The image of the 17th century English aristocrat is fixed forever by Van Dyke. In this post, which is inspired by Adam Smyth’s review of Wendy Wall’s Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen in the latest LRB, I look at another artist who worked under aristocrat patronage, and what kind of image of the aristocracy he provides. He’s the cook, Robert May, author of The accomplisht cook, or The art and mystery of cookery (1660).
One of the patrons May shared with Van Dyke was Sir Kenelm Digby, and so we can think first of Venetia Stanley in her silk dresses, we see her on her pathetic and decorous deathbed, with that rose shedding its petals on the pillow beside her.
May’s version of aristocratic life is different: barbaric, carnal, fat-basted, one of tables surrounded by people enjoying banquets which were, on special occasions, kinetic events, He opens his book with a joyous account of what he considered a feast done properly should be like. What he describes for his adventurous diners is recreated for his readers: making an amazing entrée for both the feast and his book. The table set with a pasteboard galleon and a castle, exchanging fire - gunpowder is involved, then the women present throw eggshells full of rosewater at one another to allay the fumes, one of those women next being set up as victim of a guffawing hoax – asked to pull a spear from the side of a model stag, from which red wine will gush instead of blood, then her or another female victim being invited to cut into pies that were, in certain of their compartments, full of frogs, live birds, even snakes: “lifting first the lid off one pie, out skips some Frogs, which makes the Ladies to skip and shreek”. The birds, May remarks complacently, would fly in terror into the candles: “after the other pie, whence comes out the Birds; who by a natural instinct flying at the light, will put out the candles: so that what with the flying Birds and skipping Frogs, the one above, the other beneath, will cause much delight and pleasure to the whole company”.
So we can imagine the bangs, hubbub, shrieking, laughter, cries of vexation at ruined expensive dresses. As May himself puts it, after this grand opening salvo for the feast, everyone could then settle down to talk about what happened to them during the action, before settling down to the meal itself: “at length the candles are lighted, and a Banquet brought in, the musick sounds, and every one with much delight and content rehearses their actions in the former passages.”
Robert May must have been deuced expensive to employ: it’s a principle with him to hold his patron to a level of profligate expense. Publishing his fifty years of experience as a master cook in 1660, he was advocating a return, in England, to the old English ways of eating, before the puritan interregnum, a return to meals that are a lavish medley of dead animals and animal parts (all of them: sweetbreads, lips, and noses, “first tender boiled and blanched”), displays of largesse and profusion, conspicuous consumption at a quite literal level.
|Kitchen scene by David Teniers|
The waste must have been terrific. One of his measures for an added element is the ‘gubbin’: “Mutton, Venison, Pork, Bacon, all the foresaid in gubbins, as big as a Ducks Egg”. No doubt every woman present was feeding her lap dogs; it’s easy to imagine larger ‘gubbins’ from the feast being thrown by the men to their larger dogs waiting round the edge of the room. Adam Smyth aptly writes that there must have been a culture of the leftover, but for May the profusion of meat at the table is always connected to charity in the proper old English way, the poor folk at the gate eventually receiving the orts and fragments.
As a master cook, May was a kind of culinary combine harvester, processing whole animals into pies, pies of many compartments, animals stuffed inside animals and coffined in pastry, pies that feature sections that are bird-filled alongside the portions full of animal meats, with easily available animals like rabbits, “pigeon-peepers and chicken peepers”, always thrown in to bulk out the fare. There’s no buying of a cut of meat. If it’s pork, May starts with a pig, venison is prepared from the whole animal. An amazing amount of boiling goes on, and the animals are hashed, stewed in gobbets, fricasseed into hearty fare for Lord or his hound, Lady and lapdog.
By 1660, May knows his culinary rivals very well, rivals to his proper English way of doing food. Royalty never appeared among his patrons, he was probably too olde tyme, too extravagant, and unsophisticated for Charles II – who hah had so many years eating abroad. It’s French cooking a la mode that May fears, and denigrates, rather superbly, as “epigram dishes”. We’d say nouvelle cuisine, a taste of something served on a plate, an epigram in food, rather than a chorographical epic of food:
“Epigram Dishes, smoak't rather then drest, so strangely to captivate the Gusto, their Mushroom'd Experience for Sauce rather then Diet, for the generality howsoever called A la mode, not being worthy of taken notice on. As I lived in France and had the Language, and have been an eye-witness of their Cookeries, as well as a peruser of their Manuscripts and printed Authours, whatsoever I found good in them I have inserted in this Volume.”
May makes no suggestions about what wine might go with a particular dish. Everyone was clearly getting on splendidly drinking just whatever was being poured, and as the dishes contain everything – avian, animal, oysters, lemons – you could hardly drink wine according to whatever had turned up in the last unctuous and dribbling mouthful.
May presided over this animal holocaust for fifty years. Fish that can now barely be found (lampreys, sturgeons), birds protected 24/7 in these days by the RSPB (bustard, or look at “To boil all other smaller Fowls, as Ruffes, Brewes, Godwits, Knots, Dotterels, Strents, Pewits, Ollines, Gravelens, Oxeyes, Redshanks, &c.”). By the sheer number of his employers, people must from time to time have looked at their kitchen bills and decided that that swan must be the last.
The cook book in his hands is a celebration of fifty years of cooking it my way. It starts with a brief life of the artist. That’s what he has become, though the narrative is also a tale of the long apprenticeship necessary for the mastery of such an art.
A short Narrative of some passages of the Authors Life.
For the better knowledge of the worth of this Book, though it be not usual, the Author being living, it will not be amiss to acquaint the Reader with a brief account of some passages of his Life, as also what eminent Persons (renowned for their good House-keeping) whom he hath served throughout the whole series of his Life ; for as the growth of the children argueth the strength of the Parents, so doth the judgement and abilities of the Artist conduce to the making and goodness of the Work: now that such great knowledge in this so commendable Art was not gained but by long experience, practice, and converse with the most ablest men in their times, the Reader in this brief Narrative may be informed by what steps and degrees he ascended to the same.
He was born in the year of our Lord 1588, his Father being one of the ablest Cooks in his time, and his first Tutor in the knowledge or practice of Cookery; under whom having attained to some perfection in that Art, the old Lady Dormer sent him over into France, where he continued five years, being in the Family of a noble Peer, and first President of Paris; where he gained not only the French Tongue, but also bettered his knowledge in Cookery: and returning again into England was bound apprentice in London to Mr. Arthur Hollinsworth in Newgate Market, one of the ablest workmen in London, Cook to the Grocers Hall and Star Chamber. His Prenticeship being out, the Lady Dormer sent for him to be her Cook under his Father, (who then served that Honourable Lady) where were four Cooks more, such noble Houses were then kept, the glory of that, and shame of this present age; then were those golden dayes wherein were practised the Triumphs and Trophies of Cookery, then was Hospitality esteemed, Neighbourhood preserved, the Poor cherished, and God honoured; then was Religion less talk't on and more practised, then was Atheism and Schisme less in fashion; and then did men strive to be good rather then to seem so.
The nation has slipped and declined from its golden days, but May’s Art has remained. His message is ‘eat like this, and make England great again‘.
The latter parts of his book, once he gets past the heroic and Rabelaisian meat-eating, offer more to appeal to the etiolated modern palate. His tarts and cheesecakes sound delicious. There are even some signs of economy, especially with venison that has been hung just too long:
“To make meer sauce, or a pickle to keep venison in that is tainted.
Take strong ale and as much vinegar as will make it sharp, boil it with some bay salt, and make a strong brine, scum it and let it stand till it be cold, then put in your venison twelve hours, press it, parboil it, and season it, then bake it as before is shown.
… Other wayes to preserve tainted Venison.
Bury it in the ground in a clean cloath a whole night, and it will take away the corruption, savour, or stink.”
This is May on passing off inferior meats as venison:
Other meer sauce to counterfeit Beef or Mutton to give it a Venison colour.
Take small beer and vinegar, and parboil your beef in it, let it steep all night, then put some turnsole to it, and being baked, a good judgement shall not decerne it from red or fallow deer.
Otherwayes to counterfeit Ram, Wether, or any Mutton for Venison.
Bloody it in sheeps, lambs, or pigs blood, or any good and new blood, season it as before, and bake it either for hot or cold. In this fashion you may bake mutton, lamb, or kid.
I will leave him with his recipe to make umble pie. This is again a matter of eking out your venison. I gather that the edible inner organs of a deer were the perquisite of the huntsman who had given his professional assistance at the hunt. Samuel Pepys was eating Umble pie in 1663: “Mrs. Turner… did bring us an Umble-pie hot out of her oven”. It became a joke in the 19thcentury:
To make Umble Pyes.
Lay minced beef-suet in the bottom of the pye, or slices of interlarded bacon, and the umbles cut as big as small dice, with some bacon cut in the same form, and seasoned with nutmeg, pepper, and salt, fill your pyes with it and slices of bacon and butter, close it up and bake it, and liquor it with claret, butter, and stripped time.