Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Corrupting Effects of Food

In my last post I wrote about apricots in The Duchess of Malfi and how they were used to ascertain the Duchess's suspected pregnancy.  Once the pregnancy - and the Duchess's marriage to her steward Antonio, her social inferior - were confirmed, the Duchess's villainous brothers set out to destroy her and her family (see

The idea that food, rather than being a form of celebration or sustenance, can have a more malevolent side to it, seems to be a popular idea in the early 17th century Jacobean revenge drama.  At times it is used metaphorically, particularly in relation to sex.  In Thomas Middleton's play, The Changeling (c. 1622), the villainous servant, De Flores, afflicted with a facial deformity, considers the possibility that he may be able to persuade his mistress, Beatrice-Joanna, to sleep with him in return for his killing her unwanted suitor, Alonzo.
 Imagining her in his embrace, he comments - using a metaphor of consumption - how desperation for sex may lead a woman to desire even someone as ugly as him:

Hunger and pleasure, they'll commend sometimes
Slovenly dishes, and feed heartily on 'em -
Nay, which is stranger, refuse daintier for 'em.
Some women are odd feeders.   (II, 2, 150-153)

Inevitably Beatrice-Joanna succumbs and enters a path of corruption which only ends with her death, and that of many other characters.  

Similarly in Middleton's Women Beware Women (c. 1623-24), food metaphors abound.  The play revolves around two storylines both involving young innocent women who are corrupted by sex.  The first, Bianca, is a new bride: she has eloped from Venice to marry her social inferior, the Florentine merchant Leantio.  Leantio, anxious to preserve the chastity of his wife and keep her away from other men's eyes, keeps her locked inside with only his mother for company whilst he is away from Florence for work.  But, standing in the window one day, Bianca is seen by the Duke of Florence as he processes past the house, and her doom is sealed.  Raped by the Duke, she subsequently succumbs to his 'charms' and becomes his mistress and, after Leantio is murdered, his wife.  The second storyline involves Isabella, forced to marry a rich young idiot, referred to only as the Ward, and who, in defiance, embarks on an affair with her beloved uncle, Hippolito (having been assured - incorrectly - that he is not an actual blood relation of hers). Straddling the two stories, and engineering the adulterous affairs, is Livia, a wealthy widow, sister to Hippolito and aunt to Isabella.  Not surprisingly, the play ends badly for just about everyone, with the dying Bianca crying out in her final breath: "Oh the deadly snares / That women set for women, without pity / Either to soul or to honour" (V, 2, 211-13).

Livia makes use of food - both literally and metaphorically - to carry out some of her plans.  Early in the play she tries to persuade her other brother, Fabritio, that his decision to force an unwanted marriage on his daughter, Isabella, is unjust.  Using food imagery she rails, in a surprisingly modern way, against the sexual double-standard, whereby men are allowed numerous sexual partners before and even after marriage, whereas women are not:

...        he tastes of many sundry dishes
That we poor wretches never lay our lips to -
And if we lick a finger then sometimes
We are not to blame: your best cooks use it.  (I, 2, 40-45)

Her plan to bring Bianca into the Duke's presence, after he has seen her on his procession, is executed in Act II, Scene 2 through inviting Bianca and her mother-in-law to supper.  Whilst supper is preparing, Livia and the mother-in-law play chess and Bianca is shown around Livia's house, not knowing that the Duke is waiting upstairs for her.  Whilst the tactics and stratagems of the chess game unfold, the Duke exerts control over the young bride.  The chess game finished and the sexual act complete, the characters are called to supper.

Harriet Walter as Livia, at supper in the National Theatre 2010 production of Women Beware Women

In the next scene Bianca's husband, Leantio, returns from his travels, eager to see his wife again and assuming she will feel the same.  He comments hopefully: "After a five days' fast / She'll be so greedy now, and cling about me" (III, 1, 106-07).  But his hopes are dashed.  Corrupted by her encounter with the Duke, and her enjoyment of their sexual liaison, Bianca is no longer interested in her husband.  As she says to the audience following the deed, "Beware of off'ring the first-fruits to sin" (II, 2, 434), presumably alluding to the fall of Adam and Eve through eating from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Bianca has tasted sin and has enjoyed it.  The situation worsens for Leantio when the Duke's messenger arrives inviting Bianca to attend a banquet at his court.  Leantio's attempts to stop both her and his mother going fail,  his mother expressing a desire to "pocket up some sweetmeats" (III, 1, 267).  Bianca notes, in an aside to the audience, how her mother-in-law is as prone to corruption as she is, though whilst her own corruption is sexual, her mother-in-law's is food-related:

Why, here's an old wench would trot into a bawd now,
For some dry sucket [crystallised fruit] or a colt in marchpane [a marzipan colt]  (III, 1, 268-69)

At the banquet - which Leantio also goes along to - Bianca and the Duke kiss publicly, confirming their adulterous affair.  Leantio bitterly comments to the audience that if they are kissing now, then it is obvious what will ensue once they are "stuffed full of wine and sweetmeats" (III, 2, 35-36).

There seems little to celebrate with the food here, and it's hardly a recipe, but I used Bianca's comments above on the corrupting influence of food on her mother-in-law to make my own version of crystallised fruit and marzipan. They can be eaten at the end of a meal with coffee, or used to decorate a cake. These would also be easy recipes to make with children.


I used a selection of blueberries, raspberries and cherries - but you can alter to suit your liking
1 egg white
caster sugar

Wash the fruit and pat dry with kitchen roll.
Using a pastry brush, coat the outside of each fruit with egg white.
Roll the fruit in caster sugar and place on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper in a warm place to dry.


100g ground almonds
50g icing sugar
50g caster sugar
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
lemon juice (if necessary)

Sift the icing sugar into a bowl and mix with the caster sugar and ground almonds  Add the essence, egg yolk - and if necessary a few drops of lemon juice - to mix into a stiff dough.  Form into a ball and knead lightly.

If you're artistic, you could try creating a marzipan colt as Bianca refers to in her speech.  I'm not; instead I stuffed one batch of my crystallised raspberries and cherries with the marzipan.  That was a bit over the top - probably enough to corrupt, not just a mother-in-law, but also a saint.

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