New World Foods in 16th Century England
“But they didn’t eat that” is a phrase that always makes me want to dig out my books and start researching. One of my favourites is turkey, which were easily obtainable in England by 1555, costing only slightly more than capons (Dugdale 135). Turkeys even showed up in cookery books written for the gentry and yeoman classes in the 1590s such as The Good Huswifes Jewell. But there are many plants that also came from the New World to England before 1600, including tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, and corn. Sadly it doesn’t seem to include the cocoa bean which, though it came to Europe by 1544, doesn’t get referenced in English until 1604 (Grivetti and Shapiro 926-7).
A great deal of knowledge is held in Gerarde’s Herball, first published in 1597. Gerarde was a member of the gentry class who was originally trained as a surgeon before becoming the superintendent of gardens for William Cecil, one of the Queen’s advisors (Rickman 1). The Herball incorporates information from various other herbals and medical texts of the time as well as his own commentary on the plants listed. It is not always accurate, such as in its entry on “stonie wood” (Gerarde 1390), likely petrified wood, but it does give a good overview of what plants were known of and used in England at the time. The Herball also allows us to debunk several myths we hold about the time, such as those regarding tomatoes.