Food culture and First Chefs: Appreciating the layers of meaning behind food in Shakespeare’s world and our own

In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio grabs a leg of roast mutton and throws it to the ground. Doing so, he exclaims, “it engenders choler, planteth anger,/ And better ‘twere that both of us did fast.” As food anthropologist Leigh Chavez-Bush writes of this statement in Atlas Obscura, this line was not a throwaway. Rather, “eating the right foods in the proper quantities, 16th-century Britons believed, balanced mind and soul.” Here, Petruchio is invoking this idea of balance, referring to the notion that food could imbalance the humors which were thought to impact the body. In Shakespeare’s plays, then, “roasts, ales, and pies are not props, but clues to characters’ souls, moods, and motivations.”

Whether we look to Shakespeare’s world or ours today, food represents something more than mere sustenance. Food is instead a universal ritual, one in which everyone takes part. Thus, food and eating, according to Sidney Mintz in his pathbreaking work Sweetness and Power, act as “foci of habit, taste, and deep feeling,” across different cultures and times. In this sense, eating is about more than just nutrition; food evokes the feelings, memories, and stories baked into each bite.

The Folger’s First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas exhibition, which ran from January through March of 2019, demonstrated the different functions that food served in the early modern British Atlantic world. The exhibition shared the stories of several First Chefs, people like Hannah Woolley, the first English-language woman food writer, and Hercules, a chef enslaved by George and Martha Washington. After encountering these stories, visitors were invited to reflect on their own experiences with food in a special area of the exhibition devoted to food and memory, and many wrote down their favorite food reminiscences, recipes, and stories.

The textual and culinary delights that guests shared with us spanned time and space. We received recipes in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Mongolian, written by children and grandparents alike. Some detailed how food shaped their lives, acting as a catalyst to immigrate to America; others discussed yearly rituals surrounding food that united their families. Some people left recipes for cookies passed down for generations; others detailed the joy of opening a box of Kraft mac and cheese.

To give you a taste, here are some of our favorite food memories shared at the First Chefs exhibition. As you read, we ask that you reflect on what stories, beliefs, and histories are encoded within these texts. What does food tell you about people’s lives and cultures? What information can you glean even from the most straight-forward of recipes?

Food Memories from First Chefs

Pakistan Zindabad!

In this food memory card, Fatima S. details her favorite dishes from the South Asian subcontinent, describing chicken biryani (a fragrant rice dish), halwa puri (a puffed bread served with chickpeas) and daal chaval (lentils and rice) as “beutiful [sic],” “luxorus [sic],” and “delicious.” At the top, she draws the flag of Pakistan and writes “Pakistan Zindabad,” a common slogan meaning “Long Live Pakistan.” By juxtaposing her favorite dishes next to a political slogan and a national flag, Fatima demonstrates how food is often understood as expressly political.

pakistan food memories

Marmite from England

This author, drawing a container of marmite (a spread commonly found in Britain made from a yeast extract), writes about how their family sends them marmite from England, which they eat whenever they feel homesick. For this author, food – marmite, in particular – distinctly embodies the feelings of being in England, so much so that it helps to comfort them when they miss home dearly. This story about marmite shows the complex ways that food can embody different memories, and be used to imaginatively transport their eater to a different place.marmite food memory

Apple Pie with Loved Ones

In this recipe for apple pie, the author makes clear that the company in which this pie is eaten is just as important as what goes in the pie’s filling. They write that in addition to a “homemade crust” with “lots of butter,” a “bunch of apples,” and “anything sweet in the spice cabinet,” a crucial ingredient to the pie is “loved ones who have to say it’s good.” The pie would not be any good without the people. The ingredients, in this case, represent more than a list of food items. Rather, the experience of eating is a critical part of a successful recipe.

Blintz Souffle at Break Fast

While many of the above recipes demonstrate how food is often related to a particular place or person, this author shows how food, for them, is associated with particular moments in the day. In this food memory card, the author describes a Blintz Souffle. But this is not any blintz souffle — for the author, the Blintz Souffle drawn is one specifically “served after a long Yom Kippur fast.” By including this detail, the author elaborates on how food, eaten at a specific time, takes on different qualities than the same dish eaten at a different time. In addition, the author demonstrates how particular brands take on heightened importance in food rituals. It is not any cream cheese that can be served in a Yom Kippur blintz souffle for this author — only Philadelphia cream cheese will do.

blintz souffe food memories

Zoey’s Spaghetti

In this food memory card, Zoey S. tells a story about spaghetti, her favorite food. She narrates how she broke her brother’s Xbox in retaliation after he had eaten all of the spaghetti the previous night.

Here, Zoey shows how food – even a favorite food – can be associated with negative memories. It is telling that she begins by writing, “My favrit [sic] food is spaghetti,” and then goes on to tell that story. For Zoey, her favorite food is intrinsically associated with this story about her brother.

spaghetti food memories

These food memories are diverse in terms of their topic, authorship, and presentation, but show how history, social life, and culture are central to foodways of all kinds. By sharing these recipes, these exhibition-goers reflected on politics, emotion, religious traditions, and senses of community and home.

So the next time that you read one of Shakespeare’s plays – or even just sit down to read a book, watch a movie, or take in some TV – think about how depictions and references to food affect the characterization and plot of the show. When Petruchio throws the mutton leg to the ground and goes on a diatribe, this is not just a neutral plot point. It is a powerful invocation to the centrality of food to culture – both in the early modern period and today.