Psyche Williams-Forson, in a slide presentation, discussed her current research for her Ph.D. dissertation, and distributed a survey form for those attending the meeting to complete. She intends to mail a copy of the questionnaire to all other CHoW members and will be grateful for all responses. A summary of her talk, "A Bird in de Han': African Americans, Chicken and the Power of Food Narratives" will be printed in a later CHoWLine.
December 2, 3-5 p.m. The local chapter of Slow Food has invited CHoW members to a program by Patrick Martins, president of Slow Food USA, on "The Politics of Medieval Food Sculpture in England and France from 1300 to 1500." In his presentation he will discuss the effects on medieval politics of this display of conspicuous consumption (and ancestor of the modern wedding cake) by the very rich.
At L'Academie de Cuisine, 16006 Industrial Drive, Gaithersburg, MD (301) 670-8679. There is no charge but participants are asked to contribute a dish made from a medieval or, at least, Italian recipe. If you are interested in bringing some food (or libation) to share, please contact Alexandra Greeley (703) 471-6454) or Marcia Weiner (703) 370-2118 by Nov. 28.
Sally Epskamp has provided a report of a program she attended last June on Tudor cooking: Feeding the Court of Henry VIII: Experimental Archaeology from the Kitchens of Hampton Court PalaceOn Saturday, June 3, 2000.
It was my privilege to travel to Pennsbury Manor, the home of William Penn in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, to attend the program "Feeding the Court of Henry VIII." The program was sponsored by the Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley, whose president, Susan Plaisted, on a sojourn to England earlier this year, met the four members of Historia responsible for the kitchens of the Hampton Court project. When she learned that they would be coming to the United States at the end of May to lecture on reconstructing social history, she persuaded them to include Pennsbury Manor in their itinerary. The program was exceptional! I only regret you couldn't have been in attendance to hear the wealth of information presented. But I will try to share with you my day of learning how to feed the king and his court.
A palace is the building where the business of the realm is conducted and the court refers to the household of a monarch. Hampton Court Palace was once the home of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and became, at England's King Henry VIII's request, one of the many homes owned by this notorious king. The palace is very large, and it is said that a person would have to work there 11 years before becoming familiar with its 1,186 rooms and many passageways.
The court of King Henry VIII was also very large, numbering between 600 and 1,000 people. The king and his court usually spent only about two weeks at a time at Hampton Court. Such a large group quickly depleted the local farmers' stocks of fresh meat, eggs, and other supplies and just as quickly fouled the immediate surroundings to an unhealthful degree. The only time Henry and his followers stayed longer was when London was besieged by the plague.
At the end of the 20th century, the kitchens of Hampton Court Palace were considered to be the best-preserved Todor kitchens in England and possible in the world. In 1991, they were transformed into functioning kitchens as they would have been in the 1540s. A team of three men researched all aspects of the transformation, including furniture and cooking utensils, receipts and ingredients, proper cooking methods, staffing requirements, and clothing. They call their research methods "experimental archaeology." Experiencing and demonstrating the cooking process in their newly functional 16th century kitchen environment, they have made unforeseen discoveries: the first being that none of them knew how to cook. So Robin Mitchener, a chef, was added to the team in 1992. As in this country, food cooked in historic kitchens cannot be offered to the general public, so all the food cooked at Hampton Court is eaten by this team of special interpreters. The team's recent concerns have been directed toward their own health - just how safe is food cooked in brass pots and what of a diet that consists of 80 percent meat? They have answered some of the esoteric mysteries of Tudor court life - how may times can a bowl made of bread be used? Can you really drink wine from a vessel made of sugar?
While the king was in residence, kitchen staff was required to prepare two meals a day for him and all the members of his court. Meals were served at 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. To accommodate so many, diners were divided into "messes" of four to six people. Places were set for each mess and eating was communal style. The palace provided a spoon for everyone, but each individual supplied his own knife. Forks were not in use at this time. Each member of a mess dipped his spoon into the same large bowl and ate. Food was also picked up with the thumb and first two fingers. The little finger was reserved for dipping into the sauce bowl. Sauces were thicker in the 16th century than today. And because the little finger was used to scoop sauce, proper 16th century diners kept their "pinky" extended when drinking from their bowls.
Henry VIII and his court drank neither water nor milk; their preferred beverage was a watered-down beer. A large number of "bearded-man" pottery jug shards uncovered in London have been traced to a single pottery factory in Germany. At Hampton Court, the king may have had his own individual jug for drinking, but members of the court would have drunk their beer out of a communal wooden bowl - using both hands, with pinky finger duly extended.
Approximately 160 men staffed the kitchen at Hampton Court Palace. The working conditions were very poor and kitchen labor was hot, heavy, demanding work not deemed suitable for women. Besides, Henry VIII only tolerated being served by men, as his status demanded. There was a social level above those clad in green who only served the court. (The reproduction tunics worn today in the Hampton Court kitchens are made of the finest felted wool and the material alone for each costs $500. They are trimmed with hand-cast pewter buttons and hand embroidery.) The number of stripes on the bottom of a man's tunic indicated his importance. A man in a red tunic with three stripes at its hem was a head chef who gave orders and directions and did none of the manual work. There were a dozen head chefs, each of whom directed a team of men with specific tasks. For example, the team that only chopped and diced - the equivalent of the modern-day cook's food processor - if asked what dish they were preparing could not have answered; they simply chopped and diced.
Because metal was so expensive, the knives were the property of the head chef. As there were no pockets in 16th-century clothing, people carried their belongings hung on a belt around their waists. Thus the head chef carried his knives suspended in a leather sheath. Workers needed permission to use a knife and were required to return it promptly to the head chef. Herbs, called strong powders, were also the property of the head chef who often made up his own combination of herbs and these he carried slung over his shoulder in small leather bags strung together on a cord.
The clerks' office was in a separate room located above the kitchen. Each clerk would "come before the green cloth," that is, they would appear before Henry VIII's financial men across a green cloth-covered table to request money to pay for the commodities they needed to buy. The king bought whatever provisions he needed, but often the crown set the price. The clerks were responsible for accounting for everything that entered and left the kitchen, including every tray serving the court, to assure that nothing was stolen.
The Hampton Court kitchen, over 400 feet long, has three huge fireplaces for cooking and a long rectangular stone that served as the charcoal stove. Charcoal makes the best kitchen fire because there is little smoke, while chestnut is the worst because it is the smokiest. Today's four-man staff is forbidden to build cooking fires because of British labor union regulations. The cooks have no say in what kind of wood they are supplied. Often the wood is inferior and the fires improperly laid.
King Henry VIII's diet consisted of 80 percent meat (only the lowly peasant class consumed vegetables). The most inefficient method of cooking meat is roasting on a spit, or broach, over the open fire because of the tremendous amount of wood required. The job of turning the broach takes great skill and is definitely not a job for a child. Some meats need to be turned slowly, others quickly. Sometimes one broach needs to turn in one direction while the next needs to be turned in the opposite direction and special care must be taken to ensure that the broach handles do not interlock.
Research has shown that the cooking pots used at Hampton Court Palace were not cast iron as once thought but rather were made of solid brass. The kitchens have 2-quart and 5-quart reproduction brass cooking pots. The expense of acquiring such pots today is astronomical but, fortunately, Queen Elizabeth II is paying the bills. However, the health hazard still remains a question. Two quarts of water will come to a full boil in 20 minutes in a brass cooking pot. After boiling, the ingredients would have been transferred into a smaller earthenware pot and simmered over a charcoal fire. Today's visitors often ask whether the food was cold by the time it was served. The answer is no; earthenware pots retain their heat and a thin skin develops over the cooked food which helps to seal in the heat.
Before the 16th century, bowls were made of bread. These bread bowls were washed, dried in the baking ovens, and reused. The Hampton Court kitchens boasted of being able to use one of these bread bowls eight times before it broke. The bake ovens were located in a separate building or office. Keep in mind that 600 or more loaves of bread had to be baked every day just to feed the court, so baking the bread bowls would have only added to the kitchen staff's hard work. When the wooden trencher was introduced, it may have been first used on Henry VIII's favorite warship, the Mary Rose. Hampton Court trenchers are round; those from the Mary Rose were square - thus the expression "three squares a day."
The Hampton Court sugar house was located above the bakery. Its location was important because sugar had to be kept dry. There was no beet sugar in 16th century England. Cane sugar came from Persia to Holland in the form of syrup which was poured into a cone-shaped cylinder and was self-refining - the best sugar remained at the top of the cone while the least desirable settled to the bottom. The sugar at the top of the cone was used to make sweetmeats for the royal court. It was ground fine enough to pass through a silk screen; gum and rosewater were added to make a paste, and the paste was pressed into varioius hand-carved molds. Items made from sugar were hand-painted with natural dyes and embellished with 21-carat gold. Surprisingly, gold can be ingested with no ill effects and does not stick to your teeth. Henry VIII drank wine from glasses made of sugar and was served his desserts on trenchers formed of sugar paste. The sugar course, the culmination of a magnificent meal designed to show off the king's opulence, was served in a separate building called the banquet house.
And what next for these four men who have so nobly served Henry VIII? After returning to England from their lecture tour in the U.S., the team was given a new five-month project: to research and reconstruct a room from the kitchens of King Charles I, circa 1639. What fun it would be to go to England this December and partake of Christmas with a king, Henry or Charles.
Chris Magnuson reports that for more information on Brainfood, a nonprofit organization that uses food as a way to improve local communities by teaching high school students culinary and business skills, visit: www.brain-food.org.