Elizabethan Foodways

By Christopher W. Taylor

Foodways are the ideology behind a society’s eating habits (Kohls and Uhl 66). A current foodway in the U.S.A. on Thanksgiving Day, for example, is to eat turkey along with cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potatoes, etc. Similar to foodways in the modern U.S.A., Elizabethan foodways depend on the socio-economic status of the group of people considered.

Grace was said before all meals. Elizabethans usually ate breakfast at 7 a.m., dinner between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m., and supper at 6 p.m. (47).

Poor people were thought to have a diet that consisted largely of bread, fish, cheese, and ale (Thomas, par. 1). Rich people, on the other hand, had a diverse and luxurious diet (Weir 9). Indeed, the contemporary writer Philip Stubbs said that “Nowadays, if the table not be covered from the one end to the other with delicate meats of sundry sorts, and to every dish a sauce appropriate to its kind, it is thought unworthy of the name of a dinner” (qtd. in Weir 9).

All tables in Elizabethan England usually had cloths, napkins, spoons, and sometimes knives. No forks, however, were used, because they were not available to the English at this time (Taylor 46). The material of eating and drinking utensils ranged from wood to pewter to silver, depending on the socio-economic status of the owner (46-47). Because food was sometimes messy, a basin of water was usually available to cleanse dirty hands (47).

Breakfast usually consisted of bean or pea porridge, eggs, salt fish, cold meat, and cheese. Nevertheless, some ale and bread were enough for those in a hurry to eat. Tea and coffee were not yet drunk by the English because they were not yet known (47).

A salad with oil and vinegar was usually the first item served during dinner and supper. Next, a meat, poultry, game, or fish was served for a main course (48). The main meats served were lamb, beef, mutton, pork, bacon, veal, rabbit, hare, and fowl (peacock, swan, goose, blackbirds, and pigeon). To preserve meat, Elizabethans usually smoked or spiced it. Popular vegetables were turnips, parsnips, carrots, onions, leeks, garlic, and radishes; fruits used commonly were apples, pears, plums, cherries, and woodland strawberries (Thomas, par. 1). Some herbs and spices were domestically grown, but others, such as cinnamon and cloves, were imported from other countries (Taylor 48). Meals were usually followed by a dessert. Almond biscuits and marzipan were popular choices (50). Other desserts that the English enjoyed were pastries, tarts, cakes, cream, custard, and crystallized fruit and syrup. On special occasions, wine glasses, dishes, playing cards, and trenchers were made out of molded sugar (Thomas, par. 3).

Food from the New World gradually became accepted during the Elizabethan Age. Tomatoes (”love apples”), turkeys, kidney beans, and potatoes, for example, started their culinary histories in England during the Elizabethan Age. Because they were new food, however, most Elizabethans did not know how to cook with them (par. 2).

The government of England thought that London and the English army should have priority on the supply of grain (Ponko 8; Pearce 45). People outside of England dislike this. Indeed, Brian Pearce has shown that many Englishmen outside of the English army felt that the English policy of giving preference on grain to the army was a burden (Pearce 45). Fulk Aldersley. Mayor of Chester, for example, wrote a letter to the Privy Coucil in 1595 in which he complained that diversion of grain to troops in Ireland, raised the prices of grain in his neighborhood (Pearce 45). Similarly, Vincent Ponko, Jr., pointed out that Elizabeth made sure that the London demand for grain was the first to be satisfied (8).


Works Cited

Kohls, Richard L. and Joseph N. Uhl. Marketing of Agricultural Food Products. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Pearce, Brian. "Elizabethan Food Policy and the Armed Forces." The Economic Historical Review 12.1/2 (1942). Economic History Society, 9 Mar. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org/>.

Ponko, Jr., Vincent. “The Privy Council and the Spirit of Elizabethan Economic Management, 1558-1603.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 58.4 (1968). The American Philosophical Society, 9 Mar. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org/>.

Thomas, Heather. "Elizabethan Food." The Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I. 9 Apr. 2007. <http://www.elizabethi.org/us/food/>.

Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.