For most of his life, Henry VIII was a meat eater. In 16th-century England, fruits and vegetables were strictly for the poor. Then Henry married Catherine of Aragon. Catherine was brought up in southern Spain, where produce was revered and abundant, and she persuaded Henry that fruits and vegetables were fit for kings and queens. One could argue that Henry’s lust for produce became a touch overwrought—he once ordered a deputy to buy him all of the artichokes in Calais—but as his diet became more varied, so did the rest of Britain’s. By 1685, when James II decided to throw himself a coronation banquet, cuisine had evolved to the point that James ordered 145 dishes served in the first course and 30 in the second.
“Fooles and Fricassees: Food in Shakespeare’s England,” a recently opened exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library, chronicles the Elizabethan Brits’ culinary transformation from indiscriminate meatheads to proto-gourmands. And the evolution was fairly seismic: Evidence suggests that, around the time of the Bard’s birth, the Brits’ liberal use of cinnamon, sugar, and cloves made everything they ate, be it chicken or cow’s lips, taste something like apple cider. In less than 100 years, thanks to both Catherine’s influence and that of an influx of French and Dutch farmers, Brits were dining almost like Upper East Side gentry before Julia Child’s great-great-great-great-grandmother even started to date.
Rachel Doggett, the library’s Andrew W. Mellon curator of books, confesses that the program’s organizers refrained from cooking their way into the past during research for the show—although they could have. The exhibit comprises largely cookbooks authored by chefs from the era and “receipt books” handwritten by Elizabethan housewives. The latter often included recipes for things such as “plaster to keep a woman from miscarring” alongside instructions on how to boil a capon, but there is evidence that the 17th-century Brits had sophisticated palates. While Frenchman Francois Pierre de la Varenne’s cookbook, translated into English in the mid-1600s, was partly responsible for introducing roux and ragout into the country’s culinary lexicon, British author Robert May published a book of more than 1,000 recipes around the same time. And Doggett says studies show that the bulk of May’s work was entirely original.
One question that the exhibit doesn’t answer is why, at least until recently, the English have been commonly considered horrendous cooks. According to Doggett, the stigma grew in modern times as food became less a matter of life and death. “You have to realize that the simple business of just having enough food was different then than it is today,” she says. “One of the reasons that you see such a focus on food [in the Elizabethan era] is that it was such an important aspect of people’s lives.”—Brett Anderson