Thursday, May 25, 2006

No More Than a Beast

The book currently on my night stand is “Shakespeare, the invention of the human” written by Harold Bloom. Bloom sustains that Shakespeare not only “invented the English language, but created human nature as we know it today.”

Which, of course, begs the question – what did Shakespeare like to eat?

Preliminary research swiftly led me to my first conclusion: I am not an original. There is so much information about food in Elizabethan times that I barely knew what to do with it (I love the Internet. Whatever did we do before it?)

To clarify, my question was not “what was food like when he was alive?” nor was it “what food was available?” but rather “what did he himself like?” When he got up, did he crave eggs with butter and thyme for breakfast? Did he like tea? Did he snack on figs and almonds while he wrote? Did he think to crush berries into his milk, cook his lamb with rosemary? Did he have a drink with dinner? I’m sure he was so engrossed with his writing that he’d forget to eat. But, when he resurfaced, what did he hunger for?

My second and subsequent conclusions require a disclaimer. Harold Bloom wrote a 745 page book that was a “culmination of a lifetime or reading, writing about, and teaching Shakespeare”. This is a three page blog, the result of an idle question followed by a few days of tentative research. In other words: it’s not authoritative.

Familiar phrases, such as someone eating us “out of house and home”, “the apple of my eye”, “the milk of human kindness”, and “the world is my oyster” are all taken from Shakespeare’s plays. But, does any character ever mention what exactly was on that menu when he was “eaten out of house and home”? Was it a feast, exuberant, exotic, or plain abundant, like an all-you-can-eat buffet? And, that apple, what color was it? Was it sweet? Did he try it with hard cheese? Did he mention milk was the first thing he ever tasted? Was that oyster of his still in its shell, or was it smoked, or salted?

“Sweets to the sweet” would come close to relishing a dessert if it hadn’t been used to describe flowers being thrown into a grave.

Without further ado, my second conclusion: Shakespeare’s passion was human nature, not food. His pen, not his fork. Betrayal, not creamy consistency. I arrive at this because I couldn’t find a character who rapturously described a meal anywhere. (I would love to be proved wrong, Mr. Bloom.)

Love inspired “…love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove. O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken. It is the star to every wandering bark, whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”

The meaning of life inspired “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Beauty inspired "I have seen a medicine that's able to breathe life into a stone".

Yet cabbage inspired “Good worts! good cabbage.”

If Shakespeare attributes to his characters his own inclinations, then he probably liked hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds "Sweet meats, messengers of strong prevailment in an unhardened youth" and perhaps, like my father, ate less during a meal to leave room for cheese "I will make an end of my dinner, there's pippins and cheese to come."

Shakespeare – the pity of it! - never knew potatoes, tomatoes or chocolate, but strawberries were the pattern that adorned Desdemona’s handkerchief (oh, that handkerchief.)

Herbs and spices are mentioned frequently throughout his plays and sonnets. (“Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant Nettles or sow Lettuce, set Hyssop, and weed up Thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.”) The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, in fact, has a Shakespeare Garden, which depicts all herbs mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

Among those he mentions are basil, laurel, rosemary (There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember) chamomile (for though the chamomile, the more it is trodden on the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted the sooner it wears) fennel, mint, lavender, marjoram, mustard, parsley, and leeks. He mentions peppercorn, saffron and nutmeg too.

Fruit is given its place, although less in the context of food and more as example, comparison or circumstance of behavior. Berries, oranges, apples - often followed by the word “rotten” - (“There's small choice in rotten apples") Cherries (“So we grew together, like to a double cherry, seeming parted, But yet an union in partition.”), mulberries. Perhaps he loved figs, but not more than he loved life (“O excellent! I love long life better than figs.”) Raisins, currants, prunes, olives, dates, even mushrooms, which it sounds like he regarded with suspicion ("...And you, whose pastime is to make midnight mushrooms...")

He mentions legumes and cereals – mostly beans, barley and rice. Eggs, meat, fish and seafood abound – veal, venison, lamb, beef, hare, duck, quail, herring, trout, mussels. Butter (“I will rather trust a fleming with my butter...than my wife with herself.”) Garlic and onion (“and, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath”) and, pansies (“and there is pansies, that's for thoughts.”)

Although I found many recipes made with food that existed in his time, I only found one recipe written by Shakespeare himself. And it wasn’t exactly for soup.

Round about the cauldron go.
In the poisoned entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Sweltered venom sleeping got
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake.
Eye of net and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blindworm's sting,
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
of the ravined salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat and slips of yew
Slivered in the moon's eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tatar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-delivered by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab.
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
For the ingredients of our caldron.

Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon's blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

--Macbeth, IV, 1

And then there is, I fear conclusively “What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast; no more.”


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