Shakespeare and cooking

This video from Britain is called Mistress Quickly and Sir John Falstaff, Act 2 scene 2 of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

By Steve McGiffen in Britain:

The Shakespeare Cookbook

by Andrew Daulby and Maureen Dalby

Friday 14 September 2012

As Terry Eagleton pointed out in a recent article in the London Review of Books, Ireland may be the only country in the world that has a special day to commemorate a fictional character – Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

As Eagleton almost suggests, if Ireland can do it, why can’t we?

The obvious choice would be Sir John Falstaff, who appears in a number of Shakespeare‘s plays. Falstaff was so popular with Elisabethan audiences that Shakespeare even rewrote the comedy The Merry Wives Of Windsor to include him.

This is despite the fact that he is a thief, a braggart and quite possibly a murderer who is described in Henry IV, part 1 as “that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with pudding in his belly.”

His character seemed to appeal to the people of 16th and early 17th-century London in much the same way as it appeals to us, putting us in touch with their lives and feelings in a way which is both powerful and moving.

Knowing what Sir John got fat on has a similar effect. Though it was hardly the fat knight’s kind of fare, I get a strange thrill from reading that back then people liked to breakfast on eggs, bread and butter – exactly what I tuck into almost every morning myself, more than 400 years on.

This is not the only reason to get your own copy of The Shakespeare Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and Maureen Dalby.

Though it is probably one of those volumes destined to be bought as a gift more than for personal use, it will definitely – unlike many such books – be read and read again and its recipes used.

As well as being simply an enjoyable read, it works both as a source of some very palatable historical information and a decent collection of recipes in its own right.

Elisabethan London was a fascinating city of immense historical importance. It was the period in which, following her father Henry VIII’s victory in his power struggle with the Catholic church, Elisabeth set about constructing a recognisably modern state.

So Shakespeare was the chronicler – although in almost all cases he disguised this in “historical” or fantastical settings – of a time in which momentous changes were taking place. London, the capital city of one of Europe’s most powerful nations, was a lively and prosperous place, though of course this prosperity was extremely unevenly shared.

The empire was scarcely in its infancy but London’s arms were long. Among the things they grasped and brought home were foodstuffs from all over the British Isles, Europe and the entire known world. Sweet potatoes and spices such as cinnamon and caraway were highly valued by those who could afford them.

Coupled with an explosion of culinary ideas was a rapidly-developing book trade. While the vast majority of Londoners were both illiterate and very poor, enough were not to enable what The Shakespeare Cookbook calls “a flowering” in the English book trade.

The upshot was that new recipes were being constantly created and cooking methods developed and through the printed word these spread amongst the better-off and their kitchen servants.

Though it took the tin ear of our own age to invent the revolting word “foodie,” this is the period in which the species itself began to evolve.

This is itself a nice parallel to Shakespeare. What tends to be emphasised by our individualist culture is his “genius,” and I would be the last to deny the extraordinary abilities the man possessed.

Yet equally important was the culture which surrounded him. While the Elisabethan poor may have been illiterate, they do not seem to have been inarticulate.

Punning, riddling and other forms of word-play and jest were the general entertainment of the streets. “Geniuses” tend to grow from a mass culture which values what they do. If Elisabethan London had not loved words, there would have been no Shakespeare.

The book’s recipes can be a little heavy on foods now seen as unhealthy in excess, such as cream and fatty meat. This is partly because of developments in knowledge but it also reflects the different times.

Even the better-off might have what we would consider a fairly frugal diet most of the time, so that the richer foods found in this book would largely have been for special occasions approved by the Church for feasting.

There are also a number of vegetarian recipes, perhaps because the feasts were matched by fasts, when meat and fats were forbidden.

Many of the foods and even some of the recipes will be familiar, especially as the authors have “translated” a lot of the latter, using not only modern spelling and terminology but also equivalent ingredients. When all else fails they give a modern dish which is sufficiently similar to the one which Shakespeare may have eaten.

Most of the ingredients, even in the originals, will be familiar enough. You may not have eaten a capon or pike, though I had both as a child on the almost rural fringe of Manchester half a century ago. Medlars and quinces have also fallen out of favour while even back then eating swans, though known, was considered bad form.

In the weeks to come the Star‘s Commie Chef column will present a couple of these recipes. In the meantime, below left is one of my favourites, simple as you like. And you can also win a copy of the book by entering the competition below.

The Shakespeare Cookbook by Andrew Daulby and Maureen Dalby is published by The British Museum Press, price £10.99

Winter pears poached in cider

– 4 cooking pears (or any pears as long as they’re still good and hard)
– 400 mls/14 fl.oz sweet cider
– 4 cloves or a piece of a cinnamon stick (about 3cm, or just over an inch)

You might not be able to buy “cooking pears” if you don’t have your own tree, so I’ve suggested an alternative.

The book also states simply “cider,” but I’d say sweet is best.

Peel, core and halve the pears.

Put them in a saucepan with the other ingredients.

Cover and poach gently for 40 minutes or until the pears are tender.

Remove the spice and serve hot or cold, with cream.


Courtesy of the British Museum we’ve got two copies of The Shakespeare Cookbook to give away as prizes in our competition. All you have to do is send your favourite recipe, which may be featured in a future edition of Commie Chef if it wins, to or by post to: The Shakespeare Cookbook Competition, Arts Desk, Morning Star, 52 Beachy Road, London E3 2NS.

3 thoughts on “Shakespeare and cooking

  1. Pingback: Medieval Iraqi joke book discovery | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: New Shakespeare discovery | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: Did William Shakespeare smoke marihuana? | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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