Shakespeare's Kitchen with Francine Segan

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 79

No oven dials, no electric gadgets. The kitchens of Shakespeare’s time looked very different from our kitchens today, and that’s not all that has changed when it comes to habits of diet, food preparation, and especially, the way food is served. 
Our guest on this episode is a noted food historian. Francine Segan is the James Beard-nominated author of six books, including Shakespeare’s Kitchen (2003), and she’s an expert on how and what the Elizabethans ate. 
Savory pies were very popular in Shakespeare’s time, and in this episode, Segan leads listeners through a recipe for a salmon pie from the 1600s. She is interviewed by Neva Grant.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published August 8, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, What Say You To A Piece Of Beef and Mustard? was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: This isn't a commercial, but we have a gift shop here at the Folger Shakespeare Library in the front near our exhibition space. You'll find a lot of things there that you'd expect. There are copies of the plays, coffee mugs with famous quotes, a Shakespeare bobble head, but you know what sells really, really surprisingly well at the Shakespeare gift shop? Cook books.


From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. It actually makes sense when you think about it that we sell a lot of cookbooks here. There's so much that's different between Shakespeare’s world and our own, but something that humans have had to do for as long as we've been on earth is cook and eat food.

The habits of diet, food preparation, and especially the way food is served can give us a real window into a time long ago, a window that anecdotal evidence suggests people are clearly interested in opening. So, in this podcast we're going to take a look at how and what the Elizabethans ate.

Francine Segan is a noted food historian. She's also a James Beard-nominated author of six books. We thought it would be fun and enlightening to get together with her in her kitchen to learn what people in Shakespeare’s time ate, how they prepared it, and how they served it. We call this podcast What Say You to a Piece of Beef and Mustard? Francine is interviewed by Neva Grant. [MUSIC]

NEVA GRANT: So, we're standing here in your very modern American kitchen in New York City, and it's fun to just look around, and see all of the appliances and all the other conveniences that a typical Elizabethan chef just would not have had at their disposal.

FRANCINE SEGAN: Definitely, there are the obvious things, like there certainly wouldn’t be a microwave. There were also no kitchen clocks. See the wonderful dial on my stove, no dials. There were charming instructions in recipes of how to kind of gauge how hot you should make the oven like, put your hand in the oven and keep it there for as long as it takes to say two “Our Father”s, the Lord’s Prayer, but then there are some non-electric devices that we have in the kitchen.

A whisk? Nah. Even though they could've made this, they didn’t bother. There were instructions on how you could create one with just a bundle of twigs that you’ve tied together. In fact, I love a lot of the things that you can learn from looking at these old cookbooks. Like, little tricks, because you do not have to have every appliance and gadget in the universe to cook a fantastic meal. You can put two forks together back to back, and other really simple things that are substitutes, like, a pastry brush. When it says brush some butter over a pastry crust, they would use a feather.

GRANT: And you have a feather sitting right here on the counter top. Do you have other things like that in the kitchen that they would have used instead of the more modern utensils we have today?

SEGAN: Yes, because I am not a big gadget girl, and I love collecting old kitchen utensils when I go to flea markets, and so I've got lots of stuff. I have a bunch of very old devices for making pasta, things that are pretty hard to find today, but that they would have had. And we know that from looking at a page in a cookbook that showed how to set up a kitchen.

GRANT: They would have made pasta in the England of Shakespeare's time?

SEGAN: Yes, in fact when I was researching Shakespeare’s Kitchen I gave myself liberty. The rule was I would use any cookbooks that were available in England during his lifetime, and I was astonished at how many had been translated. Portuguese books, French, Spanish, Italian, lots of Italian ones, so yes, lots of instructions for making all sorts of milled pasta and fresh pasta.

GRANT: Right, we should mention, we are looking here at a copy of an engraving, probably from the 1600s, I would say, that's showing us a kitchen, and there are cauldrons, and pots and pans, and things hanging on the wall. There's of course, a big hearth on one wall, and…

SEGAN: And it has a table. We’re showing actually pasta being made, and you can see this ravioli cutter which is very familiar to us today that's right there, and a rolling pin that's just a piece of wood.

GRANT: And we should also mention that while this kitchen looks fairly rudimentary, it's a pretty good-sized room. So, I'm assuming this is something that you would see in a very wealthy person’s home, if not a castle.

SEGAN: Excellent point, this is a nobleman’s home. After all, one of the things to remember is that literacy was very low, and not everyone could read. So, cookbooks were intended for bigger estates, for the head chef, for the wealthy, and only those people would need the recipe so that they could make all kinds of different dishes. The common man, the expression back then was, when you're poor you ate “what you could, when you could.” When you were rich you ate “whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted.”

GRANT: Okay, so what are we making today?

SEGAN: One of the most interesting dishes that you see recurring in Shakespeare’s time are pies, savory pies. They used to be fanciful. They would be in the shape of the food that was inside. If it was a crab pie they would even have the claws poking out of the crust. The idea was when this was brought out it would get “Oohs” and “Aahs.” And so, I thought I would make a little modest version. We'll make a salmon pie.

GRANT: And, before we go any further, I'm thinking, salmon, it's clearly something they would have had. I'm just thinking, would it have swum in the Thames? Would they have gotten it from the North? But, obviously they had it because there's recipes for it.

SEGAN: It's very interesting that you mention fish, because England is an island nation, and it was extremely important that they maintained their Navy, and their strength. And so, the government during Shakespeare’s time, Queen Elizabeth, made laws for fish days, days that you had to eat fish as a way to give sailors income so that in case there was a battle they'd be ready. And so, there were lots of fish dishes, and I thought we would start by peeking at some pictures.

This is one with a book that shows a very simple illustration of how to make a crust in the shape of a lobster for a lobster pie, but I'm not that artistic. So, we're gonna take our salmon, and make it into a cartoony shape, just a traditional shape. And all you have to do is take pie crust, make it into a little rectangle shape, and then we're going to follow the recipe that was popular during Shakespeare’s time.

GRANT: Where does this recipe come from, and how old is it?

SEGAN: This recipe is from a book called The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, which was written in the early 1600s, but it is a very common recipe that you see repeated, and the reason I picked it was because when I first read it I thought it was going to be so bizarre that it would actually be disgusting, and yet when I baked together all of these bizarre ingredients it was fabulous.

GRANT: And Robert May, was he sort of like a famous chef of his day?

SEGAN: Well, we didn’t have the celebrity chef so much back then, but he wrote the book, because he talked about his history. From the time that he was a very small child his father was a chef, and he worked in great houses. And so, he wrote this book when he was almost ready to retire as a way to remember all of the wonderful recipes that he had been taught, and cooked for the nobles, but again, what I think is so delightful is in his book, in many, many other books of that time period, there were chapter after chapter of pies, and the lengths that they went to decorate them and the fillings were amazing, including pies that were not intended to be eaten. So, you know the nursery rhyme, “Four and twenty blackbirds”?

GRANT: Yeah.

SEGAN: It was a recipe. It was an instruction in a chapter called “Conceits.” Things that were to be whimsical that you would serve at the table. And so, the instructions to the chef were to make a pie crust, bake it blind—bake it with nothing in it—then put live birds into the pie, cover it with a top crust, send it to the table with a dull knife so that when the guest of honor cuts into it the birds will be released and fly through the room to everyone’s surprise and delight.

GRANT: Wow, so the pie must have been on some kind of barrel or cage or something like that. So, it was deep. It was a deep pie.

SEGAN: Oh no, they made big, deep pies.

GRANT: Right, they weren't all stuffed in there.

SEGAN: And I loved the instructions in the recipe that I read on this conceit of how to make it, and it said, if you're having trouble tethering the birds, don’t worry, you can do this with frogs or garden snakes, too.

GRANT: Right, very helpful. Okay, so should we get going?

SEGAN: I'm going to take… absolutely, very simple, we'll take a pie crust that—full disclosure—I bought, and…

GRANT: It's flattened out. It's already been rolled out, very, very flat.

SEGAN: Not traditional, and then I take my filet, and I figure out which would be the longest way to put it down, and then I'll cut it so that it fits over into that pie.

GRANT: So, this is a fairly thin, fresh salmon filet that you're now cutting into maybe, I don’t know, thirds.

SEGAN: Six inches, and then, following the instructions, I'm going to put, on the base of the pie crust, you can put mushrooms, you can put artichoke hearts. Those were all common ingredients that would have gone as the base. And then…

GRANT: What are you putting…?

SEGAN: I decided to put sliced mushrooms. Then I put the filet on top of it, and then I put a little pepper as per the instructions, and some salt, and there were lots of interesting spices that you'll find in recipes of Shakespeare’s time. There were other things besides just pepper, like long pepper, which looks kind of like a really skinny pine cone, but it's called long pepper. Not in the pepper family, but it has that spicy, aromatic flavor. There were cubeb, these little tiny balls that look like all spice, but have a tiny tail.

Again, very aromatic grains of paradise, all in that kind of peppery, spicy category that are readily available today online and in shops, but that we seem to not use as much as I think we should. So then, the instructions after salt and pepper on top of it were to scatter it with asparagus tips that you just cut up.

GRANT: Let's talk about those asparagus that you just put on the fish, because they have a special significance in Shakespeare’s time.

SEGAN: Yes, asparagus were considered especially for increasing what they call euphemistically “seed” in man and woman. They felt that it was an aphrodisiac, and there were many foods that they thought were aphrodisiacs, and they had specific recipes, kind of a recipe for a Viagra, which was these special combinations. For example, there’s something called courage tart, a pie, a sweet pie that had, in that day, all of the aphrodisiacs: sweet potatoes, wine, dates, sparrow brains… Why sparrow brains? Because sparrow was the pet of Aphrodite.

GRANT: It’s funny to think of how this all came about. Like, how did they test that? I mean, you know, I guess people ate asparagus, and interesting things happened, or you know, the results were promising.

SEGAN: Well, back then, they had a whole philosophy about what they thought were aphrodisiacs, and one was that if it looks like the body part that’s to be adjusted it could be an aphrodisiac. Now, mussels, sort of adds more flavor, but now we've got, it is to be topped with pistachios. So, I've chopped pistachios, and grapes. So, fruit and fish. That's kind of surprising. I didn’t expect that there would be so much fruit used in recipes, and that was one of the delightful things that I discovered of the books in Shakespeare’s time.

GRANT: Can I just pause you here, I just wanna describe this, 'cause this looks pretty unruly at this point. You’ve got a rolled out, very flat pie dough, and onto it you’ve got, you know, this filet, which now we can barely see it, because it's just sort of covered in a very kind of, I guess untidy way with everything you’ve just described. You’ve got the mushrooms, the pistachios, the grapes, and it's a pile that really, you could've done this with a five year old, and it would look just like this. In other words, this isn't…

SEGAN: Wait, did you insult my cooking ability?

GRANT: No, I'm simply saying, this is not a fancy sort of multi-stepped process in the sense that you just take a bunch of cool stuff, and you put it on the fish.

SEGAN: I mean, the truth is, I am not a professional cook. What I was intrigued with is food history, the story, and so, it may be very well that I gravitated to the things that were easiest, and the things that attracted my attention. So, what attracted me to this is, yes, the simplicity, and to the unique combination of ingredients. I was really intrigued to see how this would taste when it was all together. These recipes were very well thought out for balance, and the idea of fruit, and a protein, fruit and fish, or fruit and meat is very rooted in health for the Elizabethans.

They knew about the writings of the ancient Greeks, who talked about humors, who talked about balancing. We even see in Taming of the Shrew that there are many, many scenes that refer to the fact that Kate is volatile, and so, whoa, she shouldn’t have too much meat, a “hot” food, quote unquote. So, they believed that food should be served in balance to keep your humors in balance. For example, fruit, and meat, or fish was what they considered balanced, because fish or meat had lots of heat, and it was cooling to have the fruit.

Now, these words, “cool” and “hot” don’t refer to the temperature. It was kind of this arbitrary thing that was created to be…

GRANT: About more about your temperament, almost, right?

SEGAN: Exactly, your temperament, and then balancing your temperament with the food’s temperament, so that you always needed to stay in balance.

GRANT: I mean, and I guess this relates to the whole idea that food goes into your body. So, naturally it's going to affect what your body does, which of course, is something we believe even more strongly today in many ways.

SEGAN: You know, in fact, I think we need to look at some of these books in the time of Shakespeare because we run to a pharmacy to pick a pill to fix ourselves, but really there are many people that advocate looking at changing diet as a way to help your health.

GRANT: All right, so what happens next? Back to the pie. What happens next?

SEGAN: So, we just cover it with another sheet, and…

GRANT: Of dough?

SEGAN: Of dough, and then fit it over. So, it's really actually very simple. And then I'm just pressing it down, and now with my hands I'm gonna make that cartoon shape of a fish, and I'm gonna just take all the extra ends of it, and roll it up so I don’t waste anything, and I can use whatever’s left over for forming a kind of a tail shape, and can, you know, put a grape later for an eye, but the idea is here we've got a very quickly a little cartoon-looking wonderful salmon.

GRANT: So, you’ve just really in just no more than a minute or two, you have turned this dough like blob into something that really does now resemble a fish. We've got a tail forming out of the dough. You’ve taken the grapefruit spoon to make sort of a tail like design in the top of the sheet of dough, and I see the shape of a fish, and you’ve just put an eye there, yeah.

SEGAN: Making an asparagus mouth.

GRANT: So, I'm thinking that back in Shakespeare’s time, again you’ve just done this in a minute or two, but there might've been a real artisan, you know, a food artisan, who would've come in to really make this thing look…

SEGAN: When you see some of these drawings they were really pastry artists. And yes, they could create such gorgeous things, and there were instructions on how to even make a dinner roll in the shape of a deer. They would create dough ships that they would set out into the center of the table that could then after the fanfare of announcing the feast beginning, they would even have little cannons made out of dough that they would put a bit of something to light them, and have little explosions going on.

GRANT: So, food was spectacle. I mean, it was a way to show off.

SEGAN: Show off, entertain. We have so many other distractions today, and ways to have fun, and entertain. They didn’t.

GRANT: Okay, and now it's ready to go in the oven.

SEGAN: Yup, and I, a good experienced chef from those days would have known how hot to make the oven. And in 40 minutes we will have salmon pie.

GRANT: When you say a chef would've known how hot to make the oven, we are talking about a literal fire, right, that would've had to have been made hotter or less hot depending on what was going in, and in a grand home, in one of these great homes that we're talking about, would that have been a clay oven? It couldn’t have been a hearth, because I can't imagine you would-I mean, you need something to put the food into, right?

SEGAN: Yeah, if you think of a pizza oven that a lot of people have in their backyards, there could be a brick or terracotta oven that was set up outside.

GRANT: And for a large banquet they would've needed to have maybe even dozens of these cabinets 'cause they're making tons of stuff.

SEGAN: Many, many, many, and also, they had another system that was very interesting back then. They had roving bakers. They had people that would go town to town for great banquets that needed additional ovens, and that would be their job. They would come, and they would be the bakers to assist you. So, you didn’t need to have all of these ovens that you had to create and store. Or, they would be itinerant oven bakers that would come to your town and bake bread.

GRANT: While you have been cooking here I've noticed that you have not consulted the recipe once. And it's obvious like any experienced cook you know this recipe like the back of your hand, and so you don’t need to look at measurements specifically, but back in those days what did cooks do, because it didn’t seem like they had very precise measurements either. They just kinda had to figure it out as they went along?

SEGAN: In some of these cookbooks you do see measurements, something that everybody could use as a reference. For this big of a piece of fish you could use half of an eggshell filled with salt, or put as much butter as the length of your thumb. The instructions for ingredients, when they needed to give it to you, if they felt that that was very important, because of course, they didn’t have measuring cups, and measuring spoons. That would have been something that would have come along much later, absolutely.

GRANT: Okay, so while we're waiting for the pie to come out of the oven maybe we can go into your living room, and sit down, and talk a little bit more about banquets, and things like that?

SEGAN: Absolutely. [MUSIC]

GRANT: So, here we are sitting in your living room, and I do want to ask you a little bit about how you pulled these recipes together, because of course, you spend what I guess a year or two compiling dozens of recipes from Shakespeare’s time, and going through recipe books, and all sort of things. So, how did you find these things? Where did you go to read them?

SEGAN: I went to libraries around the country. I started on microfilm, and the facsimiles that were available, but then in reading I learned that there were books that were handwritten, and so there was only one copy. And then, I applied to view them, and that was a fabulous learning experience.

GRANT: So, you're almost making it sound that there are many libraries across the United States where these books can be found. I can't imagine they're that commonly available, though.

SEGAN: There are many books that are on microfilm, and nowadays even some libraries have downloaded, so that you can look at the full book online.

GRANT: So, it seems like just sort of, very generally speaking there might have been two kinds of cookbooks in circulation back in Shakespeare’s time. One would have been something put together by a professional chef to share with maybe other professional chefs, who were cooking for banquets, and things like that, but then, it seems like there were also much less formal books, books that were handwritten, books that were meant to maybe, just stay within a family.

SEGAN: Yes, and that's one of the charming things to see. There were books that were handwritten. Printing was very expensive, and if you had your family recipes you might want to pass it down to your daughter when she married or your niece, and so you would hand write them, and that is another lovely window into the Elizabethan period, the lovely calligraphy, the feeling you got when you saw the personality of the writer through that, that just imparted, you could feel the emotion.

GRANT: It's incredible that these books were saved. If they were family books, I mean, it's probably something that was just pulled out of somebody’s attic at a certain point.

SEGAN: Absolutely, and lucky for us that they did.

GRANT: So, let's talk more about these banquets, and let's talk a little bit more about just what they were like, and the spectacle of them. And it seems like banquets back then weren't just about spectacle and fun, they were also about, sort of, reminding everybody in the social pecking order where they stood.

SEGAN: Absolutely, in fact it started as soon as you came into the hall. You would come into the great hall at the appointed time, and someone would greet you, escort you to this table, because your seating was determined by your hierarchy, and yes, if you were just a lowly, wealthy merchant instead of a nobleman you might be seated away from the salt. And so, the English have an expression, “below the salt,” meaning a person of inferior rank. That was because literally those guests were seated below where they could receive the salt in the salt shaker.

Or, they have another expression that comes from how you might be treated at a banquet, “the upper crust.” The upper crust refers to the fact that when they baked bread often the bottom would be burned. They didn’t have thermometers, and they would serve the bread sliced from the upper crust for the best guests. And in fact, there's reference to it in Henry IV where Falstaff and Prince Henry have an exchange, and they talk about bread chippers, because a bread chipper was an actual person in the kitchen who had to chip off the burned part, so they could serve all of the bread to the guests.

SEGAN: And it would also matter what food you were served, because where you were seated, salt, bread was different, but also even the dishes that were served. The trumpets would blare and they would come in waves. There was a first wave of oysters, little tiny meat balls in the shape of a pear with a little surprise of a grape that was inside. Then would come waves of bigger haunches of meat, and also, always served with side pies that could be fruit pies, vegetable pies.

The beautiful dishes would be paraded throughout the feasting hall. You'd get to see it, but you may not necessarily get that wonderful lobster pie, or that particular dish that had the very exotic ingredients. You might be given something else.

GRANT: And so, people actually had room for dessert?

SEGAN: Yes, because we are talking about hours. These feasts were daylong events. You would arrive at eleven or so in the morning. You needed to travel in daylight, and so you were there for the long haul. You'd have all these lovely courses, and in between the courses you'd have entertainments, jugglers, performers, so that by the time that dessert course was served you'd been there for five or six hours. So, yes, you could enjoy that as well.

GRANT: What was for dessert?

SEGAN: Dessert was a wonderful extravaganza including lots of the foods that were aphrodisiacs. They wanted to show the guests at the end, and leave them with the sweet memories, and also leave the impression of their wealth. So, they often had a lot of the spices that were expensive back then, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon. These were exotic spices brought from the spice routes, things that we use today at holiday times. A gingerbread house, very much an Elizabethan creation. Beautiful fruit pies, apple pie, our apple pie comes absolutely from the Elizabethan pages.

GRANT: So, should we be checking on the salmon?

SEGAN: Well, I have this very non-Elizabethan device. I did set my kitchen timer. However, in Shakespeare’s time experienced cooks would have relied on their noses.

GRANT: And I'm thinking, sometimes you probably literally had to put your hand into a stuffed bird, or at least, into the oven to kind of think, oh, does it seem hot enough? I mean, people must have had to check on things a lot.

SEGAN: Oh, absolutely. Just like cooks today, that there are lots of tricks that an experienced cook knows, even to touch meat to know when it's done. Absolutely.

GRANT: When you read Shakespeare plays, and you see his characters talking about food and often drink, do you feel now that you can really fully imagine what people back then really would've been having? It must really fill it out for you.

SEGAN: It was wonderful to reread Shakespeare, and to ask Shakespearean experts for their favorite quotes that had to do with food—herbs that were mentioned, meats, fish, even dining, there are so many delightful references. I've got hundreds listed, and it kind of gives a richness to when I see a Shakespeare play now to just kind of think back to that picture, you know, “neat’s hoof.” I know what that means now, and it's wonderful to look at them.

Like, even in Romeo and Juliet there's a line where it's, “let's pick up the tables so we can dance”, and that refers to the fact that in those days a table wasn’t a stationary piece of furniture when it was banquet time. It was a piece of wood sitting on saw horses. So, when you wanted to convert the dining area now to dancing you'd pick up the tables, you'd disassemble them.

GRANT: And of course, in Shakespeare's plays there are many quotes that have to do with eating, and especially eating, and drinking, and even it seems in throwaway lines we would learn something about the character, or the wealth of the character.

SEGAN: One of my favorites from King Henry IV, Part 1 is the line, “If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked.” And of course, sack was sherry.

GRANT: And isn't there another one in Henry IV about drinking?

SEGAN: Yes, there's “Fill the cup, and let it come, I'll pledge you a mile to th’ bottom.” [BUZZER] Oh, perfect timing. We can check on our salmon pie.

GRANT: Great. [MUSIC] Okay, we're back in the kitchen. I smell fish. It's time.

SEGAN: Smell fish. Looks done. Touch it. It's done.

GRANT: Spread out on top, the grape that you put in for the eye has a very glazed look right now. The grape looks broiled, which I guess it has been.

SEGAN: It's the pupil.


SEGAN: And so, this would be brought out to the feasting table to trumpets, paraded around so everyone could look at it, and then sliced and served for everyone to have of it. Should we try some?

GRANT: I think we should. You have just given me an enormous piece. You’ve given me the size that the king gets, I think. Well, it looks fantastic, and it smells really good too, and I should also mention, you gave me the piece with the eye grape in it, and it's staring at me just the way a real fish eye would. All right, we're sitting at the table now. We each have a plate full of pie, mmh, and you're right.

SEGAN: And like, the combination, that little burst of the grape giving that little acidity.

GRANT: I totally agree with you, the grapes, and the salmon work great together, and you get this sort of burst of flavor that you would normally get with lemon or something like that.

SEGAN: And the pistachios give it a nice crunch, and then you’ve got some veggies in there. You have a complete meal. The asparagus, and the mushrooms, they knew what they were doing. This is a really lovely flavor combination.

GRANT: So Francine, once again, thank you so much for inviting us into your home, and making this beautiful meal for us, and telling us all these fascinating things about food in Shakespeare’s time. We really enjoyed it.

SEGAN: It was a delight. [MUSIC]

WITMORE: Francine Segan is a food historian, and a James Beard-nominated author of six books, including 2003’s Shakespeare’s Kitchen, which is out of print, but still available electronically online. Francine was interviewed by Neva Grant. What Say You To a Piece of Beef and Mustard was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.

If you’ve been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited I hope you'll consider reviewing the podcast on whatever platform you get the podcast from. It helps us get the word out to people who haven't heard it, people who might enjoy it. We would really appreciate your help, thanks.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore. [MUSIC]