Rereading Henry IV Part One to find about the eating habits of Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s rotund food-loving comic character, I noticed a number of references to breakfast.
In Act III, Scene 3, Falstaff – who will be the focus of a future post – urges Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Eastcheap tavern that is his regular haunt, to bring him breakfast: “Hostess … go make ready breakfast “ (lines 168-69); “Hostess, my breakfast, come!” (line 202).Whilst no details are given of what Falstaff wants to eat for breakfast, earlier in the same play the Chamberlain of a tavern in Rochester reports that some travellers are up early and have called for “eggs and butter” (II, 1, 60) before they depart.It’s not stated what was done with these two ingredients – a hardboiled egg accompanied by butter on bread? An egg fried in butter?An omelette?Scrambled eggs?I opted for the latter, making scrambled eggs without the milk that I usually add – which made a very rich buttery dish; surely just what greedy Falstaff would like.
This got me thinking about breakfast in Shakespeare – and more generally in literature – a meal that I would suspect (though I may be proved wrong when I move onto later literature) is a rarely-mentioned meal in drama, poetry or fiction.As Andrew and Maureen Dalby write in The Shakespeare Cookbook, breakfast would have been eaten very early – soon after dawn – in Shakespeare’s time and would have been very light.
Falstaff says elsewhere in Henry IV Part one that grace does not need to be said before breakfast, suggesting it was deemed a less important and substantial meal than other meals.As with breakfasts nowadays we can probably assume that breakfast would have been repeated with little variation day after day, making it an uninteresting meal to comment on in literature.Breakfast is also usually eaten within the privacy of the home, and there are “no invitations to breakfast in Shakespeare”.Where meals do appear on the stage in Shakespeare they are – as with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (see here) – usually banquets and feasts, set pieces that gather together a number of characters, often to allow something dramatic to happen.Examples of this in Shakespeare would include the exiled Duke Senior’s banquet in the Forest of Arden in As You Like It (c. 1599) which is interrupted by the play’s hero, Orlando, who, fleeing for his life from his wrathful brother, Oliver, and overwhelmed by hunger threatens the courtiers at knife point.
A far more sinister feast occurs at the end of Titus Andronicus (c. 1594), where the eponymous protagonist serves up to his enemy Tamora, a pie containing her own dead sons, as revenge for their rape and mutilation of his daughter, Lavinia.So breakfast seems pretty tame and uninteresting in comparison!
Arguably the handful of mentions of breakfast in Shakespeare have a symbolic function, rather than telling us anything of significance about what people ate for breakfast in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Falstaff’s repeated demand for breakfast serves to characterise him as a man whose every thought and action is dominated by food and drink.
In Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1607), Shakespeare’s tragic retelling of the doomed love affair between two powerful leaders of the classical world, a reference to breakfast is used to symbolise the decadence of the Egyptian world (as opposed to the restraint of Rome, a dramatic conflict that runs throughout the play).Enobarbus, Antony’s right-hand man who has been spending time in Egypt with his love-sick superior, tells his Roman counterparts about the life he has been leading in Cleopatra’s country.A Roman, Maecenas, asks him to verify the rumours he has heard about the Egyptian diet:“Eight whole boars roasted whole at a breakfast and but twelve persons there.Is this true?”(II, 2, 191-2).Enobarbus says this is an understatement: “We had much more monstrous matter of feast” (II, 2, 193-4).In fact Shakespeare’s source for this detail – Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Life of Mark Antony – says the food was eaten in the evening.By changing it to breakfast Shakespeare creates humour and further highlights the extravagances of Egypt.
And so to pancakes – which seems appropriate timing since Shrove Tuesday was only a few days ago.In As You Like It the fool Touchstone tells a rather obscure and confusing story of a knight who “swore by his honour” that the pancakes were “good” when in fact they were nothing of the kind (I, 2, ll. 50-51), but because the knight had no honour, he did not commit perjury when he lied about the pancakes.Well, the knight’s pancakes may not have been any good, but these ones are; in this recipe passed onto me by a Canadian friend, the buttermilk creates a rather thick consistency, ideal as in Shakespeare’s time the word ‘pancake’ could refer to either a pancake as we know it or a fritter.
BUTTERMILK BREAKFAST PANCAKES – makes between 6 and 8
1 ½ cups plain flour
3 tablespoons caster sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons melted butter
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine the dry ingredients and the wet ingredients in separate bowls.Then pour the wet ingredients into the dry; stir to combine but do not overbeat.Leave to rest for anywhere between 30 minutes and overnight.
Spoon heaped tablespoonfuls of the batter onto a heated oiled frying pan over a moderate heat.After a minute or so, when bubbles begin to form on the surface, use a fish knife or palette knife to turn over the pancake and cook for another minute or so on the other side.Serve warm with maple syrup, or fried bacon, or whatever takes your fancy.
Dalby & Dalby, The Shakespeare Cookbook (London: British Museum, 2012), p. 14.