Food History

What Shakespeare Has to Do with Anchovies (& a Recipe to Celebrate Him)

April 22, 2016

When you think “Shakespeare,” what comes to mind? I'm guessing star-crossed lovers and moody Danish princes with parental issues.

...But what about anchovies?

The first use of the word "anchovy" in English was in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1. The Spanish and Portuguese had a word for the small salty fish—"anchova"—but sometime in the 1590s, Shakespeare changed that to ”anchovies,” and ordering Caesar salad has never been the same.

2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death and there are special events, exhibits, and performances taking place all over the world to commemorate the man and his works. We couldn't let such a momentous occasion pass without taking a food-centered look at the Bard—because his culinary contributions don't stop at anchovies.

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Quite a few culinary words and expressions can be attributed to Shakespeare. He was first to use skim milk in the way we understand it today (again in Henry IV Part 1), and he was the first to use phrases such as...

  • "wild-goose chase" (Romeo and Juliet)
  • "the world is my oyster" (Merry Wives of Windsor)
  • "salad days" (Anthony and Cleopatra)

These aren’t outliers. Food and drink are mentioned in every one of the Bard's plays, often serving as shorthand for a character's personality traits and situation.

In Hamlet, the Prince's bitter jest about food is a direct comment on the emotional and family turmoil he is facing. After his father’s death, his mother remarries so quickly that the food served to mourners at the funeral is still fresh enough to feed the wedding guests.

Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!

As Lord and Lady Macbeth, in another example, grab for power, their journey is marked by feasts and food at every critical juncture.

  • The first of the play's two feasts is, quite literally, paraded past the audience, its abundance establishing Macbeth's high social status as well as Lady Macbeth's appreciation of the finer things. It also serves to make a clear contrast with the guest of honor—quieter, more humble King Duncan—who is murdered by the couple later that night.
  • Lady Macbeth sees food as a means to an end, suggesting they use wine to knock out the king's servants to clear the way for killing the king himself.
  • While most of us would consider being caring and compassionate a good thing, Lady Macbeth sees the "the milk of human kindness" as a weakness in her husband—and it does fly in the face of murder. Shakespeare was the first to use the phrase, linking the idea of “mother’s milk” and breastfeeding with nourishment and generosity in the mind of his audience.

Of course, this is art, not life; we have no reason to believe people of Tudor times weren't to be trusted at buffet tables or dinner parties. Shakespeare didn't always weigh down food with symbolism and, more often, he used it as a way to poke fun.

  • Cheese was a particular favorite weapon in Shakespeare's culinary arsenal of insults and jests. In Merry Wives of Windsor, Bardolph calls his friend Slender a "Banbury cheese"—a reference to a strongly-flavored cow's cheese of the day prepared in very thin rounds, and which became shorthand for anything lacking substance. We can assume that, in Bardolph's opinion, Slender is as Slender does.
  • Nestor, the experienced general and wise older man in Troilus and Cressida is described by Thersites, who rarely has a kind word for anyone, "as stale old mouse-eaten dry cheese."
  • Falstaff's lines are littered with culinary metaphors and food-based nastiness, which demonstrates that he doesn't just eat and drink to excess—his mind is as gluttonous as the rest of him. He tells Mistress Quickly that "There's no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune," which the audience would have appreciated as him calling her a whore, stewed prunes being a popular dish in brothels of the day. He also says of Poins that he has “a wit as thick as Tewkesbury mustard,” referencing the particularly viscous, paste-like mustard sold in dried balls and reconstituted with water when needed.
  • When Petruchio passes judgment on Kate's wedding gown in Taming of the Shrew, he is utterly dismissive of the tailor's work, saying that the man has done no more than slash the fabric the same way one would slice up an apple pie for serving.

Thy gown? why, ay: come, tailor, let us see't.
O mercy, God! what masquing stuff is here?
What's this? a sleeve? 'tis like a demi-cannon:
What, up and down, carved like an apple-tart?
Here's snip and nip and cut and slish and slash,
Like to a censer in a barber's shop:
Why, what, i' devil's name, tailor, call'st thou this?

Was Shakespeare following the classic advice to writers of "writing what you know" when it came to food? The foods found in the plays do seem to reflect the foods available to the people that would have been in the audiences. There's quite a lot of wine, ale, tarts, pastries, bread, stews, and cheese in the plays—reflecting many of the foods of the Tudor diet.

Of course, not all the foods mentioned would be familiar to modern audiences. Warden pie—hugely popular in Elizabethan England—was on the menu in Winter's Tale:

I must have saffron to color the warden pies; mace; dates? –
none, that’s out of my note; nutmegs, seven; a race or two
of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as
many raisins o’ th’ sun.

Wardens were small pears more common at the time, but today, you'd be hard-pressed to find then anywhere today except growing on a small group of trees in Bedfordshire, where they're cultivated to save them from extinction.

Other foods we'd recognize with no difficulty at all. The "great meals of beef" mentioned by the Constable in Henry V would be right at home on many dinner tables today, as would pastries full of "dates and quinces " in Romeo and Juliet.

Other dishes may have changed, but a lot less than you'd think in the 400-plus years since they were mentioned. In Romeo and Juliet, one of the servants requests that a friend set aside “a piece of marchpane” from the Capulets' ball.

Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane;
and, as thou lovest me, let the porter let in
Susan Grindstone and Nell.

Marchpane was an early version today's marzipan. Both are made from ground almonds, sugar, and water —usually rose water. But these days, we tend to think of marzipan as just decoration—icing or something to sculpt shapes out of. In Tudor times, marchpane was a dish all on its own and was often elaborately decorated, serving as a centerpiece on a feasting table. If you wanted to "get your inner Bard on" to celebrate Shakespeare 400, marchpane is a great way to do it.

Those are just a few examples of the part played by food and drink in Shakespeare’s work but the plays are absolutely chock-full of culinary metaphors. They are sometimes funny, sometimes rude; sometimes pointedly direct and sometimes more subtle.

We might not understand them so easily these days—food, cooking, and language are always evolving—but Shakespeare uses them so frequently and sprinkles them into the lines of so many different characters that we can assume that food was commonly understood and used as descriptive shorthand for Tudor audiences of the time.

What's your favorite Shakespeare play or poem—and how does food figure in?

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Food loving, travel-crazy writer from NYC now in the UK.