Old Cookery Books and Ancient Cuisine/Meals

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It has been noted that for a great length of time two meals were made to suffice the requirements of all classes. Our own experience shows how immaterial the names are which people from age to age choose to bestow on their feeding intervals. Some call supper dinner, and others call dinner luncheon. First comes the prevailing mode instituted by fashionable society, and then a foolish subscription to it by a section of the community who are too poor to follow it, and too proud not to seem to do so. Formerly it was usual for the Great to dine and sup earlier than the Little; but now the rule is reversed, and the later a man dines the more distinguished he argues himself. We have multiplied our daily seasons of refreshment, and eat and drink far oftener than our ancestors; but the truly genteel Briton never sups; the word is scarcely in his vocabulary,—like Beau Brummel and the farthing—"Fellow, I do not know the coin!"

In a glossary of the tenth-eleventh century only two meals are quoted: undermeat = prandium, and even-meat = coena. That is to say, our Saxon precursors were satisfied as a rule with two repasts daily, but to this in more luxurious times were added the supper and even the rear-supper, the latter being, so far as we know, a second course or dessert and the bipartite collation corresponding to the modern late dinner. But it is one of those strange survivals of ancient manners which people practise without any consciousness of the fact, which is at the root of the fashion, which still occasionally prevails, of dividing the chief meal of the day by an interval of repose, and taking the wine and dessert an hour or two after the other courses; and the usage in our colleges and inns of court of retiring to another apartment to "wine" may claim the same origin. It is obvious that the rear-supper was susceptible of becoming the most important and costly part of an entertainment; and that it frequently assumed extravagant proportions, many passages from our early poets might be adduced to prove.

In the "Book of Cookery," 1500, we have the menu at the installation of Archbishop Nevill in York in 1467; but the bill of fare of a feast given by him in 1452 at Oxford, where he is mentioned as Master Nevill, son of the Earl of Salisbury, is inserted from the Cotton MS. Titus, in "Reliquiae Antiquae," 1841. It consisted of three courses, which seem to have been the customary limit. Of course, however, the usage varied, as in the "Song of the Boar's Head," of which there are two or three versions, two courses only are specified in what has the air of having been a rather sumptuous entertainment.

The old low-Latin term for the noonday meal was merenda, which suggests the idea of food to be earned before it was enjoyed. So in "Friar Bacon's Prophesie," 1604, a poem, it is declared that, in the good old days, he that wrought not, till he sweated, was held unworthy of his meat. This reminds one of Abernethy's maxim for the preservation of health,—to live on sixpence a day, and earn it.

The "Song of the Boar's Head," just cited, and printed from the Porkington MS. in "Reliquiae Antiquae" (ii, 30), refers to larks for ladies to pick as part of the second course in a banquet. On special occasions, in the middle ages, after the dessert, hippocras was served, as they have liqueurs to this day on the Continent both after dinner and after the mid-day breakfast.

The writer of "Piers of Fulham" lived to see this fashion of introducing a third meal, and that again split into two for luxury's sake; for his metrical biographer tells us, that he refused rear-suppers, from a fear of surfeiting.

I collect that in the time of Henry VIII. the supper was a well-established institution, and that the abuse of postponing it to a too advanced hour had crept in; for the writer of a poem of this period especially counsels his readers not to sup late.

Rear-suppers were not only held in private establishments, but in taverns; and in the early interlude of the "Four Elements," given in my edition of Dodsley, and originally published about 1519, a very graphic and edifying scene occurs of a party of roisterers ordering and enjoying an entertainment of this kind. About seventy years later, Robert Greene, the playwright, fell a victim to a surfeit of pickled herrings and Rhenish wine, at some merry gathering of his intimates falling under this denomination. Who will venture to deny that the first person who kept unreasonable hours was an author and a poet? Even Shakespeare is not exempt from the suspicion of having hastened his end by indulgence with one or two friends in a gay carouse of this kind.

The author of the "Description of England" enlightens us somewhat on the sort of kitchen which the middle class and yeomanry of his time deemed fit and sufficient. The merchant or private gentleman had usually from one to three dishes on the table when there were no visitors, and from four to six when there was company. What the yeoman's every-day diet was Harrison does not express; but at Christmas he had brawn, pudding and souse, with mustard; beef, mutton, and pork; shred pies, goose, pig, capon, turkey, veal, cheese, apples, etc., with good drink, and a blazing fire in the hall. The farmer's bill of fare varied according to the season: in Lent, red herrings and salt fish; at Easter, veal and bacon; at Martinmas, salted beef; at Midsummer, fresh beef, peas, and salad; at Michaelmas, fresh herrings and fat mutton; at All Saints', pork and peas and fish; and at Christmas, the same dainties as our yeoman, with good cheer and pastime.

The modern luncheon or nuncheon was the archaic prandium, or under-meat, displaced by the breakfast, and modified in its character by the different distribution of the daily repasts, so that, instead of being the earliest regular meal, like the grand déjeuner of the French, or coming, like our luncheon, between breakfast and dinner, it interposed itself between the noontide dinner and the evening supper. Now, with an increasing proportion of the community, the universal luncheon, postponed to a later hour, is the actual dinner; and our under-meal is the afternoon tea.

In those not-wholly-to-be-discommended days, the residue of the meal was consumed in the servants' hall, and the scraps bestowed on the poor at the gate; and the last part of the business was carried out, not as a matter of chance or caprice, but on as methodical a principle as the payment of a poor-rate. At the servants' table, besides the waiters and other attendants on the principal board, mentioned by Harrison, sat the master-cook, the pantler, the steward or major-domo, the butler, the cellarman, the waferer, and others. It was not till comparatively recent times that the wafery, a special department of the royal kitchen, where the confectionery and pastry were prepared, was discontinued.

There was necessarily a very large section of the community in all the large towns, especially in London, which was destitute of culinary appliances, and at the same time of any charitable or eleemosynary privileges. A multitude of persons, of both sexes and all ages, gradually developed itself, having no feudal ties, but attached to an endless variety of more or less humble employments.

How did all these men, women, boys, girls, get their daily food? The answer is, in the public eating-houses. Fitzstephen tells us that in the reign of Henry II. (1154-89), besides the wine-vaults and the shops which sold liquors, there was on the banks of the river a public eating-house or cook's-shop, where, according to the time of year, you could get every kind of victuals, roasted, boiled, baked, or fried; and even, says he, if a friend should arrive at a citizen's house, and not care to wait, they go to the shop, where there were viands always kept ready to suit every purse and palate, even including venison, sturgeon, and Guinea-fowls. For all classes frequented the City; and before Bardolph's day noblemen and gentlemen came to Smithfield to buy their horses, as they did to the waterside near the Tower to embark for a voyage.

One of the characters in the "Canterbury Tales"—the Cook of London—was, in fact the keeper of a cook's-shop; and in the Prologue to the Tale, with which his name is associated, the charming story of "Gamelin," the poet makes the Reeve charge his companion with not very creditable behaviour towards his customers. So our host trusts that his relation will be entertaining and good:—

"For many a pasty hast thou let blood,
And many a Jack of Dover[1] hast thou sold,
That hath been twice hot and twice cold.
Of many a pilgrim hast thou Christ's curse—
For thy parsley fare they yet the worse:
That they have eaten with the stubble goose,
For in thy shop is many a fly loose."
  1. A sole.

But these restaurants were not long confined to one locality. From a very early date, owing perhaps to its proximity to the Tower and the Thames, East Cheap was famed for its houses of entertainment. The Dagger in Cheap is mentioned in "A Hundred Merry Tales," 1526. The Boar is historical. It was naturally at the East-end, in London proper, that the flood-tide, as it were, of tavern life set in, among the seafarers, in the heart of industrial activity; and the anecdotes and glimpses which we enjoy show, just what might have been guessed, that these houses often became scenes of riotous excess and debauch. Lydgate's ballad of "London Lickpenny" helps one to imagine what such resorts must have been in the first part of the fifteenth century. It is almost permissible to infer that the street contained, in addition to the regular inns, an assortment of open counters, where the commodities on sale were cried aloud for the benefit of the passer-by; for he says:—

"When I hied me into East Cheap:
One cries ribs of beef, and many a pie:
Pewter pots they clattered on a heap;
There was harp, fife, and sautry."

The mention of pewter is noteworthy, because the Earl of Northumberland ate his dinner off wood in 1572. Pewter plates had not long been given up when I joined the Inner Temple in 1861.

There is a still more interesting allusion in the interlude of the "World and the Child," 1522, where Folly is made to say:—

"Yea, and we shall be right welcome, I dare well say,
In East Cheap for to dine;
And then we will with Lombards at passage play,
And at the Pope's Head sweet wine assay."

The places of resort in this rollicking locality could furnish, long before The Boar made the acquaintance of Falstaff, every species of delicacy and bonne bouche to their constituents, and the revelry was apt sometimes to extend to an unseasonable hour. In an early naval song we meet with the lines:

"He that will in East Cheap eat a goose so fat,
With harp, pipe, and song,
Must lie in Newgate on a mat,
Be the night never so long."
And these establishments infallibly contributed their quota or more to the prisons in the vicinity.

Houses of refreshment seem, however, to have extended themselves westward, and to have become tolerably numerous, in the earlier society of the sixteenth century, for Sir Thomas More, in a letter to his friend Dean Colet, speaking of a late walk in Westminster and of the various temptations to expenditure and dissipation which the neighbourhood then afforded, remarks: "Whithersoever we cast our eyes, what do we see but victualling-houses, fishmongers, butchers, cooks, pudding-makers, fishers, and fowlers, who minister matter to our bellies?" This was prior to 1519, the date of Colet's decease.

There were of course periods of scarcity and high prices then as now. It was only a few years later (1524), that Robert Whittinton, in one of his grammatical tracts (the "Vulgaria"), includes among his examples:—

"Befe and motton is so dere, that a peny worth of meet wyll scant suffyse a boy at a meale."

The term "cook's-shop" occurs in the Orders and Ordinances devised by the Steward, Dean, and Burgesses of Westminster in 1585, for the better municipal government of that borough.

The tenth article runs thus:—"Item, that no person or persons that keepeth or that hereafter shall keep any cook's-shop, shall also keep a common ale-house (except every such person shall be lawfully licensed thereunto), upon pain to have and receive such punishment, and pay such fine, as by the statute in that case is made and provided."

But while the keepers of restaurants were, as a rule, precluded by law from selling ale, the publicans on their side were not supposed to purvey refreshment other than their own special commodities. For the fifteenth proviso of these orders is:—

"Item, that no tavern-keeper or inn-keeper shall keep any cook shop upon pain to forfeit and pay for every time offending therein 4d."

The London cooks became famous, and were not only in demand in the City and its immediate outskirts, but were put into requisition when any grand entertainment was given in the country. In the list of expenses incurred at the reception of Queen Elizabeth in 1577 by Lord Keeper Bacon at Gorhambury, is an item of £12 as wages to the cooks of London. An accredited anecdote makes Bacon's father inimical to too lavish an outlay in the kitchen; but a far more profuse housekeeper might have been puzzled to dispense with special help, where the consumption of viands and the consequent culinary labour and skill required, were so unusually great.

In the Prologue to the "Canterbury Tales," the Cook of London and his qualifications are thus emblazoned:—

"A Cook thei hadde with hem for the nones,
To boylle chyknes, with the mary bones,
And poudre marchaunt tart, and galyngale;
Wel cowde he knowe a draugte of London ale.
He cowde roste, and sethe, and broille, and frie
Maken mortreux, and wel bake a pie.
But gret harm was it, as it thoughte me,
That on his schyne a mormal had he:
For blankmanger that made he with the beste."

This description would be hardly worth quoting, if it were not for the source whence it comes, and the names which it presents in common with the "Form of Cury" and other ancient relics. Chaucer's Cook was a personage of unusually wide experience, having, in his capacity as the keeper of an eating-house, to cater for so many customers of varying tastes and resources.

In the time of Elizabeth, the price at an ordinary for a dinner seems to have been sixpence. It subsequently rose to eightpence; and in the time of George I. the "Vade Mecum for Malt Worms (1720)" speaks of the landlord of The Bell, in Carter Lane, raising his tariff to tenpence. In comparison with the cost of a similar meal at present, all these quotations strike one as high, when the different value of money is considered. But in 1720, at all events, the customer ate at his own discretion.

Their vicinity to East Cheap, the great centre of early taverns and cook's-shops, obtained for Pudding Lane and Pie Corner those savoury designations.

Paris, like London, had its cook's-shops, where you might eat your dinner on the premises, or have it brought to your lodging in a covered dish by a porte-chape. In the old prints of French kitchen interiors, the cook's inseparable companion is his ladle, which he used for stirring and serving, and occasionally for dealing a refractory garçon de cuisine a rap on the head.

The Dictionary of Johannes de Garlandia (early thirteenth century) represents the cooks at Paris as imposing on the ignorant and inexperienced badly cooked or even tainted meat, which injured their health. These "coquinarii" stood, perhaps, in the same relation to those times as our keepers of restaurants.

He mentions in another place that the cooks washed their utensils in hot water, as well as the plates and dishes on which the victuals were served.

Mr. Wright has cited an instance from the romance of "Doon de Mayence," where the guards of a castle, on a warm summer evening, partook of their meal in a field. Refreshment in the open air was also usual in the hunting season, when a party were at a distance from home; and the garden arbour was occasionally converted to this kind of purpose, when it had assumed its more modern phase. But our picnic was unknown.