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Elizabethan Dining

The Ample Pleasures of the English Table

The Elizabethan, like ourselves, generally ate three meals a day. The first was breakfast, which was eaten shortly after rising, but not before attending morning services (farmers wouldn't have time in the morning to attend services any day but Sunday, but pious townsmen, the gentry and their servants often did go to the chapel daily). Breakfast was a small, simple meal, generally consisting of cold foods, as the cook fires were just being lit as the breakfasters were rising. Leftovers, eggs, butter, bread and small beer were commonly taken with breakfast.

ImageBut, since breakfast was by definition eaten early, those who did not rise early did not eat it. Unless they were traveling or fond of the hunt, nobles generally did not rise early enough to eat breakfast, and dispensed with it in favor of a hearty mid-day meal. Working men and women however, who rose with the sun, seldom failed to fortify themselves against the day.

The mid-day meal, commonly called dinner, was eaten around eleven or twelve o'clock. The farmer would either have his dinner brought out to him as he worked in the field, or bring it out with him in a bag. The craftsman would close his shop and go upstairs to his lodgings, where his wife would have the meal waiting for him and his laborers and apprentices. For the gentry and nobility, the mid-day meal could be the beginning of a round of feasting that could last all day, or it could be a simple and unpretentious repast, depending upon the occasion and the temperament of the diner.

The final meal, eaten at the end of the working day (between 5:00 and 8:00 PM), would be supper. For the common man, this would often be the most elaborate of the day, though "elaborate" is an inappropriate adjective for the peasant's daily fare. However, unlike dinner, which would often be eaten in the fields, the evening meal would be eaten at home at the common table.

With us, the nobility, gentry and students do ordinarily go to dinner at eleven before noon, and to supper at five or between five and six at night, especially in London. The husbandmen dine also at high noon, as they call it, and sup at seven or eight.
Holinshed's Chronicles

The fare eaten at such meals would vary depending upon the wealth and rank of the diners. Common folk generally ate "white meats", which contained precious little meat, and consisted primarily of such things as milk, cheese, butter, eggs, breads and pottages (soups) - occasionally supplemented with locally caught fish, rabbits or birds. Bringing down larger game in the forest was poaching, and a very hazardous pastime.

The gentry and the well to do of the towns dined upon "brown meats", such as beef, venison, mutton and pork. The poor also ate a great many more greens than the rich, who insisted that their vegetables be elaborately prepared. All classes ate fish, not because they liked it (though many did) but because the law required that fish be consumed on Fridays and Saturdays, and other meats laid aside. This was a government mandated support for the fishing industry.

A momentary aside: the notion that they tried to improve spoiled meat with spices is, of course, nonsense. Spoiled meat makes you sick, and no amount of salt, pepper and cumin will change that. They seasoned their meat to make it taste good.

Though the peasant had ready access to beef, pork and other expensive meats (he raised them), he could not generally afford to keep much for his own use. His best stuff went to fill the bellies of the gentry and the townsmen, while the money gained from selling his best stuff paid his rent. It was a common-sense economic arrangement that suited well to the peasant's pragmatic view of the world. He could live perfectly well without all those fine delicacies, and a modern nutritionist would find more to praise in the peasant's simple (though dull), hearty fare; than in the greasy and over-sweetened diet of his betters. The few animals he could afford to keep for private consumption he would save for special occasions.

Even when there was no special occasion, all social classes would put on the table as much food, in as many varieties, as was economically possible. Eating was one of the Elizabethan's principal amusements, and he or she made it as interesting as circumstances would allow. For the rich man, this meant countless dishes, some elaborately decorated and intended entirely for show, served according to an elaborate ritual by numberless servants; and for the common huswif, this meant a daily challenge of trying to make the same old stuff seem new and different. All but the very poor however, brought to the table far more than they could eat, and their "broken meats" (leftovers), fed the servants and kept the destitute of the realm from starving to death.

Concerning their diet, in number of dishes and change of meat the nobility of England do exceed most, having all things that either may be bought for money or gotten for the season. Gentlemen and merchants feed very finely, and a poor man it is that dineth with one dish.
John Lyly, Euphenes and his England

Most meats were prepared by "seething" (boiling), and sugar and currents were used in truly prodigious quantities. Salting and pickling were also common practices, since there was no refrigeration to keep the meats from going bad. Meat and fish was generally eaten fairly soon after slaughtering for this reason, or were pickled to keep for the future (game meats were often aged for a few days or weeks however, to make them tender).

All social classes loved to feast. For the common man and woman, feasting was reserved for holidays or weddings. For the rich, every meal could be a feast. The feast would generally consist of two "courses". The first would be what we would call appetizers.

...I will now proceed to the setting forth of a banquet; wherein you shall observe that marchpanes (marzipans) have the first place, the middle place, and the last place; your preserved fruits shall be dished up first, your pastes next, your wet suckets (candied fruits) after them, then your dried suckets, then your marmalades and your goodinycakes (tarts), then your comfits of all kinds; next your pears, apples, wardens baked, raw or roasted, and your oranges and lemons sliced; and lastly your wafer cakes.
Gervaise Markham, The English Housewife

Gervaise goes on to describe two pages worth of dishes for the second course, preceded by the "grand sallat" (salad), the green sallat, the boiled sallat and smaller compound sallats. These are followed by "fricassees", "boiled meats", "roast meats", "cold baked meats" and "carbonadoes".

This elaborate setting is for the banquet of a wealthy man. For a more humble feast which "any goodman may keep in his family for the entertainment of his true and worthy friends..."., Markham recommends only sixteen dishes:

...first, a shield of brawn (pressed pork) with mustard; secondly, a boiled capon; thirdly, a boiled piece of beef; fourthly, a chine of beef roasted; fifthly, a neat's tongue roasted; sixthly, a pig roasted; seventhly, chewets baked; eighthly, a goose roasted; ninthly, a swan roasted; tenthly, a turkey roasted; the eleventh, a haunch of venison roasted; the twelfth, a pasty of venison; the thirteenth, a kid with a pudding in the belly; the fourteenth, an olive pie; the fifteenth, a couple of capons; the sixteenth, a custard.

He goes on to advise the addition of sallats, quelquechoses (inventive sweets), fricassees etc, making perhaps "no less than two and thirty dishes". This would be a wedding or Christmas feast. For the daily meal he would have to be content with somewhat fewer of the above delicacies.

It was not the habit of the Elizabethan to gorge himself on each dish, but to taste liberally of all the dishes that suited him, taking a little bit from each dish as it passed him, in the manner of a buffet or smørgasbord.

In a civilized household, at some point before the meal, the hands would be washed, often in water sweetened with roses or rosemary.

In nearly every home, the meal would begin with the saying of Grace. If there was a clergyman present, he would offer the blessing; or if a guest was known for his piety or learning, he might be called upon to give thanks. Often, the eldest son would be called upon, or failing all that, the master of the house would take upon him the task of conveying the thanks of the assembled company to the Almighty either ex tempor or according to a memorized formula.

O Lord, which giv'st thy creatures for our food,
Herbs, beasts, birds, fish, and other gifts of thine,
Bless thee thy gifts, that they may do us good,
And we may live, to praise thy name divine.
And when the time is come this life to end:
Vouchsafe our souls to heaven may ascend.

With the saying of Grace, the company would begin to eat. If a man had servants, they would pass from guest to guest, with each dish, and the guests would help themselves to as much from each plate as they liked. Even in gentry households, the fingers were generally used for plucking out the tasty morsels from the dishes, the sign of good manners being that you did not return to the dish anything you had touched. If no servants were available, the women and children of the house would serve the dishes, sitting down to eat after all the men and guests had taken what they wanted.

All men at the table ate with their hats on (unless they went hatless out of deference to a high-ranking member of their dinner party), and every well bred guest had a clean, white napkin on the left shoulder or wrist, upon which soiled fingers or knives could be wiped. The servants who attended the table were hatless, since they could not remove their hats (their hands being full) and they would not dream of attending upon their betters with their hats on. Conversation at the table was considered commendable, but riot and clamor was frowned upon.

During the meal, numerous healths would be pledged (the term "toast" was not used). The pledging of healths would often reach ridiculous extremes, and would continue long after the food had been carried away; ending only after the entire company was too cup-shot to continue. The meal, interspersed with healths, could go on for several hours.

With their meals, the diners, unless they were under doctor's orders to do otherwise, would drink only alcoholic beverages. Beer and Ale were the most popular drinks, but wine in its many forms was also very popular among those who could afford it. Wholesome and drinkable water was, contrary to popular belief, usually available (that's what wells were for), but it was something you drank to sustain you on a hot day and not a thing to be consumed at table if you had the means to supply proper drink.

The diners would eat off of plates suitable to the wealth of the hosts. The commonality generally ate off of wooden trenchers and bowls for everyday meals, but might have pewter plates for special occasions. The wealthier would have pewter for daily use and silver for special occasions. Common folk generally drank out of crockery, wood or leather, with pewter cups being a valued luxury. The better sort drank out of pewter or silver cups, and the very wealthy had glass goblets for the best company.

ImageWhen a guest came to supper, he or she would bring utensils along. The host was not expected to supply them. The rich would have a beautifully made and adorned knife and spoon (and occasionally a fork) carried in an ornamental case. The poor man often went about with his spoon in his hat or his pocket, and his knife on his belt. Common folks did not eat with forks.

After the meal or between courses, the rich would often be entertained by musicians, singers, masquers or players. All social classes would often enliven an evening by dancing and providing their own entertainment. Elizabethans were a musical lot and it was a dull company indeed that did not contain a sufficient supply of capable (or at least enthusiastic) musicians and singers.

The feast was the prime Elizabethan social occasion. There could be no celebration without at least one, and it was the opportunity for the Elizabethan man and woman to enjoy that which was most dear to them: pastime with good company.

Author: Walter Nelson
Publisher: Walter Nelson
Date of First Publication: Oct 27 2012
Date of Last Update: March 29th 2014