: “When you haue gathered thes hearbs and roots, make them very cleane that no earth be lefte vpon them” (f.28r). To use the term “earth” begs a different way of thinking about the relationship between human and nonhuman things here. This recipe expresses an intimacy between the woman who gathers, slices, boils the plants–articulated, for instance, in the reminder to “haue care to slitt the ffenell roots and take out the harts stringe which groweth in the middest”–in water, over fire whose temperature she aims to regulate during the process. But what does it mean that she would remove the earth from the herbs, clean them so that “no earth be left vpon them”? Is this a disavowal of the unity of plant and earth, between the material growing and material grown? Or does the touching of earth by water and human hands, even if to remove it, simply express a different aspect of this intimacy?

This recipe, like so many others, articulates points of contact between human and nonhuman that are key to thinking about sustainability. If we understand this contact only insofar as it allows for separation–the slicing to sever leaf from stem of herb, the cleaning to remove earth–then perhaps we are simply reproducing the same distinction of dirt and soil with which I began this post. That is, to see dirt as that thing that is necessarily not part of “us,” of that which is separate from the human world; it would presume that nonhuman things are inherently not “human.” Removing earth from plant might seem to evoke this to be sure. But to have “no earth left vpon them” is only possible by way of the tactile contact between human and nonhuman; and perhaps it suggests that “earth” is not gone but rather just part of another (or multiple) thing/s and that it is intrinsically linked with the human? If the cleaning process uses water, then the “earth” is mingled with water; or if the cleaning amounts to brushing the earth from plant with the hand, then hand and earth mix, earth falls perhaps back to, well, earth. What if, that is, the process of cleaning and removing earth, as described here, details not a distancing of human and nonhuman thing but rather an ever-intimate reciprocal relationship that is bound by circular comings and goings and not teleological notions of here and gone? After all, that same earth will be the medium from which the woman harvests new herbs in the future, the surface upon which she walks to locate the herbs and do said gathering, as she repeats this and other recipes in the course of her domestic labor. And so, to understand “earth” in this recipe as we do “dirt” today seems at odds with the task the early modern woman would have undertaken. Rather, it seems that this recipe, its evocation of “earth,” suggests instead a process of something more akin to what we would think of as a sustainable and perpetual return of material to material, of intimate connections between human and nonhuman, whether that nonhuman thing is plant, element (fire, water), or “earth.”

Note: Transcription credit for this recipe goes to Kailan Sindelar.