An Elizabethan Cookbook: A Look into Food in Shakespeare’s Time

A year ago, I took one of my favorite college courses – Shakespeare! The final project for the course was to create a research-based creative report. I chose to create a cookbook with Shakespearean-inspired recipes. I had a BLAST with the project. Recently, a classmate asked me to make the recipes available for pinning on Pinterest!

I’m going to be including the research part of my project in this post, and I’ll be posting each recipe on a separate post. This will be the longest post of all (I promise). Only read on if you REALLY want to know about food in Shakespeare’s time. Here we go!

Acknowledgments

Many of these recipes were inspired by pictures found on Pinterest.

A few recipes were adapted from my favorite food blog: How Sweet It Is. This blog encourages me every day to experiment and take more risks with my cooking and recipe development.

Scot Woodman of Scot Woodman Photography generously donated his time and skills to the completion of this project. I owe a world of thanks to Scot Woodman Photography for each stunning photograph in this cookbook.

Introduction

Food is a reoccurring image in many of Shakespeare’s plays. If the image of food is so omnipresent in Shakespeare’s plays, dining must have been an important aspect in Elizabethan life. My goal is to reconstruct classical recipes of the Elizabethan era into a cookbook for our modern day and age. I aim to learn the process the preparation and care that went into the presentation of food in Shakespeare’s time through recreating these classical dishes.

What were the typical foods in Shakespeare’s day? What were the daily rituals surrounding mealtimes? Was the quality of taste the major emphasis, or was it merely a prerequisite for socialization? Is it possible to recreate classic recipes from that era?

By answering some of the research questions above, my hope is to discover the similarities and differences surrounding the customs associated with food by comparing our time with that of Shakespeare’s. Not only is it possible to enjoy some of the same foods that were popular in Shakespeare’s day, but we should take advantage of our modern conveniences to aid in the celebration of these classic recipes.

Public Dining

Americans worship food. This is evident through the rampant obesity epidemic. Studies show a direct correlation between obesity and dining out. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released statistics revealing “a third of the calories Americans eat come from restaurants, almost double what it was 30 years ago. The study showed that more than half of adults eat out three times or more a week, with 12 percent eating out seven times a week” (Moody).

Coffee shops, fast food, sit-down restaurants, smoothie shops, diners, and drive through everything make dining out a convenient method of menu planning. However, public dining has not always been so popular or accessible.

Public restaurants did not appear in England until around 1400. Prior to this, cookshops, alehouses, and taverns served hot drinks, but they did not serve full meals. Some establishments did not even have tables and chairs; the only hot food that was available during this time was the fast food of the time period. Oftentimes, the fast food offered in cookshops and taverns was the only hot food to which the lower classes had access. Taverns had developed a reputation for being dirty and sleazy, and were therefore avoided by the upper classes. “People of means, however, shunned fast food. Evidence of this can be seen in the financial records kept by well-to-do households, which make it clear that wealthy residents and travelers alike avoided cookshops, and instead had their meals cooked to order at their dwellings, lodgings, or inns” (Carlin 202). The preference for private, exclusive dining at home was a sign of status and wealth.

Over time, innkeepers, tavern owners, brewers, and alehouse keepers together managed to draw enough customers to create a successful trade. Well before Shakespeare’s time, dining out in these establishments was common for all social classes. Frugal housewives who could not afford an oven in their homes could also prepare food at home and then use the oven a tavern or cookshop to bake pies or roast meat for a small fee. In the mid-1400s, the menus were simpler, consisting of bread, meat, and beverages. By the late-1400s, not only did these establishments widen their menus, but also their services to include breakfast, lunch, dinner, and catering options (Carlin 212).

Overall, it took about a century for public dining to become a successful business in the Elizabethan era. Ever since, dining out has grown and developed into what it is today – it spans around the globe as a popular form of socialization and personal enjoyment.

Daily Food

In the Elizabethan era, food for the lower class was portioned in daily allotments in order to make sure everyone had enough to eat. Meals were usually divided into three separate times during the day. While there were certainly many people who went hungry, the average lower class Elizabethan was allotted half a pound of bread, a pint of beer, a pint of porridge, a quarter pound of meat, and also a few dairy products. Vegetable sides were not common amongst the lower class, but were mainly supplemented through soup. In fact, dairy products and most vegetables were deemed inferior foods only fit for the poor.

The military was also considered part of the lower class during Shakespeare’s time. Elizabethan soldiers ate a bit differently than the lower class. Records show the daily food ration for the military was half a pound of butter, one and a half pounds of bread, two pounds of beef or mutton, and two-thirds of a gallon of beer.

Food consumed by the upper classes differed substantially from the lower classes in quantity, quality, and type. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, a description of Elizabethan England in 1577, upper class food consumption was described as follows:

“In number of dishes and change of meat the nobility of England (whose cooks are for the most part musical-headed Frenchmen and strangers) do most exceed, sith there is no day in manner that passeth over their heads wherein they have not only beef, mutton, veal, lamb, kid, pork, cony, capon, pig, or so many of these as the season yieldeth, but also some portion of the red or fallow deer, beside great variety of fish and wild fowl, and thereto sundry other delicates.”

The upper classes had access to more variety in their daily food, including spicy or sweet foods; however, the majority of the ingredients they used were far too expensive for the lower classes. The upper classes had the luxury of enjoying more courses and exotic foods because they could afford the sugar and lavish spices needed.

Conclusion

My initial motivation for this project was to avoid writing a ridiculously long paper. While writing can be a creative expression, I would much rather put my research to use in a different way that uses a wider range of my creative abilities. I wondered if I could use my love for the culinary arts to inspire a research topic. I wanted to know if it would be possible to reinvent classical Elizabethan recipes so that I could enjoy them today.

Recipe research was a slow process. I learned that many of the classical recipes should, in fact, be left to that day. There was no way I was going to make black pudding – a dish made from draining the blood of a pig, mixing it with eggs, cream, and spices, and stuffing it into beef guts. I wanted to make food that had fresh ingredients, were easy to make, sounded appetizing, and tasted wonderful. I decided to break down the cookbook into two breakfast dishes, two dessert dishes, two bread recipes, a soup, a salad, a vegetable side, and a main entrée. I was delighted to find a wide array of recipe options that were healthy and delicious.

One observation that was made by Scot during the cooking day was that nearly every dish was the same brown color. Nowadays, we are used to advertisements of food being colorful and perfectly styled. Due to food availability and popular spices of the time, it is reasonable to hypothesize that food in Shakespeare’s time must have looked fairly dull in comparison.

This project was a larger undertaking than I had originally anticipated. It required long hours of research online for recipes, information on food in the Elizabethan era, recipe selection, researching ingredients, and grocery shopping. The recipe testing stage actually took the shortest amount of time for me. Already knowing my way around the kitchen, I only needed to test a few heavily adapted recipes. The cooking day took the most amount of time; it took roughly twelve hours from planning to clean-up. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, and I love the recipes I was able to produce! I hope you do too.

Works Cited

Carlin, Martha. “Carlin, Martha. ‘“What Say You to a Piece of Beef and Mustard?”: TheEvolution of Public Dining in Medieval and Tudor London.’ Huntington Library Quarterly 71.1 (2008): 199–217. Print.” Huntington Library Quarterly 71.1 (2008): 199–217. CSU Stanislaus University Library. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

Moody, Colleen. “Scary Stat: Eating Out Boosts Obesity.” Fitness Magazine. 8 July 2011. Web. 4 May 2013.