elaborate food displays made of sugar -- 12/30/22

Today's encore selection -- from Serve It Forth by M.F.K. Fisher. In medieval Europe, royal banquets were held to celebrate extraordinary guests. These guests were honored with "subtleties," which were elaborate food displays made of sugar and other food items commemorating the character or achievements of those guests. To highlight these subtleties, they were paraded in front of the assembled diners, but rarely eaten:

"The three main courses of a banquet were heralded by spec­tacular puddings and tarts called warners. These, more often than not, were eaten in spite of the silk, wire, wood, gilt, and feathers that decorated them.

"The biggest set pieces marking the end of each course, how­ever, were seldom eaten. Instead, after the guest of honour had duly inspected them, they were paraded slowly around the ban­quet hall, sometimes carried on long stretchers by the strongest servants and sometimes wheeled cumbersomely on carts.

"Subtleties they were called, and in no uncertain style they in­dicated the character or activities of the honoured diner.

"A Templar home from Jerusalem saw sugar heretics bowed down before a Holy Sepulcher of paste and cake, with a Red Sea of jelly shimmering near it.

"A sporting nobleman recognized his own hunting party, re­duced to candy, galloping across a custard moor.

"When John Stafford was made Archbishop of Canterbury toward the middle of the fifteenth century, he nodded with be­nign pleasure at the three subtleties composed for him. First he saw Saint Andrew, sitting on a high altar of state, with beams of gold; before him kneeling, John Stafford himself in his pontif­ical robes, with his crozier crouched behind him, coped.

"Then after dishes of crane and venison and many other meats and birds and finally fish and fruit and a great tart, the second subtlety appeared. It was the Trinity showing a Son of gold, with a crucifix in His hand. Saint Thomas sat on one side, Saint Austin on the other, and John Stafford knelt again, still in his bishop's robes. Behind him was his crozier, coped with the arms of Rochester. Behind the crozier, on one side, knelt a black monk of Christ's Church, and on the other the Abbot of Saint Austin's.

"The third course came to its end, after fourteen separate dishes. The last great subtlety was trundled before the banquet­ers, and a clerk described it:

"A godhede in a son of gold glorified above, in the son the holy gist voluptable, Seint Thomas kneling a-for him, with ye poynt of a swerd in his hede, & a Mitre there-uppon, crown­ing s.T. in dextera parte, Maria tenens mitram; in sinistra parte, Johannus Baptista: et in iiij partibus, iiij Angeli incen­santes.

"And with this the banquet ended."

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M.F.K. Fisher


Serve It Forth


North Point Press


Copyright 1937, 1954 by M.F.K. Fisher


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