The food’s the thing: Scholar puts a sweet twist on the works of Shakespeare
In William Shakespeare’s day, sugar was considered good for you, meat was thought to be easily digested and alcohol – well – the more, the healthier!
“People believed in something called ‘digestive fire,’ and they thought beverages like wine, ale and liquor sustained that fire and thus promoted health,” explains Keri Sanburn Behre, who will present “Shakespeare’s Food: A Rich and Relevant History” Monday night at the Lawrence Public Library. “They thought that water, on the other hand, could extinguish that fire, and they worried that excessive consumption caused humoral imbalance and illness.”
Behre is a doctoral candidate in English, the Richard and Jeanette Sias Graduate Fellow at Kansas University’s Hall Center, and an admitted foodie who enjoys baking wedding cakes for family and friends. She recognized a kindred spirit in “The Bard of Avon” while researching her dissertation, titled “Appetite and Authority on the Early Modern English Stage.”
“In reading Shakespeare’s plays, and a lot of other dramatists from the Early Modern era, I noticed a lot of references to foods,” Behre says. “It just kept coming up for me as a topic as I was studying, and it raised a lot of questions about what those foods meant to the play’s original audiences. As I got into the dissertation, I began to realize the answers help us understand the plays better, as well as helping us understand our own relationships and beliefs about food.”
While people’s culinary passions seemed to be as high in the 16th and 17th centuries as they are today, notions about the benefits or dangers of certain foods differ wildly.
“There was a tendency to believe that very rich, calorie-dense foods such as meat, sugar and relatively refined grains were easier to digest and thus healthier,” Behre notes. “Similarly, many fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those prone to quick spoilage, were considered very suspect and looked upon in ways that we might look at highly processed junk foods. Some of the books I’ve studied prescribe a very complicated set of rules for determining the nutritional suitability of an apple. The wrong types of apples were thought to cause problems in certain people.”
Cantaloupes were considered particularly problematic.
“There were repeated stories about people dying from a surfeit of cantaloupes. They believed that overeating watery fruits like melons could actually cause you to die.”
Folks in the Elizabethan era weren’t dashing out to buy chai lattes or acai berry smoothies from the market, but they were as susceptible as we are to the trends of the moment.
“That’s been the most interesting thing to me,” Behre says, “that food fads are absolutely nothing new. And I’m not 100 percent convinced that the food fads we get caught up in today are based upon real, scientific information, any more than the fads of the 16th century.”
Like today, many early food fads were health-related, though people weren’t necessarily watching their weight.
“While the restriction of food for weight loss wasn’t widespread, people did fast to cleanse themselves of sins and unwanted behaviors,” Behre explains. “One of the texts I studied this summer recommended a diet of boiled lettuce as an antidote to irritable personalities, which evokes images of the cabbage soup diets. Of course, I’m certain it would be possible to find another text that contradicts that. Conflicting advice proliferated in this period, and there’s evidence that individuals were eager audiences to such instructions.”
Maria Butler, community relations coordinator for the library, says the marriage of food and Modern Era literature piqued her own interest, and she hopes it will do the same for library patrons.
“I love Shakespeare and that whole period of time,” Butler says. “I have English ancestors, and I’m hoping to find out I’m related to William someday. That was the pull for me. And, any time we can include something to eat, that’s always a plus.”
Butler refers to the snack-type foods, typical of the period, to be served at Behre’s presentation.
Among them will be sugar cakes, a shortbread-style cookie that WheatFields Bakery is recreating from a 1610 recipe.
“We love being able to try new ‘old’ things,” says Jane Patrick, WheatFields general manager. “We did an ancho chili and cinnamon truffle for another event at the library in February. And those ended up becoming a regular item that we sell here. We’ll have to see what happens with the sweet cakes.”