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Halloween Special: Food fit for a witch

Preparing for tomorrow

Ready for carving

Hurrah, Halloween is nearly upon us! I am a huge fan of Halloween – I love the weather at this time of year, the food, the costume parties (though admittedly it has been a few years since I last went to one), all of it. I feel about Halloween the same way a number of my friends do about Christmas. I will in fact be hosting a Halloween dinner party tomorrow, and thinking about Halloween food prompted me to write a blog post.

There don’t appear to have been many foods associated with Halloween (a.k.a All Hallow’s tide, Hallountide, Hollontide and many more variations) or All Soul’s Day during this period. I found a few references to the day itself during an extremely unsystematic poke around EEBO – a proverb suggestion that people to “Set trees at Allhallontide and command them to prosper: Set them after Candlemas and entreat them to grow” (John Ray, A collection of English proverbs. 1670), and a mention in Hollinshed’s chronicle: “In this eighteenth yeare of Kyng Henryes raigne, on all hallowen day, or first of November, great lightning, thunder, and suche a hayle storme chaunced, that the people were maruellously amased therewith” (Raphael Holinshed, The firste [laste] volume of the chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. 1577). Evidently then it was a day people were familiar with. Here’s a particularly interesting mention which hints at the supernatural elements of the day, albeit in a very religious context:

Wee read (quoth the Author of the booke called Sermones discipuli de tempore that in old time good people would on All-hallowen day take bread and deale for all Christen soules. And one good Woman a widdow, who had in store but three pecks of flower, did make it all into loaues and deale it, saying to them that receiued it, Remember to pray for the soule of my Mother. And one of them praying very earnestly for the soule of this good Womans Mother, her Mother appeared vnto her and told her, my daughter by her charitie and thou by thy good prayers hast now helped me out of Purgatory; Tell my daughter that shee sell her Cow and goe presently to Rome to the Popes Holines for a Pardon for her sinnes, and then shee may be eased of such paines as I haue indured: which being told to her daughter, shee reioyced much and did as shee was bidden, and went to Rome, and had Indulgence. And the Pope by divine revelation knew before shee came of all that had happened to her.

John Gee, New shreds of the old snare. 1624

The bread in question appears to just be ordinary bread, however, so I can’t find any recipes that refer to it directly as being bread for this occasion. Ronald Hutton talks about “Soul-mass cakes” in The Stations of the Sun as being a food associated with All Soul’s Day, so I had a look for that and found only a dictionary entry: “Soul-Mass-Cakes, still given (in some places) to the poor on All-souls day” (Elisha Coles, An English Dictionary. 1677). There were no recipes. They were apparently a kind of oaten cake, so I tried looking for oat cake recipes and found one in Hannah Woolley that didn’t even involve any oats! Just flour and water, so not terribly exciting, and no evidence that this was similar to a “soul mass cake” at all. 

In the absence of any “Halloween food” as such, I’ve decided to get a little fanciful and revisit a favourite subject of mine by looking at the kinds of foods eaten by those characters that at least in modern times we associate with Halloween: witches. 

I have mentioned food and witchcraft before, and I think it’s an endlessly interesting subject – where does the line between recipe and spell lie? Food as medicine was immensely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries – when do you stop being a cook and start being a healer, or indeed a witch? Food features quite heavily in two very well known “witchcraft plays”, so I thought we’d take a look…

Firstly, let’s look at Thomas Middleton’s The Witch. As there’s no EEBO copy I’m using this edition. This is one I’ve mentioned before, in one of my very first posts actually. Hecate, the witch, is always eating something unpleasant. The play begins, as they often do, with a wedding feast – prompting one character to say “Here’s a marriage sweetly honoured in gorged stomachs And overflowing cups!” (1.1.35). One of those overflowing cups is in fact a skull which the Duke forces his new bride to drink from, never mind that it “was once her father’s head” (1.1.117). Before the witch has even turned up, food related things are looking pretty macabre. Hecate’s magical arts generally involve boiling up one disgusting thing after another, roasting corpses by the fire, and seeking revenge through spoiling food: “I’ll mar their syllabubs and frothy feastings” (I.2.65). For love charms, she suggests lampreys, which were commonly eaten around this time (go ahead and google them if you want a proper Halloween fright!) or the bones of a green frog (1.2.209). Her customer offers her “a toad in marchpane” and suggests that she enjoys “fried rats and pickled spiders” (1.2.224). Witches, it seems, are keen on eating some rather odd things. The last line of this scene is particularly interesting though, the witch’s customer has elected to join her for dinner, since she says that she can provide “the best meat i’th’ whole province” (1.2.225), and her son Firestone has this to say:

How apt and ready is a drunkard now to reel to the devil! Well, I’ll even in and see how he eats; and I’ll be hanged if I be not the fatter of the two from laughing at him! (1.2.232)

The message is pretty clear – indulge yourself too much in food and drink, and you’ll be easy pickings for witches!

At the risk of repeating myself, I want to mention Act 3 Scene I of Heywood and Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches (1634) once again. I am a little bit obsessed with this scene, evidently! It’s a wedding feast, but some spirits come along and wreck havoc on it. First, a spirit turns the bridal cake into bran, then a leg of mutton becomes a horn, and all the food is transformed or, as it turns out, teleported away. Just as the guests are all getting increasingly annoyed and alarmed, two of the witches appear to clarify the situation:

O husband, O guests, O sonne, O Gentlemen, such a chance in a Kitchin was never heard of, all the meat is flowne out o’ the chimney top I thinke, and nothing instead of it, but Snakes, Bats, Frogs, Beetles, Hornets, and Humble-bees; all the Sallets are turn’d to Iewes-eares, Mushromes, and Puck fists; and all the Custards into Cow sheards!

Later we see the witches them eating all the food, although it is interesting to see that they don’t get much enjoyment out of the food itself, despite being delighted with their trick. When Mistress Generous says “This meat is tedious, now some Farie, Fetch what belongs unto the Dairie” she seems more excited about the prospect of stealing what belongs to someone else than actually eating. The boy suggests this too with the line “Meat lie there, for thou hast no taste, and drinke there, for thou hast no relish, for in neither of them is there either salt or savour”.

It’s hard not to read this all as, at least partly, some kind of comment on the immorality of excess. Greed is a sin, after all, and one which leaves you vulnerable. Too much overindulgence can perhaps leave you unsatisfied, dulling the senses. It’s all rather reminiscent of the story of Hansel and Gretel, isn’t it? It was their eagerness to eat the gingerbread house that led them into the witch’s lair, and then she in turn tried to eat them. The link between food, overindulgence, cannibalism and witchcraft was clearly still around in the 19th century, and the idea of witches wanting to eat people (particularly children) is still common today.

Perhaps I ought to rethink my plans for a feast after all…

Happy Halloween everyone!

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Cakes: History and background

Stacked Books Tassles by ChicosMom, found on www.cakecentral.com. Click the picture to head over there and have a look if you want to look at lots of amazing cakes and lose several hours of your life!

Finally, a new post! I’m afraid the lack of blog posts is not due to me jetting off on some kind of holiday in August, but because I have been trying to write a chapter. The chapter focuses on alcoholic drinks, so aside from the buttered beer I haven’t come across much in my reading that I can write about here. Today, however, I thought I might do a little baking, and I figured that while I was at it I might as well bake something for the blog too. So, I shall be making some early modern cakes, and here you shall find a little bit of background on them. I am still wading through books on alcohol and allegories and trying to pull a chapter together, so I don’t have time to really get into the history of cakes, but here are a few tidbits to whet your appetite before I post the recipe in a few days:

Thou bel amy, thou Pardoner,’ he seyde,
‘Tel us som mirthe or Iapes right anon.’
‘It shall be doon,’ quod he, ‘by seint Ronyon!
But first,’ quod he, ‘heer at this ale-stake
I wol both drinke, and eten of a cake.’

The Canterbury Tales. 317-328

I’ve gone back a little further than usual looking for references with this one. Cakes are mentioned several times in the tales but I’ve gone for this quote from the Pardoner. As characters in the Canterbury Tales go, the Pardoner is one of the least appealing, and his eating and drinking here seems to me to be suggestive of greed.

What did cake mean in the early modern and medieval world? Well, according to the OED it had two  meanings. The first, originating from an earlier time, was “a baked mass of bread or substance of similar kind, distinguished from a loaf or other ordinary bread, either by its form or by its composition”. The cake would be smaller than a loaf of bread, “round, oval, or otherwise regularly shaped, and usually baked hard on both sides by being turned during the process”. I suppose this would be somewhat similar to what you would call a roll, bun or batch today (depending on which part of the country you live in). Anyway, it seems that a cake need not be something sweet, as it usually is today (excepting things like potato cakes, I suppose). Another meaning which ran alongside the first but came to prominence during the 16th and particularly the 17th centuries was that which eventually lead to the modern sense, “fancy bread, and sweetened or flavoured”. Now, of course, we see cake as a different substance to bread – the latter being as a rule risen with yeast and made of flour and water, and the former being made of flour, butter, sugar and eggs (6oz each of the first three and then 3 eggs – or at least that’s what my mother taught me).

It’s also worth mentioning that “cake” could also refer to a type of “thin hard-baked brittle species of oaten-bread” which was eaten in Scotland and the north. In Edward Sharpham’s The Fleire (1607), the titular character says: Send her an Oten cake, t’is a good Northern token”, illustrating this point.

I’ve seen “Court cakebreads” mentioned in a few plays, and I think these might be the “fancy bread” referred to above – court food is, as I’ve discussed before, usually described as being fancy and embellished in some way. Cakebreads seem to go hand in hand with custards, you’ll see they are mentioned in a few of the quotes I used in my post about custard.

Now, I said this wouldn’t be a very long post, so I’ve just got one mention of cake from a play that I thought was interesting. As it happens, there is a copy of this play in the collection I’m studying.

In Richard Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches, wedding cake, or “bride-cake” has a role to play. At a wedding feast, some revelers wait with the bride cake to “cracke and crumble upon her crowne” – this seems to be some kind of wedding tradition. However, there is a spirit in the house, and he turns the cake to bran, prompting a cry of “the divell of crum is here, but bran; nothing but bran!”. As the play is set in Lancashire, perhaps this is a reference to the “oat-cakes” mentioned earlier? It’s also interesting to see that wedding cakes have apparently been around for a while, though I am glad that they don’t get crumbled on people’s heads anymore. Having said that, there is a growing tradition, mainly in America, I believe, of brides and grooms squashing cake into each other’s faces, so perhaps this is coming back!

And finally, here’s some wisdom from a 16th century book of proverbs:

Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?

John Heywood, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue (1546)

Doesn’t it just make so much more sense that way around? I never understood why it was a bad thing to want to have your cake and eat it – surely that’s what you do when you have a cake?! But yes, it would be silly to want to eat it and then have it back again.

Anyway, that’s all for now, I shall be back soon with a recipe for 16th century cakes!

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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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Valentine’s Special – Asparagus: Part 1

Purple passion asparagus by weretable used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license

In honour of Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be interesting to look at an Early Modern aphrodisiac – asparagus, also known as sperage or sparagus in many Early Modern texts.

Most people have probably heard of the supposed aphrodisiac properties of asparagus. Whether you believe aphrodisiac foods truly exist or not, you probably know about this vegetable’s reputation. Confusingly, there seems to be some debate over whether anyone in the Early Modern period actually bought into the idea that asparagus could really “stirreth up bodily lust”. The following exchange from Richard Brome’s The Sparagus Garden (1640) shows two characters discussing the nature of the vegetable:

Moneylack: Have you this Spring eaten any Asparagus yet?

Rebecca: Why is that good for a woman that longs to bee with Child?

Mon. Of all the Plants, hearbes, rootes, or fruits that grow, it is the most provocative, operative and effective.

Reb.Indeed Sir Hugh?

Mon. All your best (especially your moderne) Herballists conclude, that your Asparagus is the onely sweet stirrer that the earth sends forth, beyond your wild Carrets, Cornflag, or Gladiall. Your roots of Standergrasse, or of Satyrion boyld in Goates milke are held good; your Clary or Horminum in divers wayes good, and Dill (especially boyld in Oyle) is also good: but none of these, nor Saffron boyld in wine, your Nuts of Artichoakes, Rocket, or seeds of Ash-tree (which wee call the Kite keyes) nor thousand such, though all are good, may stand up for perfection with Asparagus.

This would seem like fairly solid evidence at first, but in an article entitled ‘Asparagus and Brome’s The Sparagus Garden’ (1971, Modern Philology Vol 68 No. 4), Leroy L. Panek argues that many herbals of the period do not actually mention the aphrodisiac effects of asparagus at all, referring much more frequently to carrots, dill, standergrass, and others. The point of the scene, Panek says, is that Moneylack is misleading Rebecca so that she will buy some asparagus.

Having delved into a few herbals and diet books, I do think Panek makes a good point about Moneylack talking up the effects of asparagus in the play, indeed I have noticed that it’s quite often mentioned without any reference to it’s more racy benefits. However, on the other hand I don’t think this means that asparagus wasn’t considered to have any beneficial effects relating to sex at all, and I have spotted a few. William Langham’s The Garden of Health (1597) lists sperage under the heading “Seed, to increase”, and William Bullein’s Bulwarke of Defense (also from 1579) states that a syrup of asparagus “doeth increase seede of generation”. Those texts are both from the late 16th century, but asparagus was still thought of as a lusty vegetable by some 30 years later,  in John Gerard’s 1633 The Herball or General History of Plants he mentions that “they are thought to increase seed, and stir vp lust”.

It seems by no means a cut and dried case for whether or not asparagus was really considered an aphrodisiac. The section on asparagus from Culpeper’s The English Physitian indicates that the benefits of the vegetable were perhaps in dispute in the 16th century:

“[asparagus] being taken fasting several mornings together stirreth up bodily lust in Man or Woman (whatsoever some have written to the contrary.)”

I’m siding with Culpeper on this one for the purposes of this blog, and now I’m off to cook chicken with asparagus a la Hannah Wolley. I’ll be using her 1675 book The Accomplish’d lady’s delight in preserving, physick, beautifying, and cookery, and I’ll report back once the experiment is complete!

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