We have long been fascinated with the appetites and food interests of celebrities (my cookbook collection on celebrities fills two shelves) – as well as presidents and their wives (another two shelves of cookbooks) plus royalty. WHY we are so intrigued with the eating habits of the rich and famous is something of a mystery.
One of the first books I found which was devoted to recipes and foodlore of English royalty was a slender volume titled COURT FAVOURITES (sic) by Elizabeth Craig. At the time, I had no idea that Elizabeth Craig was a famous British cookbook author. Bear with me—discovering Elizabeth Craig and COURT FAVOURITES was probably around 1965 or 66, when I was just beginning to collect cookbooks.
COURT FAVOURITES was published in 1953, the same year that Queen Elizabeth II was crowned Queen, and in the foreword, Ms. Craig explains how she acquired the recipes which were the basis of her book:
“Ever since I was 12 years old,” writes the author” I have kept my eyes open for unusual recipes and interesting menus. When other girls were playing Snakes and Ladders (an English game) I was laboriously copying out recipes from magazines and newspapers.
Among them were various notes on royal fare, but it was not until about 20 years ago, when I met an Irishwoman who had the privilege of knowing an English princess, that I began to wonder if some time in the future I might be able to make use of these…”
Ms. Craig goes on to explain how her Irish friend, who often dined with the English princess, was given the opportunity to see the scrap book which had been given to Queen Victoria when she was a young girl. This manuscript cookbook originally belonged to Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, and Caroline of Brunswick. Princess Charlotte, Victoria’s aunt, gave the collection to her when she was a very young girl. This collection of recipes dates back to the 1500s and even contained Ann Boleyn’s instructions for making syllabub.
This manuscript cookbook was hand bound in vellum with a crown stamped on every page. Some of the recipes were in old Italian handwriting. Others were difficult to decipher, as the pages were spotted and faded with age. From the dates, one could determine that the recipes had been chosen and inserted with care over a period of fifty to eighty years. There was another book of faded script, bound in Russian leather, which contained many recipes cut from old books and papers, along with recipes evidently copied by Princess Victoria. In the second book, in Victoria’s sprawling unformed handwriting, was a recipe for plum pudding, dated 1565. On the first page of this little book, someone had written “GIVEN TO VICTORIA ON HER BIRTHDAY, 1831”.
We can be thankful that Victoria realized the worth of what she had been given and continued to contribute to the collection. Part of the reason for her interest may have been due to her devotion to her beloved Prince Albert, for whom she prepared meals on a little stove in their private rooms at Windsor.
But, returning to the 1950s, the Irishwoman, who Ms. Craig does not name, was given permission by the princess to copy recipes from the two books. She, in turn, presented them sometime later to Elizabeth Craig, and this was the nucleus of COURT FAVOURITES.
COURT FAVOURITES is an enchanting cookbook. There are lots of recipes to try, if you are interested in duplicating Henry IV’s Bearnaise sauce (most likely named after his birthplace, Bearn) or Mary Queen of Scots favorite “Scotch Petticoat Tails) which dates back to 1568. Mary brought the recipe with her from France where the little cakes were known as Petits Gateaux Tailes.
Elizabeth the first was very partial to meringues/kisses recipes that are still around hundreds of years later. (One of my favorites is a meringue cookie called Beacon Hills, which contains chocolate chips). There are, however, dozens of other recipes and a fascinating journey through the British royal kitchens covering centuries of kings and queens.
We learn that it was not until Queen Anne ascended the throne that the art of cookery in England made much headway. Queen Anne not only encouraged gastronomy but also the art of wines. During her reign, wonderful cellars were laid down in England. Unfortunately, however, her successors did not appreciate the good work she had inspired, and George I and George II introduced a heavy Germanic influence to the British table. Actually, the first three Georges weren’t very much interested in gourmet food—but George IV was considered bon vivant, due to having hired Careme as his chef. Another of King George IV’s chefs, before Careme took over, was a man named Brand. One day he created a special steak sauce that delighted the king. George IV sent for Brand and announced that his sauce was “A-1” Well, later on the chef retired to manufacture his sauce for public consumption and guess what? The Sauce was called A-1, sold today under the name of A1 Worcestershire Sauce.
Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, was very economical and disliked and kind of extravagance. She was very particular how food should be prepared. Queen Charlotte took a great interest not only in the preparation of food but also in herbs, fruit and vegetables. It is said that she was so fond of mulberries, that the old mulberry trees in Buckinghamshire were planted by her. It was this same Queen Charlotte who would present to the young Victoria her manuscript cookbook which Victoria would treasure, and add to, for over fifty years.
It seems that Elizabeth Craig’s book has commanded respect in other publishing quarters, for – imagine my surprise – as I was reading ROYAL COOKBOOK, favorite court recipes from the world royal families, published by Parents Magazine Press in 1971 –what did I find under the British chapter, but numerous references to Elizabeth Craig’s book. It appears that COURT FAVOURITES was a primary reference source when Parents Magazine compiled THEIR book.
Of course, there are “royals” throughout the world, not just in Great Britain (although it seems to me that the seat of history lies in England.) And if you are interested in learning more about the Royals in other parts of the world—and what they like to east—ROYAL COOKBOOK is a good choice. The book is oversized, coffee table size, with lavish photographs. More than 18 countries are represented—including Russia, Poland, China, Japan, Africa, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and, of course, England/Great Britain. There are numerous photographs (or photographs of paintings) of the royals themselves, including Napoleon and Marie Antoinette of France, King George I (a very dour looking man) and Queen Elizabeth II. Hawaii is represented from the days when it was a monarchy, and there is a photograph of the famous Kamehameha IV of Hawaii and his wife, Queen Emma, and the beautiful Princess Kailulani, daughter of Princess Likelike.
There are also numerous photographs of royal china and serving pieces—not to mention hundreds of royal favorite recipes.
Focusing again on Great Britain, there is an interesting little book titled TO SET BEFORE A QUEEN BY Mrs. Alma McKee.
Mrs. McKee explains in her book, published in 1963, how she happened to end up cooking for Queen Elizabeth II, when QEII was still Princess Elizabeth at Clarence House. When Mrs. McKee went to work there, she was told that she was the only female chef in charge of a royal kitchen. She had previously cooked for King Peter of Yugoslavia, she says, but that was different, since they were very young and very informal.
Mrs. McKee left King Peter’s household to take a long convalescence following pneumonia, and when she returned to work, her agency offered her a choice of two jobs. One was with Isaac Wolfson, the Industrialist, and the other at Clarence House.
After King George VI died and Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II, she eventually moved to Buckingham Palace, but Mrs. McKee stayed at Clarence House to continue cooking for the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
Mrs. McKee’s book is small but chockfull of interesting recipes and reminiscences of her years as cook for the British Royals.
“TO THE QUEEN’S TASTE,” (subtitled ELIZABETHAN FEASTS AND RECIPES” by Lorna Sass, is a fascinating slender volume published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976. The queen here is Elizabeth the First who, we learn, liked to eat alone. Possibly it was because of her bad teeth. As she got older, Elizabeth I chewed something called “comfets” which were sugar coated whole spices, to freshen her breath. The book itself borrows from other known sources of who-was-eating-what in the 1500s, but also provides a glossary of terms which is most useful in translating old recipes.
Elizabeth I was not exactly a gourmet, but she had a notoriously sweet tooth. Her pockets were always filled with candies and anyone who wanted to get into her good graces would dream up a new confection (This may be why she had such bad teeth!)
However, Elizabeth’s fondness for sweets, according to Betty Wason in “COOKS, GLUTTONS AND GOURMETS” led her apothecary to experiment with using the juice of the vanilla bean as flavoring for marzipan, the first time the Mexican pod had been used to flavor anything but the chocolate drink of the Aztecs. Elizabeth was delighted and vanilla has been a favorite flavoring used in candies ever since.
It was also during the reign of Elizabeth I that fruit was first used alone in a pie. Some preserved cherries were given to her as a New Year’s gift and the Queen was so pleased that she ordered a thirty acre tract to be turned into a cherry orchard. It was the first time cherries were planted in England, and when the trees bore fruit, she ordered them baked in a pie. Cherry pies from that time forward were a specialty at English royal banquets.
It was also during Elizabeth I’s reign that a merchant named Tom Coryate brought samples of a two-pronged fork home with him after a journey to Italy, and presented one to his queen. Elizabeth was amused and had others made, one of which was made of gold. The fork became something of a fad at court although the country as a whole regarded it as an effeminate innovation.
Other books which provide insight and some details to royal appetites include Esther B. Aresty’s THE DELECTABLE PAST, FOOD IN HISTORY and THE FINE ART OF FOOD, both by Reay Tannahill, and Betty Wason’s COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS.
Ms. Wason notes “Henri IV of France was a gourmet. Henry VIII of England was a Glutton. Both had gargantuan appetites. Henry VIII’s reign presented us with the grand feast of Christmas…with twelve days of revelry and feasting.
It’s really quite fortunate that people have always been so interested in what is being served and eaten on royal tables. Ever since A FORM OF CURY* was written by the cooks serving King Richard II, we have had a kind of continuous record of what people were cooking and eating. Without these records, much of the culinary history of the middle ages would have been lost to us. Now, you may argue, perhaps successfully—that kings and queens were eating exactly the same thing as peasants. This is true, up to a point. Royalty’s dinner fare may have been more exotic and plentiful than the poor serf’s—just as what the President of the United States may be eating something far more luxuriously than you or I, today. Nonetheless, I think most food fare was rather standard then, as it is now.
(*From Wekepedia:The Forme of Cury (Forms of Cooking, cury being from Frenchcuire) is an extensive recipe collection of the 14th century whose author is given as “the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II“. The modern name was given to it by Samuel Pegge, who published an edition of it in 1791. This name has since come into usage for almost all versions of the original manuscript. Along with Le Viandier, it is the best-known medieval guide to cooking.)
Many royals have been entertained at the White House and thanks to the various White House Chefs and other backstairs employees, records have been kept o these famous meals.
The first heir-apparent to the British throne to visit the United States was that of England’s Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, who would become King Edward VII, when he visited the White House during the administration of President Buchanan. It was considered such a social coup that it was talked about for years! (Prior to becoming President, James Buchanan was Ambassador to the Court of King James. His niece, Harriet Lane, accompanied him and became a favorite of Queen Victoria. All of this may have contributed to the Prince’s visit to the United States and its success.
Some years later, after the Civil War, President Grant and his family entertained Prince Arthur, the third son of Queen Victoria, with a dinner that was so lavish, it was reported to have cost $2,000 (a lot of money in the 1800s!) The Grants also hosted a dinner for King Kalakaua of Hawaii, but this dinner tried the patience of the White House Chef, as the King’s personal attendants tasted everything first and decided which were fit for the king to eat. This was also done to be certain that the king would not be poisoned!
In more recent times, President and Mrs Reagan entertained Prince Charles and Princess Diana when they visited Washington, D.C. for three days. Mrs. Reagan spent weeks consulting with Buckingham Palace over the menu and the guest list. Since Prince Charles is partial to fish and fowl, a lobster mousse was served as a first course, and a lightly glazed chicken was served as an entrée.
This was surely an improvement over the visit paid by the King and Queen of England (Elizabeth II’s parents) when they visited the White House during the Roosevelt Administration and were served hot dogs! (It should be noted that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had very little interest in food—hot dogs might have seemed like a good idea to her at the time).
Actually, to be fair to the Roosevelts, we should note that the rest of the King and Queen’s visit was treated lavishly. At a State Dinner, they dined on diamondback terrapin from Maryland and hothouse grapes from Belgium. It was considered to be the most elegant dinner during the Roosevelt administration. And, it seems that the Royals enjoyed hot dogs very much—so much that they in turn served them to the American Bar Association at a garden party given at Buckingham Palace in 1957.
So, next time you are having hot dogs, consider this—even kings and queens have eaten them.
COURT FAVOURITES by Elizabeth Craig, 1953
ROYAL COOKBOOK, published by Parents Magazine, 1971
TO SET BEFORE A QUEEN, Alma McKee, published 1963
TO THE QUEEN’S TASTE, Lorna Sass, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976
COOKS, GLUTTONS & GOURMETS, Betty Wason,
THE DELECTABLE PAST, Esther B. Aresty, 1964
FOOD IN HISTORY, Reay Tannahill, 1973
THE FINE ART OF FOOD, Reay Tannahill, date of publication not indicated
A FORM OF CURY
*This is by no means all of the books you can use to learn more about what people were eating, or how they lived, throughout the centuries since man learned how to make a fire and then discovered meat thrown on the fire tasted pretty good. When I first wrote this article, I was using the books that I had for references.
Just as a sample of what you can look for today might include:
NEAR A THOUSAND TABLES/A HISTORY OF FOOD by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto published in 2002– or
CENTURY OF BRITISH COOKING by Marguerite Patten, published in 1999
AMERICAN CENTURY COOKBOOK by Jean Anderson, published in 1997