As a theatrical chef, Shakespeare can serve you up some pretty wild dishes. His menu might begin and end with Richard III, starting with a vegetarian first course with ingredients of Richard’s “green and salad days,” and ending with “good strawberries” from the Bishop of Ely’s garden. The featured dish in the middle of course will come from Titus Andronicus, where Titus prepares a pasty made from Queen Tamora’s two evil sons. Tending bar will be the two Sirs, John Falstaff and Toby Belch.
Such menus lend themselves to the dramatic. When Queen Tamora asks what has become of her sons, Titus—routinely costumed these days in a tall chef’s hat—reveals the dish and declares: “Why, there they are, both baked in this pie!”
The anthropologists long ago taught us that food is central to culture. In addition to just keeping us alive, it expresses our environment, forms and reaffirms our social groups, and shapes the rhythm of our day. When I described the subject of this post to an anthropologist friend (as we were leaving a first-rate restaurant where the winter menu included corn chowder with green chile and marrow and pork chops with smoked pork belly, polenta and mushrooms, etc.), she simply said, “a meal is poetry and performance.”
It seems natural, then, that the yearlong cultural holiday of Shakespeare 400 Chicago should include at least thirty-eight meals, one for each of his plays. The idea began in a conversation about a Shakespearean meal between Chicago Shakespeare Creative Producer Rick Boynton and Alpana Singh, the celebrated sommelier and restaurateur. Alpana immediately thought, “this can’t just be about turkey drumsticks at the Renaissance fair. It’s not about what Shakespeare ate, or his characters might have eaten. Everyone who has gone through an English-language education has read Shakespeare. I still remember reading him in third-period English. Shakespeare is something we share now, today. Let’s gather great chefs, and let each one interpret Shakespeare in his or her own way.”
And so the chefs were recruited, each distinguished by the quality of their cooking and their unique approaches, but reaching across a range of neighborhoods and price points to reflect the culinary diversity of the city. Art Jackson at the Pleasant House Bakery immediately snared Titus Andronicus and prepared a Roman-style braised pork pie with blood pudding, fennel, olives and spices. Tigist Reda of Demera prepared a royal Ethiopian feast for Henry VIII, including spiced beef tartare and chicken Doro Wat stewed with Berbere sauce. John Manion, an English major in college, reportedly exclaimed, “Only if I get Othello!” Dan Pancake, another English major, proclaimed, “Shakespeare’s my dude!”
But what does it mean when a chef interprets Shakespeare? What stirs in the mind that stirs the sauce? Alpana Singh remarked that all chefs have access to the same ingredients and the same sauces, just as writers have access to the same words. All the magic, the singular mixture, the sublime taste, come after that shared beginning. The chef is as fully an interpreter as the director, or actor, or literary critic, and the restaurant is as fully a collaborative, creative space as the theater.
Some approaches were thematic. Tony Mantuano of Café Spiaggia went full Veronese to celebrate Romeo and Juliet. Jean Joho at Everest went to ancient Rome for inspiration to accompany the Joffrey Ballet production of Julius Caesar. Michael Kornick of MK collaborated with an interdisciplinary artist to create an evening-long event around The Merchant of Venice, where guests would “borrow” gold and silver ducats to buy Venetian culinary creations, Italian wines and Amaro cocktails while listening to Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Gabrieli.
Others focused on the combination of ingredients and the preparation to find their line of interpretation. Ryan McCaskey sought out contrasting flavors to express the clashing moods of The Winter’s Tale at his Acadia restaurant, only to bring them together in harmony at the end. Tanya Baker at The Boarding House carefully basted a young chicken until it was tender, in honor of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, and served it with creamy polenta, pickled asparagus and a sour cherry sauce. Reflecting on the British wildnerness setting of Cymbeline, Iliana Regan served a continuously varying selection of foraged vegetable crudités to diners at her restaurant Elizabeth.
Carrie Nahabedian at Naha chose Measure for Measure at the encouragement of her brother-in-law, who teaches Shakespeare. The title seemed wondrously culinary. The menu she designed expressed the play’s contrasts of passion and rationality, and of temptation and purity: Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Tarte Tatin of Rhubarb, Young Chicken with Root Vegetables, Floating Island with Summer Fruits. Response among diners at first was slow, so the staff developed a theatrical printed menu and Carrie promoted it on social media, and it took off. What had been planned as a feature for two weeks ran for four months. “The Tarte Tatin was huge,” she said, “and I was making it every night.” Nahabedean made changes of ingredients and preparations as diners responded, staff made suggestions, and purveyors brought new foodstuffs with the shifting season. “Once apricots were gone,” she concluded, “we had to stop.”
The Culinary Complete Works ran from late February to mid-December, 2016, often in multiple locations at any one time, predominantly in the central city, but also in neighborhoods from Berwyn to Uptown to a nearby Michigan resort town. Overhead, Chicago nights were filled with Michelin stars. And then, yes, it had to stop. Each meal was, as my friend put it, poetry and performance. But feasts like these are difficult to memorialize, even more difficult than either verse or theater. You can print a poem, or tape a performance. You can even print a menu, videotape a preparation, or put a photo of a dish on your Facebook page. But the singularity of food-as-culture is that we have as yet no way to reproduce the sensation of that first taste as it touches the tongue.
Clark Hulse is professor emeritus of English and art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He is author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, Renaissance literature and visual culture. Hulse is a Guggenheim and NEH Fellow and curator of the award-winning exhibition Elizabeth I: Ruler and Legend at the Newberry Library.