A few posts back when I was still on the Middle Ages I wrote about Geoffrey Chaucer’s innovative literary creation of a cook as a storyteller – see here Now that I’ve moved onto Shakespeare, I wonder if there’s another literary first here: the first foodie in English literature, Sir John Falstaff.
Admittedly one of Chaucer’s pilgrims, the Franklin (a landowner, but not of noble birth) is described as a man who finds delight in food and drink; describing him in the General Prologue, the narrator writes “It snewed [snowed] in his hous of mete [food] and dryke / Of alle deyntees [delicacies] that men koude thynke” (lines 345-46). However, there are just a few lines of description and, when the Franklin starts talking and telling stories, food is nowhere to be found.
However, Shakespeare’s Falstaff – a character thought to be based on the real historical figure of Sir John Oldcastle, a leader of the Lollards (a proto-Protestant religious movement), who was executed in 1417 following a failed rebellion against his former friend, King Henry V – is quite another matter. Falstaff appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry IV Part One (c. 1597), Henry IV Part Two (c. 1598) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597) and is referred to in a fourth, Henry V (c. 1599) in which he dies. In all these plays he is associated with food and drink, with his gluttony being a key aspect of his character: it defines his physical appearance, permeates his speech and his actions and also highlights his moral character.
Falstaff’s gluttony makes him fat, and his bulk provokes much humour. In Henry IV Part One he jokes, when told to lie down on the ground by Prince Hal (the future Henry V), that he will only do so if there are “any levers to lift [him] up again” (II, 2, 33). In turn Hal calls him a “huge hill of flesh” (II, 4, 239) and in the same scene another character addresses him as “fat paunch” (139).
Food and drink also permeate Falstaff’s speech and behaviour. It is no coincidence that in Henry IV Parts One and Two Falstaff is frequently found at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, a place where food and drink are readily available, and where he frequently calls for food and drink: “Hostess, my breakfast” (H IV Part One III, 3, 202); “Give me a cup of sack, boy” (H IV Part One II, 4, 112). Sack was a strong, dry white wine from southern Spain and, in Henry V, the hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern confirms that Falstaff called for sack whilst on his deathbed. In Henry IV Part One much merriment is provoked by the discovery of a bill, about Falstaff’s sleeping person, of a bill itemising all the money he owes the tavern:
Item a capon ………………………………..2s 2d
Item sack two gallons………………………5s 8d
Item anchovies and sack after dinner……2s 6d
Item bread…………………………………………ob (II, 4, 520-524)
“Ob” is an abbreviation of ‘obolus’ meaning “half-penny”, as Prince Hal notes: “O monstrous! But one halfpennyworth of / bread to this intolerable deal of sack?” (II, 4, 525-26).
Whilst the disproportionate amount of alcohol to food is amusing, Hal’s reaction also points to the way Falstaff’s gluttony shapes his moral character. As well as being amusing and jovial, Falstaff is lazy, cowardly and deceitful; he even takes the credit for killing Hotspur, Hal’s arch-nemesis, at the end of Henry IV Part One. And the two parts of Henry IV trace Prince Hal’s gradual distancing of himself from his old friend and surrogate father as he prepares to become King Henry V.
At the end of Richard II the new King Henry IV (Hal’s father) complains that he hasn’t seen his “unthrifty son” for “three months” and that he is known to be frequenting the London taverns with “unrestrained loose companions” (V, 3, 1-7), and at the beginning of Henry IV Part One we discover that Falstaff is one of these reprobates. However, early on in the play Hal tells the audience that he is intending to reform and that, owing to his dissolute behaviour, his transformation will be that much more impressive.
Hal’s eventual estrangement from Falstaff is foreshadowed in a comic role-play he and Falstaff engage in, in which Hal plays his father and Falstaff plays Hal. Reprimanding his ‘son’ for his relationship with Falstaff, Hal – as Henry V – refers disparagingly to his physical excesses, calling him “that trunk of / humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen / parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed / cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the / pudding in his / belly…” (II, 4, 437 – 441).
At the end of Henry IV Part Two comes one of the most moving scenes in Shakespeare when the newly crowned King Henry V, as he processes out of Westminster Abbey, snubs Falstaff who is waiting to greet him, saying “I know thee not, old man … Leave gormandising” (V, 5, 51-58).
I doubt Falstaff would ever be able to leave ‘gormandising’ and, in honour of this great dramatic creation, I have used two of his favourite items – capon and sack (namely chicken and white wine) – to make Falstaff’s Fricassee, my version of the “white ffrigasy” found in Mrs Sarah Longe her Receipt Booke of 1610 and reproduced in Andrew Dalby and Maureen Dalby’s The Shakespeare Cookbook (British Museum Press, 2012).
FALSTAFF’S FRICASSEE (serves 2 – 3)
1 onion (finely chopped)
1 clove of garlic (finely chopped or crushed)
1/2 red pepper (chopped into small pieces)
300g cooked chicken (in pieces)
6 mushrooms (quartered)
100ml dry white wine
1 tablespoon plain flour
salt and pepper
100ml creme fraiche
chopped parsley – handful
Fry the onion in olive oil over a moderate heat until translucent. Then add the garlic and red pepper; fry for another 10 minutes to soften. Add the mushrooms and chicken and cook for a few minutes. Stir in the tablespoon of flour and cook for a couple of minutes; then add the white wine and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the creme fraiche and warm through; add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with a handful of chopped parsley.
Tip: on the second day I used this as a filling for a chicken pie using ready-made puff pastry; yum!