Tag Archives: Heywood

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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Comfits Part 1: History and background

“Comfort in comfits!” by piX1966, used under a Creative Commons License Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post (for a variety of reasons – largely work related), but I’ve been thinking about doing a post on comfits for a while, and I have a little bit of time free so I thought I’d get on with it.

I actually tried making comfits when I made the custards, but it was an utter disaster – more on that when I post the results of my second attempt at making them.

I found this page with some interesting information about comfit making and some lovely pictures. I just love that one with the mouse, although that might have something to do with my enduring affection for rodents in general (I have two pet rats).

A comfit is essentially a sugar coated spice, seed or other small morsel. We still have them today, in fact licorice comfits are one of my favourite sweets. References to comfits in 16th and 17th century drama and poetry seem to be quite frequent. They are sometimes mentioned in diet books and regimens as a way of consuming certain herbs and spices – Thomas Cogan, for example, in The Haven of Health (1584) suggests taking coriander comfits after meals to help those “much troubled by rhumes” – rhume seems to be essentially a runny nose.

Comfits were associated quite strongly with banqueting. I have mentioned banquets before, but I don’t think I’ve gone into much detail. It’s worth pointing out that in the medieval and early modern periods, banquet didn’t quite mean what it means today. We think of a banquet as a being a large feast, but in the past the banquet did not generally refer to  an entire meal (though it was sometimes used in that sense), but more often to a course served at the end of a meal, after the dessert. It was also sometimes known as a voydee. Comfits, marchpane, candied fruit and other sweetmeats generally made up the banquet course.

References in early modern literature, drama in particular, are quite frequent. A particularly interesting example, I think, is a poem by Nicholas Breton called “An odde kynde of wooing, with a banquet of comfettes” which comes at the end of his 1577 poetry collection The works of a young wyt. The poem is described in an introduction as such:

A gentleman being of late at an odde banquet, where were diuers women of diuers disposition, and being serued in at the table diuers comfits of sundry sorts, being come home from the supper to his owne lodging, sitting alone in his chamber, hee compared the women with the comfites, in verse as followeth

And that’s basically the gist – the man has a selection of comfits at a banquet, he dances with some ladies, then he goes home, eats the comfits, and thinks about the women. “Long comfites” remind him of a fair, tall and gallant dame, but “in the comfit was a bitter pill, so in the dame might be some bitter will”. Now, this “pill” is not a pill as in a tablet, but it’s an “Orenge pill”, as in peel. Next up, the man eats round coriander seeds which he declares wholesome, and which bring to his mind “a round, plumpe wench”. Ginger is the next kind of comfit, “whose tast did set my mouth all in a heate”, which reminds him of a tall woman “Whose lookes, mought set his mouth and hart on flame”. The man moves onto biscuits next, which make him think about “a prety wenche”. Then he hears someone shouting “fire”, so he runs off to help, and when he gets back someone has eaten up all his comfits. And that’s where it ends. Very curious indeed! I think the link between women and food might warrant some more investigation at some point.

Here’s a lovely passage from Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage (1594) referencing comfits:

Such bow, such quiuer, and such golden shafts,
Will Dido giue to sweete Ascanius:
For Didos sake I take thee in my armes,
And sticke these spangled feathers in thy hat,
Eate Comfites in mine armes, and I will sing.

The lines are spoken by Venus, who is trying to tempt Dido’s son Ascanius away so her own son Cupid can temporarily take his place. She also offers him “Sugar-almonds” and sweet conserves. It’s interesting to see just how far back the familiar trope of children having a taste for sweets and sugary things goes.

Comfit-makers are often mentioned in plays too, it seems to have been a well known profession. A character in Nicholas Breton’s (him again!) play An olde mans lesson, and a young mans loue (1605), during a little speech on the virtues of feasting, mentions how feasts provide work for “the Vintner, the Grocer. the Comfit-maker, the Cooke, the Brewer and the Butcher”. Even their wives make their way into drama – Hotspur in Henry IV part 1 berates his wife for swearing too meakly “like a comfit-makers wife”.

Finally, I just could not resist this lovely bit of word play from Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West (1631):

I will make bold to march in towards your banquet, and there comfit my selfe, and cast all carawayes downe my throat, the best way I have to conserve my selfe in health

Thanks for reading, good to be back after a little break. The recipe will be along in the next few days.

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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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