We generally eschew judging a book by its cover, but the cover of Joan Fitzpatrick’s edited collection, Renaissance Food from Rabelais to Shakespeare : Culinary Readings and Culinary Histories speaks volumes about the volume. Joachim Beuckelaer’s sixteenth-century “Kitchen Interior”—featuring a rosy cheeked lass displaying all the ingredients of a Renaissance banquet: a pink slab of salmon, a prosciutto ham, two chickens, one duck, and myriad of vegetables and fruits (cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, mushrooms, peaches, and grapes)—graces the front cover and entices the reader to open the book. And inside, the reader will find a cornucopia of essays by notable scholars that equal the bounty of Beuckelaer’s rich painting.
After Fitzpatrick’s brief introduction, Part One begins with Diane Purkiss’s learned discourse on bread-types and recipes, and her illumination of the issues of social status, gender, labor, and law that relate to the staff of life. Purkiss establishes her initial questions with a quote from Henry V in which the voluble monarch ruminates how the “wretched slave” who is “crammed with distressful bread” and who “sweats” during the day “Sleeps in Elysium” all night—distinctly unlike his king. Deftly marshaling through biblical associations between sweat and labor, Purkiss eventually leads us to the real work and the technical skill involved in baking in early modern England. Noting that most bread historians do not appear to know much about baking bread, it is clear that Purkiss does, providing a clear understanding of the constituent parts of making bread from growing conditions, milling situations, percentage of gluten in various flours, to yeast acquisition from ale brewing, the changing taste in breads and the intense labor conditions. Grotesquely fascinating, early modern bread contained the sweat and other bodily fluids of the professional bakers who lived and worked in hot and squalid bakeries. At the end, Purkiss astutely returns us to Shakespeare and Henry V with a much greater appreciation of the cultural associations behind the bread in the play. Turning the reader toward France, Timothy J. Tomasik offers an essay focused on Rabelais’s Quart livre, and its close connection to early modern French cuisine, natural history, and medicine. Most criticism of Rabelais’s fourth book in which Pantagruel stops at Gaster’s gastronomic island proclaims that it is a “denunciation of food and banqueting excess” and suggests that this culinary excess is one of hyperbole (41). However, Tomasik argues that Rabelais instead was in conversation with the contemporaneous culinary practices of banqueting, adroitly revealing the breadth of ingredients and recipes in menus available from the burgeoning culinary literature of the period. In the Gaster episode, Rabelais stages “a long list of foods that may be considered the largest catalogue of comestibles in all of French literature,” yet, despite its seemingly excessive quality, the list is in direct conversation with early modern cookbooks and natural history books (29). For example, in Rabelais’s meatless-day menu, he lists 104 species of fish, shellfish, or aquatic animals which roughly mirror the 110 recipes for fish in Pierre Sergent’s publication, La Fleur de toute cuisine (c. 1543-47) and many of the species also appear in Pierre Belon’s and/or Guillaume Rondelet’s fish histories. As a primer of French Renaissance gastronomy, Tomasik’s article is a delight to read; as an argument about the Quart livre, it is utterly convincing.
Part Two, concerned with cookbooks and recipes, begins with Elizabeth Spiller’s contribution of a knowledgeable essay that takes the reader through a myriad of early modern histories concerning that of apothecaries, physicians, print, royal proclamations, Galenic dietaries, Paracelsian iatrochemistry, standards of measure, and books of secret, and medical and culinary receipts, as she walks us through an astonishing array of early manuscript and printed texts from the medieval Secretum Secretorum to Robert May’s Accomplisht Cook (1660) and many books in between. From this detailed evidence, Spiller creates an intricate argument about the burgeoning division of medicine from food and the proliferation of the seventeenth-century printed cookbooks. According to Spiller’s argument, the great medical tome Pharmacopoea Londinensis printed in 1618 instilled a standard of measurements in medical receipts, began to create a clear divide between medicine and food, and influenced how cookbook receipts would eventually be written, while at the same time stifling the publication of other receipt books. Ironically, as Spiller argues, the translation of the Pharmacopoea into English in 1649 inspired a whole new generation of printed cookbooks in the subsequent decades. Moving from theory to practice, Ken Albala records his foray into cooking the Renaissance way. Albala argues that food historians cannot really understand how early modern receipts worked without the practical knowledge of getting their figures in the pot, so to speak. What follows are five assays (Roasting, The Pipkin, Danish Marzipan, Olla Podrida, and Garlic Soup) about using recipes and, as closely as possible, techniques and utensils of the period. In his assay of “Roasting,” Albala describes the digging of firepit, making of a spit, and then the roasting great chunks of meats next to, not over, the fire, while hand turning a crank for hours. Albala argues that our understanding of this technique has been nearly lost—although to those of us living in barbeque country, it doesn’t sound so far removed. If nothing else, this essay should inspire all of us who write about the history of food to roll up our sleeves, put on the apron, and practice what we preach. In her interesting essay, Wendy Wall illuminates how Shakespeare’s references to “distillation,” “a liquid prisoner” and “flowers distill’d” in Sonnets 5 and 6 have not so much to do with the production of perfumes and therefore the male-dominated field of apothecaries (as most critics and editors have argued) but rather with the distillation of flowers, particularly roses, that fall under the purvey of the female domestic sphere. The essay provides a primer on the early modern housewifery practice of distilling in limbecks, preservation of flowers and foods, and the making of confections found in manuscript and print receipt books of the period. Wall then presents an innovative reading of the sonnets that takes into account how the “everydayness” of this domesticated trope changes how we can understand Shakespeare’s poems, connecting the ideas of kitchen preservation with poetic immortalization.
Bell is also attuned to the importance of humor in folly, showing that it is because Beatrice and Benedick are so funny that we care about them. This alerts us to the importance of the role of humor in the emotional impact of the plays and consequently of the importance of emotion per se. This does not undo the cruel side of folly, however, articulated most clearly in relation to Twelfth Night, where Bell narrates a sense of the way that this play leads its audience into complicity and then exposes our "misguided acquiescence" (91).
Taking food and feeding as its overarching theme, Part Three begins with Tracy Thong’s essay, which provides an enumeration of types of banquets in English plays from 1590-1640, but Thong has little to say about the cultural, social, political or religious significance of the banquets and what they mean within the context of the plays or the culture at large. Though generally lacking in argumentative substance, Thong’s section on Bromes’ little known play Sparagus Garden does offer an interesting discussion of the gendering of the garden and its connection to the play’s banquet. Joan Fitzpatrick’s essay has a focus on the dietary aspects of food in Shakespeare’s plays, a kind of extension of her monograph on the subject. The essay begins by pondering of what foods might compose Caliban’s meal on the island of The Tempest. Fitzpatrick provides a good history of various foods entering into England, their dietary significance, and their connection to Shakespeare’s plays. Containing many interesting facts and some good individual readings of these comestibles, the essay remains, however, primarily a catalogue of foods. Closing the book on a high note, Chris Mead argues the metaphorical connection between playwrights and cooks, presenting the trope of the raw and the cooked to show how both cooks and playwrights use “raw” materials—meats, vegetables, and fruits, in the case of the cook, and narratives from older plays, romances, and histories, in the case of the playwriting—to “cook” or create their own ephemeral art. The trope, as Mead shows us, is not his own but was in use in the period by both playwrights and chefs. Mead provides a fascinating romp through a profusion of classical, Jacobean, and Caroline plays to tease out his convincing argument, cleverly connecting the mouth that eats with the tongue that speaks. Any reader interested in the burgeoning field of food studies and literature, the history of food, or cooking will surely be rewarded by giving this book a good read.