Seventeenth-Century Cookery: Don’t try this at home!

Heinrich Aldegrever, The rich man at his table, from The Parable of Dives and Lazarus, 1554, engraving, sheet: 8 x 11 cm. Gift of Henry Walters, 1917 (17.37.228). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Public Domain)

One of the great pleasures of teaching English Literature is that my students often surprise and delight me with the unusual material that they find to study, especially when they move on to more independent research in their final year, or undertake postgraduate courses. Some of the most fascinating material uncovered recently has been generated by the relatively new undergraduate optional paper the ‘Material Renaissance’, which explores all kinds of intersections between literature and material culture during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A favourite quotation from this year’s work comes from an early modern recipe book. I offer this as an antidote to all the craft and cookery projects that we are being encouraged to undertake at home during what is, for so many of us, the entirely mythical ‘free time’ opened up by the lockdown.

The point here is not just that old recipes might challenge modern cooks, though you might very well not have rose-water or live frogs to hand. Beyond that, however, lies that fact that early modern printed recipe books were usually not practical guides on how to create particular dishes (information that was often compiled by individual housewives in manuscript). Instead, printed cookery books were socially aspirational culinary fantasias that claimed to offer a window onto the life of the most privileged by purporting – usually quite spuriously – to be making available the secret recipes of a particular noble household. The idea is not that the reader might prepare any of these dishes as home; rather that, conversely, they might be imaginatively transported into a world of luxury, abundance and multi-sensory pleasure that itself constituted a lavish work of fiction.

Triumphs and Trophies in Cookery, to be used at Festival Times, as Twelfth-day, &c.

Make the likeness of a Ship in Paste-board, with Flags and Streamers, the Guns belonging to it of Kickses, bind them about with packthread, and cover them with close paste proportionable to the fashion of a Cannon with Carriages, lay them in places convenient as you see them in Ships of war, with such holes and trains of powder that they may all take Fire; Place your Ship firm in the great Charger; then make a salt round about it, and stick therein egg-shells full of sweet water, you may by a great Pin take all the meat out of the egg by blowing, and then fill it up with the rose-water, then in another Charger have the proportion of a Stag made of course paste, with a broad Arrow in the side of him, and his body filled up with claret-wine; in another Charger at the end of the Stag have the proportion of a Castle with Battlements, Portcullices, Gates and Draw-Bridges made of Past-board, the Guns and Kickses, and covered with course paste as the former; place it at a distance from the ship to fire at each other.

The Stag being placed betwixt them with egg shells full of sweet water (as before) placed in salt. At each side of the Charger wherein is the Stag, place a Pye made of course paste, in one of which let there be some live Frogs, in each other some live Birds; make these Pyes of course Paste filled with bran, and yellowed over with saffron or the yolks of eggs, guild them over in spots, as also the Stag, the Ship, and Castle; bake them, and place them with guilt bay-leaves on turrets and tunnels of the Castle and Pyes; being baked, A8make a hole in the bottom of your pyes, take out the bran, put in your Frogs, and Birds, and close up the holes with the same course paste, then cut the Lids neatly up; To be taken off the Tunnels; being all placed in order upon the Table, before you fire the trains of powder, order it so that some of the Ladies may be perswaded to pluck the Arrow out of the Stag, then will the Claret-wine follow, as blood that runneth out of a wound.

This being done with admiration to the beholders, after some short pause, fire the train of the Castle, that the pieces all of one side may go off, then fire the Trains, of one side of the Ship as in a battel; next turn the Chargers; and by degrees fire the trains of each other side as before. This done to sweeten the stink of powder, let the Ladies take the egg-shells full of sweet waters and throw them at each other. All dangers being seemingly over, by this time you may suppose they will desire to see what is in the pyes; where lifting first the lid off one pye, out skip some Frogs, which make the Ladies to skip and shreek; next after the other pye, whence come out the Birds, who by a natural instinct flying in the light, will put out the Candles; so that what with the flying Birds and skipping Frogs, the one above, the other beneath, will cause much delight and pleasure to the whole company: at length the Candles are lighted, and a banquet brought in, the Musick sounds, and every one with much delight and content rehearses their actions in the former passages. These were formerly the delight of the Nobility, before good House-keeping had left England, and the Sword really acted that which was only counterfeited in such honest and laudable Exercises as these.

Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook (1685)

If your appetite for early modern food has been whetted, you can also still enjoy the sumptuous exhibits of the Fitzwilliam’s recent ‘Feast and Fast’ exhibition online.

Jane Partner, Fellow and Pt II Director of Studies in English