Shakespeare’s street food

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 the bard’s invocation of street food

Illustrations: Jonny Hannah

“You wear out a good wholesome forenoon in hearing a case between an orange-wife and a fosset seller; and then rejourn the controversy of three-pence to a second day of audience.”
Menenius, Coriolanus, act 2, scene 1

In Coriolanus, Menenius, criticising Brutus and Sicinius, points out that they are in no position to complain of anyone else’s excessive pride, given how poorly they perform their own duties—which include mediating disputes between street sellers. Given the number of itinerant vendors on the streets of his own London, Shakespeare could all too readily place himself in the imaginary space of the Roman forum, and imagine the arguments that might need to be resolved between the competitive sellers of food and drink for the passing crowds. It was a tough life for those plying this kind of trade.

Although in today’s London—especially around Borough Market—we generally celebrate the appearance of vastly more markets and street food than we have known in recent decades, we have a long way to go to return to the bustling scenes of 400 years ago. Then, a large and varied number of street sellers would walk the streets six days a week crying out their different wares, many of them food. From hot peascods (peas in their pods) and “Sheep’s trotters, hot!” to strawberries, cherries, and hot codlings (small apples) and wardens (pears), if you needed a drink or a snack while moving around the city, chances were you could find a milkmaid, pieman or other vendor with something to take your fancy. Even on a Sunday, you could probably buy some seasonal fruit.

“Not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy, as a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a codling when ’tis almost an apple.”
Malvolio describing the disguised Viola, Twelfth Night, act 1, scene 5

In Shakespeare’s plays these street foods were commonplace, and a lot of them were taken into the theatre along with bottles of ale and other cold drinks. The Museum of London found a mixture of evidence during excavations at the Rose and Globe theatres, including gnawed chicken bones, remnants of various fruits such as figs, grapes, raspberries, blackberries and plums, oyster shells, pumpkin seeds and hazelnut shells. Although some have suggested that the nut shells may have been mixed with other materials to make a hard and durable floor surface, others point to period satires complaining about the noise of boys cracking open nuts during performances: until more evidence emerges, we can let the audience decide which version they prefer.