The Food of Shakespeare's World

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 53

This episode shifts slightly from our usual intense focus on Shakespeare. Instead, we are talking about the world that he inhabited, or at least a small part of that world: the kitchen. Kitchens, and what goes on in them, come up in Shakespeare’s plays with surprising frequency, whether directly or, more often, obliquely.
Our guest is Wendy Wall, an English professor at Northwestern University and director of the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. Her 2015 book Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen explores household recipes and what they tell us about English culture when Shakespeare was writing. She is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published July 26, 2016. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “You Will Hie You Home to Dinner,” 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. We had help from Allyssa Kaitlyn Pollard in the Northwestern University Media Relations Department and Jeff Peters at the studios of Marketplace in Los Angeles.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger’s Shakespeare library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.  

This podcast is called "You Will Hie You Home To Dinner" and it diverts slightly from our usual intense focus on Shakespeare to talk, instead, about the world Shakespeare inhabited, or at least a small part of that world. The place we'll be talking about is the kitchen.  

As you'll hear, kitchens, and what goes on in them, come into Shakespeare’s plays with surprising frequency, sometimes directly, but, more often obliquely, and they are the sole topic of a new book by Northwestern University English Professor Wendy Wall.  

The book is called Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen. And it explores not only cookbooks and their recipes, but also what those recipes tell us about English culture in the time Shakespeare was writing. Wendy is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, Wendy, before we get into the nitty-gritty of ye olde English home economics, just how much kitchen stuff, like recipes and cooking and housework, come up in Shakespeare? I'm curious. My mind goes immediately to potions, and I suppose those come under the heading of cookery. But how common are references to cooking and women’s work in the plays?

WENDY WALL: I would say that once you're thinking about that subject, you start to see them peppered, so to speak, throughout Shakespeare’s works, but they're not overtly the subject of many scenes.  

But, for instance, Macbeth: You have Lady Macbeth and she wants to plot to kill Duncan the king, so what does she do? She makes a thing called a posset, which is a drink, and she drugs it, and she gives it to the guards. And so, I was thinking, would Lady Macbeth, someone who's pretty elite, would she know how to make a drug like that? And it turned out, wow, recipes show us that, in fact, women had these kind of little chemistry sets in their kitchens, and they could make all kinds of scary things, but also really interesting things.  

Shakespeare uses all kinds of references to the natural products that would've shown up in recipes, and one of the recurring themes is seasoning.

BOGAEV: And by seasoning what do you mean? Seasoning of food or seasoning of people? Unbaked dough?


BOGAEV: I'm remembering somewhere, references to "doughy youth," is it?

WALL: Yes, yes it is. "Seasoning" is actually a kind of interesting word, because when I first started reading recipes, I would look at "seasoning," and I thought, salt and pepper, that's what you add to food. But when I looked at the way Shakespeare was using it, I saw that it meant a lot more than making flavor intense. It also meant putting things in their season.  

So, for instance, there's a phrase that comes up in recipes called "the season of meats," and they will refer to that. And sometimes it means knowing when to hunt a certain animal, but also knowing what spices to use to fortify it and to preserve it. So, to season it meant to preserve it or keep it over time.  

And, as you mentioned, Barbara, it could also mean how to season or temper human bodies. And that was a surprise for me, was finding out that human bodies were the object of seasoning, as much as foods, because you needed to use food as healthcare, and for healthcare, you needed to balance a person's body and temper it and fortify it. And it was really basically a completely different understanding of physiology and medicine that was in vogue when Shakespeare was writing.  

But his plays address that anatomy, and start talking about what it would mean. If you were a housewife you weren't just cooking, you were kind of controlling the bodies of the people who were in your household at dinner or your guests or your family.

BOGAEV: So, these seasoning and food metaphors and similes in Shakespeare, are they drawing on these theories of the humors? Are they coming into play, about using seasoning to balance your humors, like bland food if you run too hot, and spicy food if your personality is too bland?

WALL: Exactly, yes. The idea was that you had these four humors in your body, and you had to balance them. And so every day, you would do things to balance them. Meaning, if you tended to be melancholy, you might have to do more exercise.  

But diet was one of the main ways to balance it. And there are two ways to balance. One way was to balance foods against foods. So, say you're serving a duck. A duck is cold, say the doctors. So, you add pepper because pepper is hot, and it balances and takes the edge off the duck. But also, if you're putting food at the table, you have a lot of dishes. And people misperceive this and think that they ate a lot, but actually they just had a lot of variety and options. Because if you were somebody whose body ran cold, you would want the spicier food.  

So, it was a lot more complicated than we think. And Shakespeare is both referencing what's evident in these recipe books, which is this complex system of balancing. But he's also making it into figures and metaphors that I found really fascinating as literary devices, to develop plots and characters.

BOGAEV: And can you give us an example of his using a balancing metaphor?

WALL: The one that comes to mind first is in All's Well That Ends Well, where Helena is a character. And it's not balancing, but the seasoning first comes up in that play, when she's crying, and someone says that her tears are a sign of her virtue, because they’re taking the memory of her father (she must be sad, because she lost her father), and they're distilling them, and salting them, and putting them forth. And so that's a culinary metaphor.  

And I looked at it, and I thought, well, she's crying and they're saying she's seasoning her virtue and her father’s memory, and I thought, huh, how does that work? And when I looked, it became clear that there were these metaphors running throughout the play, where seasoning was preserving something, but also you needed to preserve or season people, because the men in the play, for instance, are called "doughy," unseasoned, "youth." And they're basically not mature, they haven't ripened in time. So, I started to see these were all connected in a kind of complicated way and it was really fascinating to me.

BOGAEV: This is so rich... I just noticed it's hard to avoid the food and seasoning metaphors! But I'm thinking, this is so rich. You're getting into issues of time and medicine, and we have the potions, and then we have this idea of the intersection of food and medicine and preparation, I guess, gardening as well.  

So, when you looked at recipes for this new book, it sounds like you were exploring something way beyond a list of ingredients and how to mix them together, as if the recipes of early England are more about how women act on nature, and created something out of that.

WALL: Exactly. When I found these sources, I found these manuscripts that really have flown beneath the radar, because there's probably 150 recipe collections that are in manuscript and that people simply haven't read these. And I was startled by what they told me that, as you're saying, exceeds the scope of what people ate.  

For instance, I found out that they don't segregate medical recipes from food recipes. So, you'd be reading along and it's kind of a little distracting for a modern reader, because you'll have an epilepsy recipe, and then you'll have a beautiful dessert right beside it, and it's unusual to have...

BOGAEV: You don't want to confuse the two.

WALL: Well, you don't, but then I would come across, now that you brought that up, a dish that they didn't know which one it was. They would say this is a lamb dish, and then it would say, and this is so wonderful with the right lemons, but it will also alleviate diarrhea. And I'm thinking, you don't really want that in a cookbook, do you?  

Or one that was a cough syrup, and it said this will help your lungs, but you can also serve it at a very fancy dinner party for dessert. So, this made me think that what women were doing in the home had much more scope and creativity than I had formerly thought.

BOGAEV: That's really fascinating and I want to dig into that, but first, I want to back up for a moment. Because it sounds as if looking at these recipes, they reveal perhaps something specifically about gender in women’s lives and their roles in Shakespeare’s time, because it's not only women who were preparing these potions and cooking up these things or gardening, right?  

There were dentists and doctors and farmers and alchemists, they were all working from some kind of recipes, presumably. But what do these documents tell you specifically about women?

WALL: Well, I would start by saying first of all, a lot of what women were doing with these recipes is the same thing that men were doing, but that we have records of what craftsmen were doing and we've always known that men were thinking about questions like, What makes knowledge knowledge? How do you know something is true? Or, what's the difference in nature and art?  

But when I read these recipe books, I thought, these are recipes that men used, but that women had access to these, and we have a lot of evidence that women were using them. And it made me understand that they were taking up the very issues that were at the center of humanist intellectual thinking in the period, and they were doing it in the kitchen. And it gave them a forum or a little home laboratory where they could test: When you take the natural world, and you use a recipe, and you transform something in nature into something that's artificial, what does that mean? Is it still natural, if it's been chemically changed in some way?  

These are the questions that Shakespeare takes up in the sonnets and in his plays, where he has characters debate, in a garden, If you graft one plant on to another, is it still natural? So, seeing that this could be raised in the kitchen was really intriguing to me.

BOGAEV: That's so fascinating. Now, help us imagine these collections. What did they look like? What can you tell from the surviving documents? And I should say that many of these texts are in the Folger collection. So, are they mostly manuscript folk collections or are they printed published books?

WALL: There's a whole set of printed published books and this was one of the things that was so intriguing, is that England had the most active printed cookery publication, recipe publication up until 1650, between like 1550 and 1650.  

And who would think that, because English food isn't in great repute today, and so why did English people have all this frenzy around recipes? So, that was one question that I wanted to take up. But perhaps it was even more interesting to me to see the manuscripts, because they come in all shapes and sizes.  

BOGAEV: And by manuscript, you're meaning, not printed published books, but handwritten books?

WALL: Handwritten, but they're bound. Some of them are elaborate, beautifully copied out, probably by a professional scribe. They have decorative emblems, and they're clearly kind of presentation copies. So, that's on one end of the spectrum.  

On the other end, there are these very ragged, grease-stained books that are written in many, many hands, maybe like 15 people or 20 would have added recipes. Perhaps they were handed down from generation to generation. You might give it to your neighbor to write in a recipe. And they're clearly so used, they have annotations saying "No, I never use wine, I always use distilled water."  

So, I'm looking at all of these and thinking of the variety of ways that women could write, and this was a surprise, because previously we had wondered, Would there be any reason for such recipe books to have ever existed? The women who cooked didn't know how to read (did they?), or write, and the women who could read and write were way too elite to actually get their hands dirty with this kind of work.  

And my research showed that this was not true, that there were a healthy number of women, crossing the social spectrum, who were in the kitchen, overseeing details of medicine making and healthcare and culinary cooking and making pesticides and toothpastes. And they were also quite able to read and write and also used recipes as a way to practice.

BOGAEV: And this is now answering your first question, Why were there so many cookbooks in England. There was an unusually high rate of literacy in England at the time, wasn't there?

WALL: I think literacy is a big mystery. I think that we have these figures, they're not very encouraging. There's higher literacy rates in London than in other areas and they increased dramatically in the 17th century.  

But my main concern was, maybe we got the wrong metric when we're looking for literacy. Because it used to be that you would just say, well, if someone came in to sign a court document and they signed an X, they were illiterate and if they signed their name, they were literate. But now we know that some people could write with charcoal on the wall, that they couldn't hold a quill, or they could write in a certain manner, or there were some women... We found a case who thought that writing your name in public was not very decorous, so she signed an X. So they counted her as illiterate, and then later we saw her write her own will.  

So, my point is kind of that there's a sub, stealth literacy and one intriguing idea is that a lot of the evidence for it has simply been eaten. They actually wrote letters, and styles of fonts, and poems, even, on things that people ate. And so I'm intrigued by this idea that there was a food literacy, there was this world of wit, and we don't have record of it anymore, it was designed to just disappear.

BOGAEV: Wow. Well, we're talking about two things, manuscripts, these handwritten manuscripts, and printed books. So, let's take them one at a time. You mentioned marginalia, the notes that women wrote in the manuscripts. What were women thinking? What did they tell you?

WALL: One of my favorites is a woman who wrote "This I Make. E.O.," Elizabeth Okeover, and she wrote it about 10 times. And so she was kind of claiming her name and marking the recipes in a way that you can only speculate why, but it was clearly proud, and it was clearly showing that she was an engaged tester of these recipes.

BOGAEV: It's authorship, it sounds like authorship to me.

WALL: It is. It's claiming it. One of my favorites was somebody who wrote "These were written in "my owne hand." So, again, claiming not just the content, but really proud of being able to write.  

Some people wrote other kinds of more practical marginalia. They would just change the amounts or cross things out. One of my favorite was a woman who wrote "This is no good" in the margin. So, we have some opinions that come in. The jokes are pretty amazing. One of the people, she wrote "How to make a right Presbyterian."

BOGAEV: That doesn't sound like it would taste very good. [LAUGHTER] What was that?

WALL: Exactly. It was like, you combine malice and pride and ambition, and you mix it up. And you know, it was basically just a satire on another faith that they got in there. So, sometimes the marginalia is just marking your territory, and sometimes claiming authorship or the like, so lots of little hints about life in the margins of these manuscripts.

BOGAEV: And the printed ones, the published cookery books, what do they reveal about the culture, history of the period beyond the culinary history? And I have to say I particularly love the book that calls for an "outlandish" leg of mutton.  

WALL: That is one of my favorites. The printed books are helpful for me as a scholar because they have dates that you can actually pinpoint, where they really were, and who, maybe, compiled them. But they also have prefaces.  

And Hugh Plat, for instance, was a recipe writer who had this very popular book, Delightes for Ladies. And he wrote a poem at the beginning that’s quite lengthy. And in it, he makes pretty grandiose claims for what’s going on in the kitchen, by saying that the housewife is kind of like the eternal artist or like God, and that she can take things out of nature and make them immortal in time. And he goes on to talk about, you know, preserves.  

So printed sources can give you how people should think about their identity in the kitchen. Some of the publishers are saying women, you are both elite, and it’s for the lowliest housewife. And you know, that’s an unusual readership to imagine, a merchant’s wife who doesn’t have that much money, but who can buy a book, grouped along with a countess. So the printed sources are really helpful for that kind of social information.  

The recipe you mentioned came from Gervase Markham, who has an "outlandish" leg of mutton. And basically, it’s where you fool your guests, where you have a lamb leg and you take all the lamb, you take it out of the skin but you preserve the skin and then you fill it with a pudding that’s cinnamon and eggs and sugar. And you serve it, he says, as if it is a leg of mutton. So the idea is you’re kind of playing with what is mutton. Is it what you think from previous eating or is it what I made it to be in my kitchen?  

BOGAEV: And that kind of stuff was not uncommon. It was the turducken era of cooking, right?

WALL: Exactly.  

BOGAEV: And it’s very akin to Hamlet’s theme of seeming versus being, appearance versus reality, which runs like a thread throughout many of the plays.

WALL: Yeah, in fact, I’m teaching a class right now, and we’re commenting on how appearance versus reality is the one thing that we can see in every Shakespeare play. But, yeah, the medieval period had a lot of foods that were pretending to be something else.  

And we have known about these for a long time, and we knew they were at court, but what I found is suddenly proof that these were being marketed to this other strata of society, where you could go and buy a book. And suddenly, even though you weren’t at that big feast where they have this opulent staged ceremony that showed foods, where birds would fly live out of a pie...

BOGAEV: Right the four and twenty blackbirds.

WALL: Right, the "four and twenty blackbirds" of the nursery rhyme, or one very famous scene where you’ve had a sugar plaster deer and you stabbed the deer and wine flowed out of it and people would go and fill their cups up with the blood of the deer.  

And those are kinds of recipes that raised questions about life and death, and religious questions of the day about drinking blood, which was one of the points of disagreement between Protestants and Catholics, because they were fighting about the communion and whether it was the body of Christ, and whether it was really his body or had turned into something else.

I found hints of these all over the recipes. There’s one recipe where the housewife is told to make a tart and it says you can decorate it with a heart or the "name of Jesus." And I was just astonished. I kind of underlined this and said wait a minute, this is a time when you know, the protestants are imprisoning and killing Catholics and Catholics are imprisoning and killing Protestants, and they’re fighting over whether you’re eating God when you eat the communion wafer. And here’s like a kind of joke version where people would’ve been eating something with Jesus written on it in the house and what would that mean?  

And for me, it suddenly became clear that the dining room was really a spectacle. And this really has ties to Shakespeare in terms of his interest in The Tempest and other plays with illusion making. The idea that the housewife was creating a kind of theater that could push on certain truisms of the day.  

BOGAEV: Well, now we’ve come to the mythbusting portion of our conversation, because you write that the cookbooks also highlight something I think really surprising, for most of us, who think of traditional English cuisine as just atrocious and bland and dull, before the gastro pub era—boiled meat and mash and some chips. But in Shakespeare’s time, you write the English ate very spicy, intensely flavored food. Say what?

WALL: Hard to believe, isn’t it? Yeah. When I’ve told people that I’m writing a book on Renaissance recipes, their first response is, "British food, are you kidding?" And then the next response is, the Renaissance has such great writing. Why would you look at recipes?  

And so I’m trying to make this case that there’s this intellectually rich world buried in these recipes, but also, surprise, surprise, the food isn’t what we think it is. Really between the 13th and 17th centuries, there was an international European cuisine, and while it had regional variations, the food was strikingly similar and it was spiced with imported ingredients from China and India and the Spice Islands. So think of cinnamon, think of nutmeg, think of cardamom.  

And, of course, we don’t think of British food this way, because it was all going to change between the Renaissance and now, and French food is going to become different from British food. And Italian food is going to become different from French food. So they’re going to be the beginning of national cuisines in the 17th century, and this was a huge, huge culinary shift.  

BOGAEV: And in part, that was because these spices were new and it was exciting as a way to show off, but also it hid spoiled meat, too, right?

WALL: No, that’s actually a legend that we now know...

BOGAEV: Good, another myth busted.

WALL: Yeah, we thought for years that they were using spices to hide the taste of spoiled meat. But we know now that that’s not true, that the spices were way too expensive to be used for that purpose and in fact, persisted in situations where you wouldn’t have had any shortage of meat. So it turns out that they were really for their value. They were exotic and new. And if they really wanted to preserve meat, they could use salt, which was not really that expensive.

BOGAEV: Well, all of this cooking, whether it was good honest English fare or French whatever, it was taking place before the birth of the scientific method, which is, in essence, if I do this same thing exactly the same way over and over again, it will always come out right. You know, reproducible results. But you say that’s exactly what you see in these early recipe books, that that’s what the writers are saying. So are you arguing that these texts help usher in or reflect the first inklings of the scientific method? Were homemakers the first bona fide modern scientists?  

WALL: Well, if I said it like that, people would probably come down on me like a ton of bricks. But I am sort of saying that, in that I’m saying that there was a whole craft culture. There were artisans that were working with their hands and there were women working in the home with their hands, and they were doing the same types of experiments that you see in the Royal Society.  

Part of our disbelief—like when we say, how could that be?—it really can be assuaged by finding out that what they were doing in the Royal Society wasn’t entirely the modern, empirical scientific method. The Royal Society guys, that were more recognized in the history of science, were saying that you can have an experiment and you can repeat it. . . but they were doing it in a more colloquial way, where they believed that you had to, for instance, write yourself into the experiment and acknowledge who you were. So they don’t look very scientific to us, you know. They look kind of more like a diary. 

Once I discovered that, it made it clear that these manuscripts, where they are doing testing on, whether acids can make violets turn a certain kind of color purple, or whether you know, you can keep ink over time if you add certain acids to it or use a different heat source. Those were really the experiments they were doing elsewhere in the culture, and we just haven’t recognized them.  

I’m not the first to say this. There are other scholars, like Deborah Harkness, who have pointed out that there was a kind of everyday science revolution going on in the streets of London. But I’m adding the domestic wing to it, and showing that women that we wouldn’t expect to be concerned with these issues or know how to think about them, were really testing and experimenting in ways that contributed to the rise of modern science.

BOGAEV: And I find it really interesting that these manuscripts and also, I suppose, the cookbooks, since they were somewhat precious, were shared in the community. So there’s this interesting kind of interplay between something very private, the home and women’s domain, which was virtually unseen, but the this public sharing of this information.  

WALL: Absolutely. It really makes you rethink what we think of as private and public. And one can point to a kind of really simple answer for that. Paper was expensive. You don’t throw out things. But it’s also an idea that you were writing things down that would become part of what we now call scribal culture. It just meant that when we write things, we think of them as private, and when we publish them, we think of them as public.

But we’ve now discovered through lots of documents that people who handwrote poems or sermons or recipes or things like that fully expected them to circulate and they would’ve. And been commented on and copied, and so there was this networking. I think a lot of scholars in the future are going to use these recipes and start tracking those networks and it will be very, very, very rich in what they can find out from that.  

BOGAEV: And coming full circle to relate this to Shakespeare, does he reference this public and private interplay, regarding women specifically, and perhaps cooking or science or potions in any way?

WALL: I think it was in the air more than Shakespeare referencing it exactly, but I’ll return back to the play that got me interested in domestic work and that’s Merry Wives of Windsor.  

And in that play, you know, you have two women in the title and they’re housewives. And they are trying to do a lot of public things like humiliate an aristocrat, Falstaff, and show the community that they can take care of themselves and correct husbands who are being way too controlling, and do this all in a very public ritual.  

But they use their house duties as a way to think about that project and a way to carry it out. So in that sense, what might be going on in the home and we think of as private, was the very idiom and grammar for thinking about how to order the world outside of the household.

BOGAEV: Well, just one more question before you go. This is, of course, Shakespeare 400, the 400th commemoration of his death all year. And I was wondering, it’s not an occasion for a birthday cake, right? But are there any recipes that come to mind from the trove that you’ve studied that would be, perhaps, appropriate for a 400th remembrance?

WALL: I guess I would go with a recipe that I found intriguing, and I think Shakespeare would, too. It’s for a violet paste. And you take flowers, like a violet, and you crush them up and you distill them. And you get the juice and you make it into kind of a sticky substance, and you shape it into a violet. And you can even make it look like it’s growing on a tree. You can have a stem and a leaf. So we don’t know whether it looked real for a second or whether it was, you know, made to look more like children’s food or bakery food today.  

But I think Shakespeare would really like this recipe, because it tastes like the violet. It is made out of the violet. But is it a violet, or is it like some artistic product? And he just loved that question and kept coming back to it, in so many times in his works. So I think he would wink and see this as a very witty recipe and enjoy it.  

BOGAEV: Lovely, thank you so much. And thank you so much for this conversation.

WALL: Thanks, Barbara. I appreciate it.


WITMORE: Wendy Wall is director of the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and Avalon Foundation professor of the humanities in the Department of English at Northwestern University. Her book, Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2015. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.  

Wendy gave the Folger Institute’s Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture on this topic in 2011. That talk was called Recipes for Thought: Shakespeare and the Art of the Kitchen. "You Will Hie You Home To Dinner" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Elisa Caitlyn Pollard in the Northwestern University Media Relations Department and Jeff Peters at the Marketplace Studios on Los Angeles.  

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.