At dinner parties over the past few years, when I have admitted to writing a book on early modern English recipes, people have been amused if not aghast. But English cooking, with its soggy puddings and dry roast beef, is so notoriously boring, they would exclaim. And given the sophistication of Renaissance writing, why would one choose to investigate inelegant technical writing? Why indeed would anyone on earth devote time to thinking about the mechanics of English culinary writing?
Then, I drop the bombshell. In Shakespeare's day, English food was not very different from French or Italian cuisine. In fact, all of it was robust and highly seasoned. I have to repeat this point for it to sink in fully. Even the most knowledgeable "foodie" seems to find this information startling, though it is well known to culinary historians. From roughly 1200 to 1650, all European food—including English fare—relied on exotic seasonings to transform the natural flavors and textures of ingredients into dazzling combinations. Indeed, the ability to alter the fundamental character, flavor, and texture of a foodstuff was a marker of civilized society. The basic international (though regionally inflected) European elite cuisine depended on spices imported from southern China, the Moluccas, Malaya, and India (including cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cloves, and grains of paradise). Imported by Roman invaders, solidified by early trade with Italy and Spain, and made increasingly desirable during the Crusades, spices were at the center of the world economy that spurred discovery of the "New World" and colonial ventures. Spices were not prized because they could disguise the taste of spoiled meat, as legend has it, but instead were valued for their color, scent, medicinal properties, taste, and exclusivity.
The seventeenth century was when it all changed. European cuisine underwent nothing short of a seismic shift; the publication of Pierre La Varenne's 1651 Le Cuisiner heralded a definitive break with the cuisine of the past and set the template for a modern understanding of flavors. Instead of privileging profusion, abundance, and hybridity, the new French cuisine sought to showcase the natural flavors of ingredients. The keyword for the new palate was delicacy, which could be manifested by generating subtle butter-based sauces, removing sweeteners from savory dishes, reducing the number of seasonings in a single dish, increasing the ratio of herbs to spices, and developing techniques for concentrating natural flavors.
French recipe writers touted the ethical, aesthetic, and moral superiority of a "purist" cuisine over the former "transmutationalist" style of food: "let the cabbage soup taste entirely of cabbage, a leek soup of leeks, a turnip soup of turnips, and so on," Nicholas Bonnefons wrote in criticizing French chefs who failed to move with the times, "leaving elaborate mixtures of chopped meat, diced vegetables, breadcrumbs and other deceptions." Cutting-edge food was to divide artifice from nature as it identified "deceptions." Some writers expressed revulsion with the barbarousness of past tastes: "Doesn't it already make you shudder to think of a teal soup a l'hypocras, or larks in sweet sauce?" L.S.R. exclaims:
Nowadays it is not the prodigious overflowing of dishes, the abundance of ragouts and gallimaufries, the extraordinary piles of meat which constitute a good table; it is not the confused mixtures of spices, the mountains of roasts, the successive services of assiettes volantes, in which it seems that nature and artifice have been entirely exhausted in the satisfaction of the sense, which is the most palpable object of our delicacy of taste. It is rather the exquisite choice of meats, the finesse with which they are seasoned, the courtesy and neatness with which they are served, their proportionate relation to the number of people and finally the general order of things which essentially contribute to the goodness and elegance of a meal (1674).The new table was to promote neoclassical values, balance art and nature, omit hybridity, and curb excess. Because of the decreasing credibility of the psychophysiological theory of humoralism as well as the increased availability of spices (which gave them less cachet for culinary trendsetters), cookery across Europe was freed from the dictates of dietetic theory or traditional canons of taste.
English recipe writers responded to this culinary shot heard round the world by rejecting the new cuisine as horrifically and quintessentially French. Initially they stubbornly held on to dishes with piquant flavorings and increased their attachment to older Arab-influenced pastry pies and puddings. Rather than developing emulsions and complex sauces (the foundation of French cookery), they gradually began to relegate strongly spiced concoctions to condiments used to garnish unseasoned joints of meat. Food became blander and blander. Age-old dishes that had formerly been surrounded by piquant foods began to be segregated out to take precedence: boiled pigeons, rabbit pies, black puddings, and mutton. Through the eighteenth century, English cuisine gradually modulated into the form that people today might recognize as modern British food: proteins roasted or boiled with simple seasonings. Beef, always associated with the English, emerged as the classic national dish.
In the eighteenth century, the idea that the English enjoyed a national cuisine became such a naturalized concept many people could not imagine it had ever not been the case. They erased their historical recipe traditions and forgot how decidedly foreign their food had so proudly been. In The Art of Cookery, John Thacker complained that the natural English bodily constitution simply could no longer tolerate the foreign, complexly spiced dishes intruding onto the realm; Thacker did not recognize that the dishes he found objectionable were standard fare in the English medieval diet. Similarly, Joseph Addison urged readers of the Tattler to "return to the food of their forefathers, and reconcile themselves to beef and mutton. This was that diet which bred that hardy race of mortals who won the fields of Cressy and Agincourt." By the time that William Hogarth placed a huge side of beef in the hands of an Englishman in his painting The Gates of Calais, this mythology had been fully entrenched. England became identified as the land of puddings, boiled meats, pies, plain vegetables, and roast beef.
And yet, my subject is not the history of diet at all, though this remarkable evolution provides a crucial backdrop for the stories I tell. My subject is the recipe of the past, which is as unexpectedly rich and surprising as the cuisine it recommended. To my mind, we have not yet accounted for the fact that England took the stage as the most active site of cookery publication in Europe between 1575 and 1650. Unlike other European countries, England got in the game of recipe publication early and with great intensity. Why, I wondered, were recipes were so popular in early modern England? What roles did they play in the cultural imagination, and what type of intellectual worlds did they provide for users? While we might situate these forms at the intersection of different histories—of food, manners, literacy, gender roles, the growth of the middle class, nationalism—I address the question of their function and appeal by reading the recipes themselves to extract from them more than a history of food. Rather than being a dull form of technical writing, recipes, I argue, register the creative, intellectual, and social exchanges of those in the early modern household who were negotiating "life on the ground," those people trying to make sense of their worlds. Throughout locations in England—in pulpits, schools, shops, theaters, taverns, noble estates, inns of court, and anatomy theaters—people energetically tried to figure out what it meant to be a person, animal, woman, social creature, sinner, performer, mortal being, maker, and/or experimenter. They received and conceived knowledge in active, highly embodied ways. We've only just begun to appreciate the fact that these debates-in-action were also taking place amid the pots, pans, quills, and papers of the kitchen.
After careful deliberation and in the interests of accessibility and uniformity, I have silently modernized early modern instances of i, u, v, and vv.