The classic image of Henry VIII is of this glaring, fat man clutching a turkey leg. Am I right? Perfect for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, Henry probably didn’t enjoy turkey very often – it is indigenous to North America (in fact – for this very reason – Benjamin Franklin lobbied for it to be the national bird instead of the bald eagle.) It was introduced to England in the mid-sixteenth century, so Henry probably didn’t get to eat a lot of it before he died in 1547.
However, Henry could easily content himself with the vast array of other meats he could consume (and probably did). Imagine this: Hampton Court Palace on a frosty November night. The hall is decorated with eye-poppingly vivid tapestries, the ceiling painted in gold and red and blue, the fire at one end blazing, the windows sweating with the condensation of hundreds of people’s breaths.
Henry sits at a table on a little elevated platform. Perhaps one of his wives is with him – perhaps not. Perhaps one of his trusted advisors is with him (Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell) – perhaps not. Perhaps one of the dukes of the realm – but then again, Henry had a habit of incarcerating his friends…
There might be a center piece on the table – something gaudy and symbolic. A fortress or a cage of birds with gilded feet or a ship made entirely of sugar paste. A peacock roasted and then refeathered or a replica of St. Paul’s Cathedral made of pies (usually meat pies, not fruit!) Not necessarily the stereotypical roasted boar with the apple in its mouth. These things were huge, surrounded by canes and flowers, often brightly painted, and frequently covered in gold or silver. The plates were gold and silver gilt, as well, not only on the tables, but on the groaning “buffets” up against the wall. And the goblets – sometimes studded with jewels or painted with scenes of chivalry. (an aside – Henry’s French contemporary, Francis I, had a cup that he liked to shock the ladies with – when the wine was drained from it, there was revealed a rather suggestive scene painted on the bottom. That Francis, what a card).
Then came the food – up to 240 different dishes. Take a minute. Think about that. This Thanksgiving, I’m making maybe six different dishes for dinner. I’ll be adding the requisite canned cranberry and some olives and pickles, so let’s bring that up to ten. Two different pies. So twelve things. Now multiply by twenty, and serve maybe seven hundred guests. My meal takes me two days to create. Can you imagine? The food preparation areas in Hampton Court Palace are huge, but on Twelfth Night in 1533, extra work space had to be set up in tents in the garden. Holy Hell’s Kitchen, Batman.
Meat was plentiful. Deer, boar, beef, pork, lamb, rabbit. Dishes made from all those delicate inner bits we don’t see often in America anymore – kidneys, livers, brains, hearts – even udders. Swan, peacock, guineafowl, goose, chicken, duck, pheasant. Tiny songbirds. Sometimes one stuffed inside another to make a kind of matroyshka doll of roast bird. And fish – pike, herring, mackerel. And bread! Loaves and loaves of the stuff, all made from the finest flour because coarse flour was for lesser people. And butter by the truckoad (if they’d had trucks).
Vegetables were the food of the poor, and therefore did not often grace the royal table.
Then came the sweets. Spiced wafers, jellies formed into the crests of the attendant guests, sweetened cream, strawberries, cheeses, marzipan, sweet pastries, fruitcakes, gingerbreads coated in gold leaf and “subtleties” made almost entirely of sugar forming scenes from myths or romances. Beautiful, but apparently hard on the teeth. And fruit – sometimes enough for each guest to have ten oranges, an immense extravagance at the time. And when Henry got bored, he amused himself by throwing sugar plums at his guests.
Which isn’t surprising, considering the amount of alcohol consumed. Water was considered unhealthy – and considering the state of the Thames at the time this was unarguably true – so they drank ale and “small beer” (a low-alcohol, porridgy beverage) as a staples. French and Rhenish wines almost as sweet as malmsey and sugared wines served with dessert. And hippocras – wine mixed with honey and spices and believed to be an aphrodisiac. Once the meal was over, the guests could totter off to bed with a posset made of sugared ale curdled with hot milk, eggs and grated biscuit.
So this year I am thankful. I am thankful that I don’t have to cook for Henry VIII, but only for my forgiving and appreciative family. And I am thankful I don’t have to subject myself or my guests to some of the less delicate of the Tudor delicacies.
Happy Holidays, everyone!