By Hailey Grohman
Literary-themed meals certainly aren’t a new phenomenon—blogs like Food in Literature share recipes from texts including Harry Potter, The Great Gatsby, and more—but the book featured in next month’s Isolé Dinner Club doesn’t immediately recall culinary memories.
Beowulf, the book you might remember from high school English class, is an Old English epic poem depicting the hero Beowulf slaying the monster Grendel. Needless to say, the story doesn’t exactly call to mind delicious feasts. However, one chef and recent UVM graduate, Richard Witting, is preparing to change that perception.
On Oct. 2, privileged guests can attend Witting’s Beowulf-themed, five course, historical dinner in a secret location that will be revealed to diners the week of the event. UVM Professor Chris Vaccaro will lecture on Beowulf, and historian Adam Krakowski of Yankee Brewing News will curate and speak about beverages and brewing in that time.
How does a chef become a scholar, and did Beowulf inspire Witting to create a five course meal? We asked Witting to find out.
How did a chef, caterer and, and consultant become a BA in Anthropology?
I actually just finished an undergraduate degree at UVM in Anthropology this last spring. Indeed, I did it all backwards. I started with the career, then found anthropology, which is really asking the questions that I was looking for about how the world works, as well as about the subject of food, eating, and the meanings and traditions we have around those things.
Can you explain more about Beowulf’s culinary themes, and how you created the menu for this event?
Having just spent the last few years in college, I was just so impressed with the many brilliant and fascinating fields of study there are out there. This got me thinking that I would really like to incorporate the research skills I’ve learned and apply them to dinner parties, as well as reach across disciplines to get professors and scholars in front of average people to tell them about what they know. I use that all as an excuse to learn and investigate different times, places, and ideas around food and dinner.
Beowulf specifically came about because I had honed in on the idea of doing a dinner around the history of English literature, an idea that got started as I was noticing themes about food and class in the books by Beatrix Potter I was reading to my daughter (Beatrix Potter will be the fifth themed dinner in the series). Simultaneously, I had been listening to an excellent podcast about the history of the English language that goes into depth about its evolution. A number of episodes were spent on the text of Beowulf. It seemed like a fascinating time period to research the history of when the Vikings were invading Anglo-Saxon England. That led me to researching what was out there in the archeological record about that time period, as there is little to no written record of England at that time…and definitely no cookbooks. Seemed like an interesting challenge.
So when creating a menu, the first thing I do is imagine my kitchen—what foods and equipment would be there? I do that by listing out all the spices, meats, vegetables, etc., that would be available at that time. I cross reference that the ingredients I might want to use would be there at that time (in this case, there would be no New World ingredients). For example, I will be cooking using mainly an open fire, as well as heated stones to heat water. I also consider what the structure of the meal would be like. Did they have courses? Did they eat desserts?
I also do a lot foraging, and research which plants/animals that we have around here would have been available at that time, and whether I can find them (knotgrass, broadleaf plantain, nettle, Queen Anne’s lace, etc.). The other thing I do is hit the Internet, and see what is out there for me to purchase.
With all that in mind, I start writing the menu.
Do the courses follow a narrative structure, or do they each address different themes or characters in the poem?
There are no strong references to dishes in the text that I know of. So, the dinner does not connect to the text quite that much. The exception is that we will largely be serving mead with the dinner, which is the drink consumed by the Vikings. Later dinners in the series will more closely follow meals or dishes from the texts.
Will there be other literary-themed dinners in this series?
Yes, this is the first of five. The others are Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter. In addition to lectures, each will also hopefully include additional ethno-historic flavor: English country dancers (Austen), Medieval singers (Chaucer), and players (Shakespeare).
Tickets for the Oct. 2 event can be purchased on Eventbrite.com.
-Hailey Grohman is a recent graduate of the UVM Food Systems program. Her research interests include food communications and media.