Fest Fooding: The fairest food of all.

The Renaissance Festival comes around every year for 6 weeks and pretty much serves the dual purpose of destroying everyone’s diets and ruining whatever education about the Renaissance that you’ve received up until that point.

For example, at no point during the Renaissance were there toy gryphons or dragons that rode around on peoples’ shoulders. Really. I checked. Also not sure about the face painting (although folks did use some pretty elaborate cosmetics back then), “magic” wands, climbing walls, and I sincerely doubt that they had cheesecake on a stick.

Or steak on a stake. Or yakitori chicken skewers. Or deep fried macaroni and cheese on a stick. Or deep fried ice cream. Or deep fried green beans with a Thai peanut sauce. Or deep fried banana cheesecake. Or ice cream cannolis. Or raspberry smoothies. They did have mead, beer and wine, though, and possibly big, hankin’ turkey legs, but seriously- where did all this other stuff come from? And why are people eating it?

The answer lies in the fact that the audience is us. We have an appetite for the unique, the bizarre and the fattening. Go to just about any amusment park in America and you will find a vast assortment of yuck to munch on. Because Americans spend 8 hour days patronizing fairs, parks and other such divertisements, it only stands to reason that there be food. So why not have funnel cakes and deep fried pickles? Just because such things didn’t exist in the 16th century doesn’t mean they can’t be part of the experience- after all, wasn’t the Renaissance about trying new and interesting things? Exploring new cultures? Germs and various digestive illnesses?

That’s right- we’ve conveniently forgotten the flies, the plague, the abject poverty, the child weddings, the scientific and artistic discoveries, the… privies. Instead we have a marvelous array of foods and drek to choose from. Yay, us!

Renaissance Faires are held all over the US every year- their popularity is such that the phrase “Renn Fest” has become a colloquialism. Nominally based in the lore and legend of the 16th century, they are presided over by Elizabeth I, or a watered down Henry VIII as in our neck of the woods. When I say “watered down” I mean that Henry has “a” queen. There are beheading jokes, of course, but you don’t open a Portajohn door and find the good king having a dalliance with Jane Seymour. Mary Queen of Scots presides with him over the jousting, when in fact we know he didn’t like her much- she was declared a bastard and sent to wait on her sister Elizabeth. This is the Disney-fied 16th century folks. Brace yourselves.

The village setting is like something out of the Disney handbook: brightly colored food stalls, axe and star throwing stands, shops, a jousting arena and such that are only used once a year for the faire.

Folks wander around in costume and speak in courtly English, which is either unsettling or charming depending on your mindset. Personally, I find it a little freaky. I was wearing the hat Mike gave me last year and was told in a ringing voice by a passing gentlewoman in maroon velvet and a silk cape that “Your hat is exceedingly fine my lady!” I mean, how the heck do you answer that? I think I overthunkest it.

And why aren’t they speaking Italian for d*g’s sakes? For my money the Italian Renaissance was much more interesting than the Elizabethan. True, Drake and Raleigh were traveling the world and bringing back news of other lands, the population was booming and Willie Shakespeare was hitting his artistic stride, but how can you match that against the sheer volume of artistic, architectural and scientific achievement of the Italians? I mean, come on folks- da Vinci!

The theme varies between medieval, fantasy and pirate. Men who really shouldn’t wear tights and women with long flowing hair and feathery headdresses roam around shopping for hose, boots and kilts. Sometimes there are parents, kids in tow, coming out to enjoy the comedy stylings of Puke and Snot, the slightly racier Hack and Slash and one of the many theater and storytelling troupes that appear hourly.

But back to the food. Steak on a stake? They have a plethora of nutritional options on sticks, bones and skewers, deep fried and delicious. I tried a lot of things- some delicious (steak) some not (pizza) and I’ve come to the conclusion that fun food probably makes history go down better. Or maybe we think best on our stomachs? One thing is for sure- the Renaissance was a time of very smart people, and very poor health and hygiene. And some things never change.

Interesting side note, on Saturday I heard a piece on the radio about Williams Syndrome, which presents as a low IQ, elfin features, stunted growth, spectacular musical and narrative abilities, sensitivity to music, a memory for names and faces and a generally sociable nature. Scientists are now speculating that Williams’ sufferers might have inspired tales of fairies, elves and “little people.” More here.


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