Custards: Part 1

Custard tart by Shanti, shanti used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license

 

I am working on a chapter section about The Great Duke of Florence by Philip Massinger (1636) at the moment, and  these lines spoken by Calandrino, a servant of one of the main characters, gave me the idea of trying out a custard recipe:

Why how to behave my self in Court, & tytely
I have beene told the very place transformes men,
And that not one of a thousand, that before
Liv’d honestly in the Country, on plaine Sallads,
But bring him thither, marke me that, and feed him
But a moneth or two with Custards and Court Cakebread,
And he turnes Knave immediately. I would be honest;
But I must follow the fashion, or die a beggar.

Calandrino is the play’s comic relief character – the comedy usually centres around him wanting to fit in at court in spite of his country roots, as seen in the extract above. The difference between country and court life, one plain the other elaborate, is a recurring theme in the play, and is in fact fairly common throughout Renaissance drama, particularly 17th century works.

“A custard” does not just refer to the thick yellow stuff we know and love (well, I do anyway), an early modern custard is almost always referring to thick custard baked in a pastry case, we still have these today in the form of custard tarts (which I also love).

Custards are referred to in many plays of the period, I’ve noticed that they’re often listed as part the menu of a banquet, seeming to bring with them connotations of richness, excess and courtly luxury. Here is an example from Thomas Heywood’s A Maidenhead Well Lost (1634):

Enter the Clowne with his Table-bookes.

Clowne: Let me see, the Prince is to bee married to morrow, and my young Mistris meanes to keepe a Feast in the Forrest, in honour of his wedding at the Court: Now am I sent as Ca|terer into the City to prouide them victualls, which they charg’d me to buy; no ordinary fare, no more it shall, and therefore I haue cast it thus; First and foremost, wee will haue—(yes downe it shall) we will haue a Gammon of Bacon roasted, and stufft with Oysters; And sixe Black-Puddings to bee serued vp in Sorrell-sops; A pickell’d shoulder of Mutton, and a surloyne of Beefe in White-broth, so much for the first course. Now, for the second, we will haue a Cherry-Tart cut into Rashers and broyled; A Custard Carbonado’d on the coales; A liue Eele swimming in clowted Creame; And sixe Sheepes-heads baked, with the hornes peering out of the pasty-crust.

A tablebook is a notebook so I suppose the clown is keeping a note of his bizzare food ideas unless he forgets them. Though I would think it would be hard to forget about the live eel swimming in cream. The first course sounds fairly normal, if extravagant, but everything in the clown’s second course is comically absurd. “A Custard Carbonado’d” is, to quote the OED, “A piece of meat or fish scored across and grilled over coals” which sounds like a very strange thing to do with a custard tart.

Heywood appears to have had a thing about custards – he mentions them, again in a list, in The Late Lancashire Witches (1634, written with Richard Brome):

‘Tis a busie time, yet will I review the Bill of fare, for this dayes dinner—(Reades) for 40· people of the best quality, 4. messes of meat; viz. a leg of Mutton in plum-broth, a disSection of illegible text of Marrow|bones, a white-broth, a Surlovne of beefe, a Pig, a Goose, a TurkiSection of illegible text, and two Pyes: for the second course, to every messe 4. Chickens in a dish, a couple of Rabbets, Custard, Flawn, Florentines, and stewd pruines,—all very good Country fare, and for my credit,—

Enter  playing before, Lawrence, Doughty, Arthur, Bantam, WhSection of illegible texttstone, and Gregory, with dishes: A Spirit (over the doore) does some action to the dishes as they enter.

The service enters, O well sayd, play up the meat to the Table till all be serv’d in, e see it passe in answer to my bill.

The spirit over the door casts a spell on the food that transforms it strange things, and the custards become “cow sheards” – cow dung. Strange goings on with food are often a feature of witchcraft plays – I’ve written a little on this before, see my post on marchpane.

Custards are also mentioned in at least two of Heywood’s other plays – How a Man May Choose a Good Wife from a Bad (1602) and The Fair Maid of the Exchange (1607).

Thanks to their consistency, custards are often described as “quaking”, as in these lines from James Shirley’s The Wedding (1629):

They fight? a doublet, stuft with straw, aduancing
A bull-rush, were able to fright em both
Out a’their sences, tha’not soule enough
To skirmish with a field-mouse; they poynt a duell?
At Hogs-don, to shew fencing vpon Creame
And cake-bread, murder a quaking Custard,
Or some such daring enemy.

While the Captain may mock the ferocity of custard, an anonymous broadside ballad from 1684 reveals that it could prove very dangerous indeed – it is entitled Strange and wonderful news from Newberry: concerning a youth that was choak’d by eating of custard. The story goes that a boy named Chuf made a wager with another young lad that he could eat a custard in the time that the boy could run a certain distance and back. The boy was quicker than Chuf expected, however, and he hadn’t finished half of the custard by the time the boy was on his way back, so Chuf “Thrust t’other half into his Throat”, with unpleasant results:

The suffocating Custard wrought
within his Gullet so,
That to the ground he tumbled down;
a woful overthrow.

The ballad writer ends with this warning about the evils of custard, which, whatever the old joke says, is apparently yellow and dangerous even without the sharks:

Let this a Warning be to you
that go to Islington,
Custard will kill, Experience shows,
as quick as any Gun.

Beware you that on Holydays
abroad do feast your Wives,
For you that feed on Custard go
in danger of your Lives.

I laugh in the face of danger, however, so I shall be ignoring this warning and making a delicious custard from a recipe in Gervase Markham’s Countrey Contentments. Check back for the recipe later in the week!

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