Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Early Modern Banquet Receipts and Women's Theatre

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Early Modern Banquet Receipts and Women's Theatre

Article excerpt

AFTER giving a detailed receipt for cooking a peacock that will look even more striking dead than it did alive--a feat achieved by carefully killing the bird, removing the flesh from the still-feathered skin, roasting the flesh, and then sewing the cooked flesh back into the raw skin--the English translation of Giovanne de Rosselli's receipt book, Epulario, or The Italian Banquet, published in England in 1598, gives instructions on how to make the dish even more spectacular:

  If you will have the Peacoke cast fire at the mouth, take
  an ounce of Camphora wrapped about with Cotton, and put it
  on the Peacockes bill with a little Aquanity, or very strong
  wine, and when you will send it to the table, set fire to the
  Cotton, and he will cast ore a good while after. And to make a
  greater shew, when the Peacoke is rested, you may gild it with
  leafe gold, and put the skin upon the same gold, which may be
  spiced very sweet. The like may be done with a Pheasant, or
  any other birds. (C)

This receipt, like many similar receipts found in early modern medicinal and cookery books, conceives of the banquet not just as sustenance, as an occasion for community gathering, or even as an opportunity for the upwardly mobile to display expensive and rare goods to their guests, but as theatre, a "shew" in the words of Rosselli's translator. (1)

This article reads banquet receipts like Rosselli's as evidence of a kind of domestic theatre practiced in early modern households. (2) Accepting the banquet as a form of theatrical practice strains our conception of what constitutes theatre in the early modern period, but there is a growing body of scholars, including Ken Albala, who acknowledge the inherent theatricality of the banquet. (3) Early modern English domestic banquets could feature foods designed to trick the eye, include dishes that were conceived to amaze guests by accomplishing the impossible, contain foods that underwent astonishing transformations, have an allegorical scheme, incorporate musical accompaniments, and sometimes even involve actors who performed with the foodstuffs. (4) The banquet was not simply an occasion for sustenance, but instead was an occasion for creative and ostentatious display. (5) Prior to the late sixteenth century, elaborate banquets that had these characteristics were prepared by professional male chefs for royal, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical households. However, beginning in the late sixteenth century and continuing throughout the seventeenth century, cookery books featuring banqueting receipts began to be published on a large scale. Receipt books like Hugh Plat's Delightes for Ladies (c.1600), Gervase Markham's The English Huswife (1615), and John Murrell's A Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen (1617) were targeted specifically to amateur women cooks of the urban citizenry, yeomanry, and emergent merchant classes (Wall 24; Wilson 4). As Kim F. Hall has established, families of these classes were more and more able to afford luxurious banquet ingredients just as they were more and more likely to need to demonstrate their class status through staging such events (171). (6) Receipt books for women filled a niche in the marketplace and were one of the most popular genres of books published in early modern England. Plat's Delightes for Ladies, for instance, went through as many as twenty-one print editions between 1600 and 1656.

Receipt books encouraged women readers to prepare their receipts, provided their readers with techniques for producing elaborate dishes, and circulated trends about the banqueting practices of aristocratic women. (7) While banqueting receipt books have been read most recently as a kind of culinary colonialism in Hall's work and as an uncanny and disturbing branch of domestic practice in Wendy Wall's Staging Domesticity, no one has yet explored the significance of the theatrical nature of the receipts to accounts of women's involvement in England's pre-Restoration theatrical and performative cultures. …

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