Happy New Year everyone! Christmas, with all its delightful foods, is over, and now it’s January, the month when many people resolve to change their eating habits – ranging from a new year’s resolution to eat a bit more healthily, to those bizarre faddish diets peddled by the likes of Heat magazine. As one of my main research interests is cultural attitudes to food, I inevitably end up thinking about these annual rituals of consumption we have created, and wonder what that says about our culture. There seems to be a strange pattern of indulgence and shame around food at Christmas and new year – we’re encouraged to treat ourselves, and then in January we have to atone for our sins of consumption. At this time of the year, food is represented as able to influence our emotional state and change our lives – Christmas food is a treat and a comfort, it inspires nostalgia, but salad will make us feel better about our bodies and ourselves, it is full of promise and hope for the future (especially if you are a woman).
I was fascinated when reading the little playlet/dialogue that I posted recently to find that the idea of having special, indulgent foods that are only eaten at Christmas was not a modern thing at all. Of course I know that eating particular foods to celebrate a particular festival or event was as old as the hills, but it was the idea of indulgence that interested me -the sweet treats of plum pudding and mince pie at Christmas were welcome over the Christmas period, but deemed not appropriate for the rest of the year, apparently because of their sweetness.
Having said all of that, I am in fact doing a post on salad. This is partly inspired by the aforementioned January custom, and partly by a suggestion from my friend Lana who has been researching some early modern cookbooks recently and came across some recipes. It is timely for me as well, since I have recently been eating a lot more vegetables over the last few weeks, for reasons that have nothing to do with the season or any sudden urge to diet, and everything to do with the fact that I got this as a Christmas present.
Anyway, we begin our journey into the world of salad with these lines from Samuel Daniel’s The Queen’s Arcadia (1607):
I will attend thy flockes better then she,
And dresse thy Bower more sweete, more daintily,
And cheerish thee with Salets, and with Fruites,
And all fresh dainties as the season sutes;
Salads, perhaps more than any other dish, are strongly associated with the seasons. Even today, with most vegetables available all year round, you will still find recipes for “winter salads” made of roasted root vegetables and “summer salads” with fresh green vegetables. The seasonality of salads is, you might expect, much more evident in early modern cookery. Seasonal salads were certainly on the menu, winter salads were often made entirely of preserved and pickled vegetables:
Ant.But how shall wee dispose of them?
Barrell them vp and send them for new England.
Ant.A pox there’s fooles enow already there.
Let’s pickle them for winter Sallads.
Admittedly, the characters in Peter Hausted’s The Rival Friends (1632) are not actually discussing vegetables but some people they are considering murdering, but I still think it illustrates the point.
This leads us to ask, what exactly is a salad? Even today, I think there is probably some confusion over the term. I generally think of leafy green vegetables as the basis for a salad, perhaps with other ingredients and/or a dressing. Salads can mean a lot of things, they can be raw or cooked, elaborate or simple. They are usually, I think, made of separate ingredients tossed together. The term is certainly murky. The OED gives us the following definition:
A cold dish of herbs or vegetables (e.g. lettuce, endive), usually uncooked and chopped up or sliced, to which is often added sliced hard-boiled egg, cold meat, fish, etc., the whole being seasoned with salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar.
It also refers to an earlier, broader, definition of herbs, pickles, cucumbers and the like which were eaten with roast meat.
There certainly seems to have been a lot of variety in the kinds of salads served up at an early modern feast. Gervase Markham, in The English Housewife (1631), gives us recipes for simple salads, compound salads, boiled salads, preserved salads, compound preserved salads and, most intriguingly, “sallats for shew only”. These are made as follows:
Now for Sallets for shew only, and the adorning and setting out of a table with numbers of dishes, they be those which are made of Carret rootes of sundrye colours well boiled, and cut out into many shapes and proportions, as some into knots, some in the manner of Scutchions and Armes, some like Birds, and some like wild Beasts, according to the Art and cunning of the Workman; and these for the most part are seasoned with Vinegar, Oyle, and a little Pepper. A world of other Sallets there are, which time and experience may bring to our Hous wifes eye, but the composition of them, and the seruing of them differeth nothing from these already rehearsed.
It reminds me of those carved raw root vegetables you sometimes see in Chinese restaurants. You might get a swede carved into an elaborate rose, and there is a place I sometimes go to that has thick carrots carved into miniature Venus de Milos that they put on the plate when you order a mixed starter for a large group.
Do you remember Calandrino from Philip Massinger’s The Great Duke of Florence, who made an appearance in the post on custards? There we saw custards, cakes and the like associated with the court, while “plain Sallads” were for the countryside. I recently came across this rather interesting passage in Thomas Dekker’s Northward Hoe (1607) which situates the salad eaters not only in the country, but also in a particular region:
looke you Sir, the Northerne man loues white-meates, the Southery man Sallades, the Essex man a Calfe, the Kentishman a Wag-taile, the Lancashire man an Egg-pie, the Welshman Leekes and Cheese, and your Londoners rawe Mutton, so Father god-boy, I was borne in London
Having lived my entire life on the South coast, I suppose this means I shall enjoy the cookery part of my adventures in early modern salads. Stay tuned for some recipes coming up in a week or so!