In anticipation of Thanksgiving, we spoke with John Tufts, one of our favorite actors and chefs, on how he’s preparing for the holiday. You can see John’s culinary skills and expertise on display in his book, Fat Rascals: Dining at Shakespeare’s Table. And witness John’s Shakespeare knowledge this Wednesday, November 18 at 5:00pm in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Live Shakespeare Lightning Round.
Can you tell us about how you conceived of the idea for a Shakespeare-inspired cookbook? How did you go about finding references in the plays to food?
I’d love to tell you, thanks for asking! I mean the very beginning, super-early, moment of conception origin story is that I was doing a production of a Henry IV, Part 1 about a decade ago, and I said a line to Falstaff in the show where I called him “roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly.” It’s meant to sound disgusting and call attention to Falstaff’s blubbery-ness, but I would always say it, and think, “That sounds so good. Roast ox filled with sausage? Where can I find that on the menu?” But that was a decade ago, and I have to be honest, I didn’t really think about it too much after that.
Then in 2017, when I was doing PRIDE AND PREJUDICE at HVSF, we were driving to the tent one night for a show, and the four of us were in the car chatting. We would always have epic conversations in that 20-minute drive to the tent. It was dreamy. And one particular night Kate Hamill asked what we would all do if we weren’t acting, and I (very meekly) said that I had this idea for a cookbook. I sort of sputtered out what I would do—that I would comb Shakespeare’s plays, find the food references, and then find recipes. Well, the other three in the car erupted in approval. Hamill, probably mid-bite on a tuna sandwich or something, shouted, “OH MY GOD YOU HAVE TO DO THIS!” And then that’s when I decided that maybe it wasn’t such a dumb idea.
Do you have a favorite line and resulting concoction? For us, some of the great insults involving food come to mind — “His wit’s as thick as a Tewkesbury mustard.”, Henry VI
Yeah, what is it about Shakespeare and mustard? I can’t tell if he liked it or hated it given his alternating perspectives on it. Anyway, my favorite reference by far is from Henry IV, Part 2. Justice Shallow says, “Some pigeons, Davy, a roast joint of mutton, a couple of short-legged hens, and some pretty, tiny little kickshaws tell William cook.” Shallow’s talking to Davy, here, and he’s basically placing a business lunch order. Isn’t that crazy? What was your last business lunch? A turkey club? Maybe a kale salad with wood shavings and pebbles?
These Elizabethans knew how to live. Doesn’t that menu sound GLORIOUS? It is so unique to the time. We don’t eat anything on this menu today. Maybe hens, if you’re one of those five people who eats Cornish game hens every now and then. But they’re hardly most people’s weeknight, after-baseball-practice dinner. Mutton’s virtually impossible to find, I had pigeon once at an obnoxious restaurant in Portland, and I would bet a large majority of Americans have never heard of a kickshaw (which, by the way, is a kind of Shakespearean hors d’oeuvre). But while Shallow’s menu is beyond reach for most of us, I feel confident that it would delight anyone. Well, carnivores.
What’s going to be on the table for you and your family this November 26?
Oh God. I’m sorry so so so so sorry for how pretentious this Thanksgiving menu is going to sound. But, look, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, so I like to get a little fancy. Especially in 2020, as we seem stuck in this endless time loop of sweatpants and resignation. I need an excuse to use a tablecloth. Okay, here’s the menu, please forgive me.
I live in upstate NY, and I found a fish guy who smokes haddock, so I’m making these smoked haddock and potato gratins. Then some glazed vegetables—turnips, carrots, fennel, leeks, that kind of thing. Because it’s just going to be my wife, our son and me, we’re not roasting a whole turkey this year. Instead, I’m making a roulade (DEAR GOD THIS IS PRETENTIOUS!) out of a turkey breast, cooking that sous-vide (STOP ME, PLEASE), and then roasting it in the oven to crisp the skin. For dessert, we’ll have a pecan and chocolate tart. I can’t believe I told you all of that. Why couldn’t I just lie and say a butterball turkey and some yams with marshmallows on top?
Do you have any books or go-to chefs for recipes?
I go back again and again to two books: Roger Vergé’s Entertaining in the French Style, and The Balthazar Cookbook. Vergé’s book is about 40 years old, and we’ve had it for as long as I can remember. But it’s food my mom would try to make, and I can get lost in the book the way you get lost in a family album. Balthazar is Keith McNally’s restaurant in SoHo. The food is unfussy and very satisfying. It’s the food I make almost every day, and more importantly, it’s the food that keeps our seven-year-old at the table.
What recipe(s) from your book would you suggest folks throw into the mix on their menus this Thanksgiving? Keeping in mind that we’re mixing some English and American cuisines here!
The roast turkey! It’s as easy as any roast turkey, but it uses a different flavor profile. Bits of ginger, orange, mace, and nutmeg. We had it this time last year and it’s delicious. For Shakespeare and later generations, something like this would be served for Christmas, but since Turkey is a Thanksgiving mainstay for Americans, I feel like we can break the English rules and have it a month early. That’s what Americans are good at anyway: breaking English rules.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks so much for your interest in the book! It’s a wild, idiosyncratic, very nerdy book, with a variety of recipes. Some are approachable and surprising, and others are curious for our modern palates, but the book is a strong case for authenticity. It was a labor of love for me with extra emphasis on LABOR and LOVE.