This past weekend our friends hosted a murder mystery dinner party set in Elizabethan England. They called it “Myrder at the Blackfriar Taverne.”
They put me in charge of food.
I told them that I might need some boundaries.
They thought I was kidding.
As I set about thinking through my plan, my initial inclination was to make things I already knew were delicious and pretend they were from the period. Then I remembered that I had the internet, and such access to knowledge holds us all to higher standards. Here are the steps I underwent. Should you ever host or cater a similar event, I hope will this be useful to you:
- Think through the categories of food you need: Starters, drinks, breads, entrees, sides, desserts (I made a spreadsheet to keep track of my plan and potential recipes). This is important because your research could easily send you spiraling off down rabbit trails and two hours later you find yourself with eighteen recipes for chicken and nothing else. Have a mission in mind. Therefore, instead of looking for “Elizabethan Recipes,” look for “Elizabethan Cake Recipe.” That said, your mission should also leave room for serendipity. You might find little factoids, as I did, of foods typical to the period that we no longer use. For instance, Elizabethan cuisine involved many floral flavors like rose and lavender, and we use much less of that today. Because of this, I knew that I needed to incorporate floral notes into the food when appropriate, thereby making it more accurate to the time period. Incidentally, this cake and this frosting were fantabulously delicious.
- Choose your recipes with care, but don’t go crazy. Given that it took humanity a shockingly long time to add amounts to their recipes, many of the documented dishes that survived history are, for practical purposes, useless. Many people have made their own guesses as to what the recipes required, so given the high level of uncertainty, choose your recipes in a way that balances historicity, feasibility, and potential edibility. Remember, this is your dinner too. Challenge yourself, but be kind to yourself as well. For example, for this party I had to choose a recipe for manchet bread, a white bread typically reserved for nobility as white flour was expensive to obtain. Many recipes used lard, which I didn’t have, and others had no measurements, so it became very difficult to figure out what “real” manchet was. In the end, I picked a recipe that looked delicious, seemed supported by research, and had contemporary measurements. It was delicious and beauteous.
- Cross reference whether people ate the ingredients you want to use. Research the eating habits of different social strata…it’s fascinating. It seems Elizabethan peasants ate much more healthily than their noble counterparts. Believing vegetables to be “ground food,” nobles typically shunned nutritious options and instead indulged in white flour and white sugar, and paid dearly to do so. They loved sugar so much that the financially pressed nobles would blacken their teeth with soot to make them appear to be rotting from the sugar. It is also important to realize that, depending on when in the Elizabethan era you choose to focus, foods like potatoes, chocolate, and tomatoes had not yet made it across the ocean, and even after they did, they were only consumed by the most adventurous. Tomatoes were considered poisonous, in fact, for many years after their arrival in Europe. I share all of this because depending on your dedication to era-appropriate menu items, it helps to consider the facts.
- Think through your timing. This is true of any large catering venture, but you might not realize how long your leech, a milk and wine jelly, takes to set. Each layer of this pudding requires 12 hours each in the fridge, so I’m very thankful I checked the recipe a couple days before. In addition, bread needs time to rise and pie dough (with butter) needs to chill before rolling it out. Because you (probably) don’t have a kitchen staff in your castle bowels to get everything out on the table at the right time, you have to schedule yourself wisely.
- Everyone loves cheese.
Best of luck with all your themed party cooking experiments!
Also, in other news, after this party I can now cross off several items from my 30×30 Maker List, including #8, the tiered cake, and #9, the Renaissance costume. Technically I made two costumes, because I was responsible for the hubby costume as well as my own. I made my costume out of curtains and a pillow sham. Seriously. I am also going to add Renaissance Feast to my list, as that was quite a feat of making.