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Seething and roasting with Shakespeare

Categories: History of food

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, sometime resident of Southwark. Jane Levi, writer and visiting research fellow at King’s College London, explores how the bard made use of the language of cookery

Illustrations: Jonny Hannah

“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

Witches, Macbeth, act 4, scene 1

While the eye of newt and tiger’s chaudron that found their way into the witches’ wicked potion have never been commonplace, the technique of setting a pot to boil or, in the common language of Shakespeare’s time, ‘seethe’ over the fire, is almost timeless. When, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, cold-hearted Theseus puzzles over the fact that “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains…” (act 5, scene 1) he refers to the agitation of their thoughts, like the water that bubbles in the heated pot. Although it is this characteristic motion of boiling liquid that gives us our contemporary sense of seething as being angry, we have almost lost the culinary sense of the word, and this isn’t the only cookery technique whose meaning has subtly changed.

“Come in, tailor. Here you may roast your goose.”
Porter, Macbeth, act 2, scene 3

The porter struggling with a hellish hangover at Macbeth’s gate reminds us that in the Elizabethan era roasting was something only done before the flames of an open fire. Any cook of that period would recognise immediately that what we now call a Sunday ‘roast’ isn’t roasted at all, but is actually baked in a closed oven, like the “The funeral baked meats [that] Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” at the too-hasty wedding of his mother and uncle which followed Hamlet’s father’s funeral. (Hamlet, act 1, scene 2).

Shakespeare illustration

“Truly thou art damned, like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side.”
Touchstone, As You Like It, act 2, scene 3

Touchstone gives us a few more detailed hints on the technique: when roasting in front of the fire it is, of course, important to turn the food so as not to end up with something half burned and half raw. For items larger than an egg this might involve spearing the food onto a spit, a long metal pole that could then be suspended on a rack in front of the fireplace. The effort required to keep these spits turning, especially in busier kitchens, meant that the younger kitchen apprentices would be set to work as ‘turn-spit’, hot, sometimes hazardous and truly unpleasant work. Indicating Beatrice’s impossible-to-bear force of will, Benedict declares that:

“She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too.”
Much Ado About Nothing, act 2, scene 1

By the 1590s, possibly earlier, an ingenious labour-saving contraption—at least from the human perspective—had been developed, operated by small dogs or curs with cropped tails. A long chain ran between the end of the spit and a wheel set up in the wall above the fireplace: the dog would run in the wheel, winding the chain, and the spit would turn. Dromio, fleeing from his greasy kitchen-wench in A Comedy of Errors, declares that he almost didn’t get away and the life of a turn-spit dog was nearly his fate:

“If my breast had not been made of faith, and my heart of steel, she had transformed me to a curtail-dog and made me turn i’ the wheel.”
A Comedy of Errors, act 3, scene 2

Despite the delicious results, when there was roasting to be done in the Shakespearean kitchen, for at least one creature it really was a dog’s life.