‘Fat Rascals’ is Love's Labour's triumph for actor John Tufts

John Tufts in his kitchen with his son Henry and an Oxfordshire cake. 

Actor John Tufts' two professional passions come together in “Fat Rascals: Dining at Shakespeare's Table,” his recently released cookbook bringing the food of the Bard's plays and days to life.

Tufts is best known in Chicago for his roles as Henry V in “Tug of War, Part One,” the Duke of Navarre in “Love's Labour's Lost,” and Charles Hart in “Nell Gwynn” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as well as Edmond Rostand in “Bernhardt/Hamlet” at Goodman Theatre last season. He started work on the book by culling all the mentions of food and drink in Shakespeare's 37 plays, among them the 22 in which he's performed during his twelve years with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and elsewhere.

With the help of the “Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary,” a favorite of actors for charting frequency of word use, he found hundreds of references, many literal and even more metaphorical. Next he researched period recipes in facsimiles of 17th-century cookbooks, especially Robert May’s “The Accomplisht Cook” and Gervase Markham's “The English Housewife.” Then he decided which dishes seemed most appealing and do-able—and tested them, updating them enough, for example by including measurements, so a modern cook could use them.

“Those that worked like gangbusters, I'd definitely keep,” he said. “Those that were in the middle, I'd try to make workable, and those that were inedible, I'd just leave out.” One example in the last category was artichokes with plum syrup and bone marrow on white bread from May's book.

Tufts ended up with about 150 recipes, which he arranged into more-or-less modern categories: kickshaws and pasties (appetizers, most in pastry); salads and vegetables; pottages and soups; meat, poultry, game, fish; bread, pastry, sweets; preserves, condiments, sauces; and drink. Tongue chewets (little meat pies), samphire salad (made with a salty coastal green), stewed cockles, tansy (a thrice-cooked omelet), and Oxfordshire cake are a few of the less-familiar selections. Because Elizabethan dining customs revolved so heavily around the liturgical calendar and were highly seasonal, he also provided typical menus for every day, weekends, and feast days like Christmas and St. Crispin's Day.

Tufts said he was most excited about the joint of mutton, pictured on the cover, for both theatrical and culinary reasons. “The food reference from 'Henry IV, Part 2' is part of a literal menu rather than being rhetorical, such as the insults Prince Hal and Falstaff hurl at each other,” he explained. “Justice Shallow very specifically says 'Some pigeons, Davy, a couple of short-legged hens, a joint of mutton, and any pretty little tiny kickshaws, tell William cook.' And the preparation, which incorporates orange and a sauce thickened with egg yolks and enriched by shredded mutton, was a completely new flavor profile for me.” He added that although mutton is hard to find nowadays, the Elizabethans ate everything—unlike us.

Tufts' reflections on acting in the plays and his discoveries about the food pepper the book and, along with his lively sense of humor and tidbits about introducing his now seven-year-old son Henry to new dishes make it deeply personal. It's packed with fascinating historical information, such as instructions on roasting meat over a spit Elizabethan-style (using a dog to turn a wheel) and how to set the table and fold the napkins for a feast. “I wanted it to show my visceral relationship to Shakespeare,” he said.

Remarkably, Tufts not only wrote “Fat Rascals,” he also did everything else—in 13 months from the fundraiser he held to finance production and printing to the book's publication at the beginning of April and the limited delivery dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic. He designed the layout, cooked all the food, and took all the photos, some of them while he was on the road for shows. “I used two kitchens besides mine at home in Louisville, KY,” he said. “One in New Jersey and the other in Chicago, in company housing across from Goodman Theatre. I just brought my cutting board with me everywhere and took lots of close-ups.”

Tufts, now 39, admitted that he initially had the idea a decade ago, when he was appearing as Prince Hal in “Henry IV, Part I” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “I started thinking about how much food there was and how good it sounded,” he recalled. “That continued the next year when we did 'Henry IV, Part II,' but I was too busy to think about working on the project.”

When he was starting out in Oregon, Tufts also worked in a restaurant kitchen. Having learned to cook from his parents—his father runs a college restaurant kitchen, his mother is a former caterer and restaurant consultant—he also began catering mostly small functions. He continues to this day, often with meals related to the plays he's in.

Tufts said a car ride with colleagues to the theater in New York where he was appearing in “Pride and Prejudice” in 2017 prompted him to commit seriously to the book. “We were playing the game of 'what we'd be doing if we weren't acting,' and I mentioned that I always wanted to write a cookbook about Shakespeare and food,” he explained. “And they all said 'you have to do that.' “ The next day he went to Kitchen Arts & Letters on the Upper East Side and found a copy of Peter Brears’ ”Cooking and Dining in Tudor and Early Stuart England,” which became on of this primary sources.

While Tufts found the process time-consuming, he said it was very enjoyable. The hardest part was finding modern substitutions for the alcoholic beverages people drank then, because drinks like ale and claret have changed entirely in 400 years.

“People have the perception that Elizabethans basically ate meat and fat, but I wanted to show that there was much more delicacy to the preparation and presentation than we'd expect, that the cooking was totally seasonal, the palate more diverse, and the use of earthly spices more prevalent,” he explained. “The cooking at court was more elaborate and wildly theatrical than anything at Alinea, which was an exciting discovery for me.”

With barely any promotion beyond word of mouth and a video or two, “Fat Rascals: Dining at Shakepeare's Table” has sold out most of its initial run of 1,000 copies. Tufts is proud of the book but said the biggest joy for him has to do with time travel. “If the technology were available, I'd go back and see Shakespeare's plays at the Globe when he wrote them,” he said. “I can't do that, but tasting the past is the next best thing. It brings me closer to a subject I love dearly and that is a huge part of my life.”

 Joh Tufts

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