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Banquets of the 1500s

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The Bard and the Banquets of the 1500s

By Bonnie Jones

I’m a huge fan of William Shakespeare —I’m enamored of every aspect of the man’s life and works.  A deep, abiding love of theatrical history fuels this fascination.  I teach a variety of acting/drama classes and it takes an abundance of facts and trivia to keep my 9 to 13-year-old students engaged.  It’s always an exciting experience for me to introduce spirited children to the plays and concepts of Shakespeare.  (Like any fanatic, I live to indoctrinate others.)  In the course of our studies, they begin to envision The Globe Theatre and Elizabethan England with a contagious enthusiasm that colors every facet of our joint educational experience.

In addition to my regular theatre programs, I have, in recent years, taught a class called “The Kids Cooking and Theatre Club” which blends Theatre lessons with Culinary instruction.  I’ve been blessed to work with extraordinary chefs who are also gifted mentors, including Chef John Floresta—the chef/theatrical professional with whom I currently team-teach.

The Shakespearean sessions are probably our favorite classes.   Chef John and I begin with an overview of the Bard’s life story including his birth (April 23, 1564) and marriage (he wed Ann Hathaway, a lovely older woman.)  We then discuss his classic works, the Globe Theater and the show business traditions of the times.  (Our kids are invariably astonished and more than a little grossed-out to learn that only males were allowed to play the female roles.)  We also teach the children that food—as it pertains to both diet and political unrest—is mentioned in Henry IV, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and other plays.

Finally, we segue to the kitchen and discuss food history.  Our students are always surprised by how differently the people ate in Elizabethan times.  For example, the wealthy typically ate main courses consisting of beef, mutton, rabbit, pheasant, pigeon and chicken.  Bread, beer and ale were staples.  The standard cooking processes were boiling, baking and roasting.  The upper crust cherished their sweets, a circumstance which led to widespread tooth decay.  The lower classes’ main meals consisted of significantly less meat and much more bread and cheese.  The average English person ate a higher proportion of dark and course breads—which were, ironically, healthier than those whole meal flour breads favored by the rich.  Interestingly, the prices for all breads were fixed by law.  Today we may joke about “the food police” but in those days, cuisine control was serious business.

One foodstuff which was strictly regulated by the government, regardless of your class, was fish.  Between 1548 and 1595 Parliament enacted a law that required citizens to eat fish three times a week, on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.  Additionally, no meat was to be consumed during the 40 days of Lent.  (There were 153 prescribed “fish days,”  annually.)  This proclamation served to support the fishing industry and conserve the cattle population.  Violations of the “fish day” law were punishable by up to three months in prison.   It’s bad enough when your mother nags you to eat your vegetables, but modern-day children find the notion of a government that force-feeds seafood to be deeply disturbing. Among the other charming bits of information we impart, 

  • Nutmeg was one of the most popular spices in England.

  • Knives were plentiful and guests would often bring their own to a dinner party.

  • Forks, however, were a novelty and were considered an effeminate prop.

  • Rosemary typically served as a salad garnish.

  • Edible flowers, such as violets, were incorporated into many Elizabethan dishes.

  • In 1568, spinach was grown in England, for the first time. It soon became all the rage.

  • Wealthy Elizabethans usually maintained multiple gardens, the most important one being

  • Water was not a particularly healthy drink, in those days, due to poor sanitation.

  • Mustard was a common condiment—perhaps because it helped to mask the flavor of soon-to-be rotten meat!

It is an absolute delight for me to convey these fascinating food facts to my pupils.  My husband, Phil and I were fortunate enough to visit the restored Globe Theater in London in March of 2007.  Touring the theatre that hosted so many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces was thrilling.  Simply lingering in front of the stage, where hordes of common folk—or  “groundlings”—stood during each performance, was spellbinding.  I could clearly imagine what those people must have felt, being swept up in the majesty and grandeur of Shakespeare’s art, transported from a life of hardship and pain, if only for a few sweet hours.  When we study the way in which the Elizabethan diet worked in tandem with Shakespeare’s nourishment of the soul, it provides all of  us with food for thought.

Bonnie Jones is a highly-respected producer, director and teacher who has conducted educational and theatrical programs cross-country for over twenty years and now stars in “The Chef’s Wife” with her beloved chef/hubby.