Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Shakespeare and...Thanksgiving?

Ah, Thanksgiving. That time of year for being with family and friends and for cooking ridiculous amounts delicious food…turkey and cranberries and sweet potatoes topped with globs of marshmallows and pumpkin pie! But is it possible to draw a connecting line between today’s epicurean extravaganza and foodie fetes in Shakespeare’s England? Absolutely. While Shakespeare wrote all of his plays well before the Plymouth colonists celebrated their first harvest with the Wampanoag Indians in 1621, giving birth to the Thanksgiving legend, the New World and its foods were no strangers to Elizabethans. And neither was the concept of a harvest festival. English harvest festivals abounded in the latter quarter of the Elizabethan calendar. November 11th marked the feast of St. Martin, and November 30th was the feast of St. Andrew, both denoting the end of the harvest season and the coming on of winter. On these days, Elizabethans would get together and stuff their faces, much as we do today.

In fact, a lot of what we consider traditional American holiday staples originated in England: stuffing the turkey with bread and dried fruit, apple pies, and even gingerbread houses. This is due to the intermingling of ingredients and cooking techniques which took place as Europeans explored the Americas and brought back various new items to their home countries, putting their own unique spins on them. The first turkeys arrived in England in the early sixteenth century by way of Spanish traders from the New World. These birds caught on quickly, being larger than the chicken and tastier than the swan or the peacock. Tomatoes, potatoes, chili peppers, maize, beans, pumpkins, coffee, and chocolate, to name just a few, were some of the other imports. Furthermore, spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and mace had previously arrived in England during the Middle Ages, brought from the east by crusaders.

Indeed, you could say that Shakespeare was living during a pretty gastronomically exciting time. Elizabethans were taking full advantage of the spice trade, comparatively new in the history of the country, and now they also had a plethora of new products flowing in from the New World with which to experiment. While there are definitely plenty of recipes from the time which seem less than appealing to our modern palettes, some don’t sound half bad. Take this recipe for baked quinces (a relative of the pear), for example, from A Book of Cookrye, published in 1591: “Core your Quinces and fair pare them, perboyle them in seething licour, Wine or water, or halfe wine and half water and season them with Sinamon and sugar, and put halfe a dozen Cloves into your Pyes amongst them, and halfe a dozen spoonful of rosewater, put in good of sugar. If you will bake them a slighter waye, you maye put in Muscadell to spare Sugar.” Mmm.

There are many food references in Shakespeare’s plays, often used in a metaphorical sense. Interestingly, the word “corn” appears in several of Shakespeare’s plays. In 2 Henry VI, Duchess Eleanor questions her husband, “Why droops my lord, like over-ripen’d corn” (1.2.1)? Yet, in these cases, Shakespeare was not actually referring to the American corn with which we are familiar. Instead, “corn,” in the early modern context, meant “grain.” In this sense, corn provides a useful metaphor in several scenes for striking down an enemy. A harvest reference appears in 3 Henry VI, when King Edward speaks of cutting down his enemies “like to autumn’s corn” (5.7.3). In Henry VIII, Archbishop Cranmer predicts of the infant Queen Elizabeth that her foes will “shake like a field of beaten corn” (5.5.31). And while there are numerous references to feasting in Shakespeare’s works, along with several feast scenes featured in the plays, when specific foods are mentioned it is usually by “low” or comic characters. The Clown in The Winter’s Tale, for instance, describes his grocery list for a feast as follows: “Let me see: what am I to buy for our sheep-shearing feast? Three pounds of sugar, five pound of currants, rice […]. I must have saffron to color the warden pies; mace; dates […]; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger […]; four pounds of pruins, and as many of raisins o’ th’ sun” (4.3.36-49). Also, there are many more references to wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages than there are to chewable foods. For a nifty collection of each and every reference to food of all sorts in Shakespeare, from almond to zucchini, take a look at this site.

So, while Shakespeare and his contemporaries might have missed out on the traditional American Thanksgiving – which was only established on its current date in 1941 – and the joys of fifteen pound turkeys, French’s green bean casserole, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Black Friday, they were certainly familiar with the concept of coming together with those closest to them as the autumn drew to a close, enjoying the fruits of the harvest and celebrating with good food and good cheer. And Shakespeare, as he usually does, has some good advice to offer upon the occasion:

“O Lord that lends me life,
Lend me a heart replete with thankfulness.”
- 2 Henry VI, 1.1.19-20.

Natalie A.

PS. Should you want to try your hand at Renaissance cooking, HistoricalFoods.com offers recipes for “gilded marchpane” – a fantastical marzipan centerpiece favored by the Tudors – and even “buttered beere,” which I’ve been wanting to try since the first time Harry Potter sampled the stuff in Hogsmeade. And, if you wish to expand your horizons to the Stuart period, you can even try “roast wild boar,” “plague-water” (helpful for keeping away that pesky pestilence), and “toast of divers sorts.”


  1. I am now strangely hungry, and I can't wait to explore the recipes! Cheers!

  2. My first comments! Thank you so much!

  3. Thanksgiving food festival is mainly for cooking variety of recipes and share with family members and friends. In that festival turkeys, potatoes and pancakes are taking important place, its a holiday festival.