Hungry History

Shakespeare’s Suppers

By Stephanie Butler
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Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Those words might be the most famous ones Shakespeare ever wrote about food, but they’re hardly the only ones. In between the star-crossed lovers, the mad kings and the bumbling courtiers, Shakespeare mentions food in every one of his plays. So what would Shakespeare himself have eaten?

The food of Tudor times was surprisingly varied. While every member of society ate porridge and bread, it was far from the bland, boring diet we might picture. For one thing, a variety of flours and grains were used in cooking. Rye, barley, oats, as well as wheat were used, to create a much larger range of texture and flavor than what most modern bakers know. And thanks to new innovations in animal husbandry and farming, vegetables and fruit crops grew better than ever before. “Sallet” greens like sorrel, spinach and mustard were important parts of the Tudor diet, although they were rarely eaten raw: It was believed that uncooked fruits and vegetables could make you sick.

In this era, food was closely tied to medicine. People genuinely believed “you are what you eat,” so many of the foodstuffs of Tudor times also had medicinal properties. Manuscripts written for cooks would often feature recipes alongside medical instructions. For instance, Sarah Longe’s Recipe Book, written in about 1610, has three separate sections: “Preserves and conserves,” “cokery,” and “Physicke and Chirurgery,” giving a clear idea of just how intertwined “cookery” and “surgery” really were.

And it wasn’t only foods that were valued for their medicinal qualities. Beverages like beer, wine and cider were drunk to stave off illness, as well. Cholera and other water-borne diseases were real dangers in this time, so these processed, low-alcohol drinks were often safer options than just plain water. Hot beverages like chocolate, tea and coffee were introduced to Britain during Shakespeare’s time. The stimulant values of these caffeine-rich drinks was well noted, and they were first drunk by scholars who needed to be alert. But these beverages were expensive, and needed specialized coffee pots and chocolate tankards that would have been out of reach for all but the most well off.

One of the largest differences between the way Shakespeare ate and the way we modern folk do was the way food was seasoned. In the bard’s time, spices and sweets were used heavily, even in savory dishes. Cinnamon would not have been out of place on a chicken, and it wasn’t unusual to see black pepper, cloves and honey in a recipe for rabbit stew. Contrary to popular belief, this preference for sweet and spicy foods didn’t arise as a way to cover up spoiled food, but from the influence of Near Eastern cuisines on the British diet. Much later, in the 1700s, this preference changed, and we begin to see the salty, sour and tangy foods we still eat today.

Categories: British History, William Shakespeare