Shakespearean Food Fight

My baker-friend and I attended the Shakespeare in Clark Park production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, a bawdy play of confidence games and mistaken identities featuring fan favorite Falstaff.  In a saucy comedy like this, the insults were flying–and my friend and I were particularly tickled when Falstaff curses the husband of one of his would-be conquests with the phrase “salt-butter rogue.”  We only infrequently use salted butter, as it is rarely called for in baking recipes; a salt-butter rogue indeed must be less than desirable.

A quick internet search revealed even more depth and hilarity in this lightly tossed-off phrase.  Salt butter, it seems, was imported to England from Flanders–the salt preserved the dairy from going bad on such a journey–and was less expensive than English butter (though also, alas, less fresh).  Someone who bought and used salt butter might be accused of being a cheapskate–and obviously Falstaff, a comfort-loving Silenus who is always seeking out the pleasures of the senses, would despise anyone too mean to provide the best of these.  At the same time, the object of the insult is married to the none-too-young (fresh) woman that Falstaff would like to seduce and swindle, so… there you have it, a perfect storm of an insult that pokes fun at three characters for the price of one.  Oh, Shakespeare! Let the sky rain potatoes on us,* you impudent embossed rascal!

In lieu of rotten tomatoes, here is some verbal ammunition for you to fling at any rogues you may encounter:

“His wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury mustard.”: Henry IV2, 2.4.200-1. Falstaff again, in one of his earlier appearances. He is discussing one of his comrades, Poins; Falstaff’s ladyfriend Doll Tearsheet has heard that Poins is clever, which Falstaff contemptuously refutes. Tewkesbury mustard was a common kitchen staple; perhaps Falstaff means to imply that Poins is common as well. “There’s no more conceit in him than is in a mallet,” he adds.

Fusty nut with no kernel: Troilus and Cressida, 2.1.65-6. Ajax is beating Thersites, who keeps cracking jokes about Ajax being all brawn and no brain. When Achilles enters the scene, Thersites gleefully applies the same insult to him, remarking “Hector have a great catch, if he knock out either of your brains: a’ were as good crack a fusty nut with no kernel.”
Thersites comes out with some spectacular food insults throughout the course of this play: he calls Nestor a “stale old mouse-eaten dry cheese” (although not to his face) and says his policy is not “worth a blackberry.”  It’s difficult to top the delectable assonance of “fusty nut,” though.

“Tis an ill cook that cannot lick his own fingers.”: Romeo and Juliet, 4.2.5. Not an insult, perhaps, but it could be: Capulet’s servingman comes out with this chestnut when tasked by the family to find some good cooks for Juliet’s wedding to Paris. The man plans to do so by making them taste their own cooking, which seems logical.  On the other hand, the image of fingers in and near the food, licked or unlicked, is a little off-putting; perhaps this is why Capulet waves him away and says to his wife that they are woefully underprepared for this wedding.

“The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!/ Where got’st thou that goose look?” Macbeth 5.311-12. Possibly my favorite insult of all time–Macbeth manages to squeeze in a curse and a jab as well as the putdown.  It is the last act and Macbeth’s power grab is coming spectacularly unravelled, though he is still fairly certain of his own invincibility. An unfortunate servant comes in with the news of impending battle, and before he can even speak, Macbeth lambasts him for his pale, frightened face. Loon and goose suggest a sort of witless, wild-eyed terror. Not much later, Macbeth calls the same servant “whey-face,” which along with cream invokes something pale and possibly curdled.  If you were sitting in the cheap seats and couldn’t see the performers’ faces, the words would paint a vivid and hilarious image for you.
But the news the poor white-faced servant brings is that ten thousand soldiers are standing outside Dunsinane.  The allusion to fowl is a little ironic, then; the servant knows their goose is cooked.


Shakespeare’s Non-Standard English: A Dictionary of His Informal Language. Continuum, 2006. Partially available through Google Books.

With the help of the Shakespearean Insulter

*Another Falstaffian food-ism that I laughed at but didn’t fully understand. Later I learned that potatoes were once considered an aphrodisiac.  It’s the first I’ve heard of that, but it does clarify why Falstaff would make such an exclamation while frolicking in the forest with two Merry Wives.

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