Rennaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook
By Francine Segan

Shakespeare is a fundamental part of our American culture and we Americans have long had a fascination with his life and works. We quote him daily often without knowing it. "By the book," "the be all and end all," "seen better days," "for goodness sake," "budge an inch," and "eaten me out of house and home" are all Shakespeare's words. His plays are produced more than those of any other writer in history. Hollywood has created hundreds of movies inspired by him and countless theaters across America bring Shakespeare's plays to the stage each year.

America shares a culinary history with many nations, but foremost is England. The Pilgrims who arrived at Plymouth Rock were Shakespeare's contemporaries and they brought with them their cookbooks from England. In those early years there was no time for culinary innovation so settlers adapted the recipes as best they could to the indigenous foods found in their new world.

It is from the English that we inherit much of what we now think of as "American" food. Apple pie, stuffed turkey, and even gingerbread houses all originate from England. The roots of American cooking are to be found in Shakespeare's England. It is impossible to turn back the clock and prepare dishes precisely as they were in the 16th and 17th century. Spices, meat, fish, and vegetables have altered over the years with improved cultivation and scientific intervention. Cooking techniques have also changed considerably since Shakespeare's time. We no longer boil in cauldrons suspended from cranes over a hearth or bake in iron boxes and brick ovens. However, it is possible to achieve a fairly close approximation of the foods eaten 400 years ago by taking Shakespeare's advice to "piece out our imperfections with your thoughts" (King Henry V).

The cookbooks published during the late 1500s and early 1600s provide a fascinating window into Shakespeare's world. They show not only how people cooked and ate, but also how they wrote and organized their thoughts. For example, Elizabethan recipes were written as running text and did not include the details we are used to seeing in modern cookbooks, such as recipe titles and ingredient lists. Similarly, Shakespeare's plays were also originally written and published without the numbered acts and scenes we are so accustomed to today.

In those days, cookbook authors assumed that the chef knew the proper proportions of ingredients, so quantities were rarely specified. "As your eye shall advise you" or "as your cook's mouth shall serve him" was as specific as they got. When quantities were mentioned it was with colorful and sometimes vague references such as, "four penny worth of Saffron," "little cakes as broad as a shilling," and "cut as thick as a half crown piece."

There were no cooking thermometers for measurements more precise than "beware you burn it not" and "sufficiently bak't." Clocks and timepieces, expensive in Shakespeare's day, were rarely found in kitchens so that cooking times were either not expressed or given in other terms such as "you will know it is cooked when it sticks to the spoon" or as an Italian cookbook of the period notes, "cook for no more than two Our Fathers."

In Shakespeare's Kitchen, the original text is included for many recipes with spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation left intact. Spelling was not yet standardized in Shakespeare's day so you may find the same word spelled different ways even within the same recipe. Pie may be "pye," flour "flower," and raisins anything from, " "raysons" to "raisyns."

Some instructions sound amusing to our modern ears, for example, "Thrust your Knife into the flesh of your Legge down as deep, as your finger is long."

Charming phrases in these old recipes include:

"Brush off the golde with the foot of an hare or conie." Gold was commonly used in cooking and a rabbit's foot often served as a basting brush.

"Eggs in Moon Shine." Moonshine was a fanciful term for the white sauce in this dish and had nothing to do with liquor, home-brewed or otherwise.

"Put in a little piece of butter as much as a walnut," "as much white salt as will into an Egshell," "make the balls as big as nutmeg or musket bullet," or as "big as a tennis ball" are all terms used by the Elizabethans to describe quantities by reference to familiar objects.

Although I have taken recipes from many different 16th and 17th Century cookbooks, I do have a few favorite authors. I borrowed heavily from Robert May's, The Accomplish't Cook, in part because his is by far the largest cookbook of the era with 1,300 recipes, but also because he is clearly a cook's cook, a professional chef, unlike other authors, who were writers first and cookbook writers only second. Robert May was a professional full-time chef to the nobility who began his cooking apprenticeship at age 12 with his father, also a career chef.

Robert May wrote his first and only cookbook in 1660 at age 70. His recipes span several decades of culinary history, back to Shakespeare's day and even to the Middle Ages style of dining and food preparation. Robert May speaks lovingly of the by-gone era of elaborate preparations for noblemen's special feasts "before good House-keeping had left England."

Most chapters in Shakespeare's Kitchen showcase a particular Elizabethan cookbook writer. In the Basics Chapter, you will meet cookbook author, poet, and inventor, Sir Hugh Platt who was knighted by King James I for his innovations in agriculture. In the Dessert Chapter you'll get to know Ms. Sarah Longe who shares recipes enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth and King James and in the Appetizer Chapter you will meet Gervase Markham whose 1615 cookbook begins: "eating and drinking are a very pretty invention." Allow me to introduce you to these wonderful Elizabethan cooks, their recipes, and the foods and dining customs of 16th and 17th Century Europe as we journey back to Shakespeare's England and back to our own culinary roots.

Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?
As You Like It

©2013 Francine Segan.
All rights reserved.