Let's play a word association game. I say English food, you say? What usually comes to mind is an assortment of selections like fish and chips, bangers and mash, shepherd's pie and spotted dick.
Unsure of the origins of each dish, traditional English food in the United States has lost some of its essence, partly due to fusion with other cuisines as a result of post-World War II immigration.
As delectable as Red Lion's tandoori quesadillas or Queen Vic's saag pizza are, influences from North America, China and India have shifted the cookery's journey to one at which Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald, the 18th century Martha Stewart, would plausibly furrow her brow. Her wondrous and haut ton dishes like larded hare, beaked snipe, flummery jellies and macaroni and cheese would unequivocally win over such culinary mishmash.
Mrs. Raffald is the inspiration behind Rienzi's English Taste: The Art of Dining in the Eighteenth Century.
"You would not only have very fine food, often very artistically made, but would show off your status with the quality of your silver, which is your wealth," Day says.
As the home of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's European decorative arts collection, the former residence of Carroll Sterling and Harris Masterson is now home to a swell spread of period foods that illustrate a lavish second-course fit for a flashy occasion typically served at a 1760s English country home. English Taste showcases some of Rienzi's most delectable porcelain and silver — like a 1754 epergne (centerpiece) by William Cripps coddling rococo desserts including marzipan fruits, sponge finger biscuits dipped in wine and trios of candied cherries tied with a green silk ribbon.
English Taste is curated by Christine Gervais in collaboration with internationally-renowned food historian, Ivan Day, using Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper as a guide. They followed her instructions carefully. When a dish was completed, Day made a mold to then craft a resin replica and achieved an astonishingly realistic effect. That included whimsical dishes like jellies of playing cards and gold fish.
"When people look at old cookery books and they see these extraordinary diagrams of tables with many different dishes, most have the idea that people ate like this on an everyday basis," Day says. "They didn't. This may be a wedding, a christening or the birth of a new child, when you pulled out all the stops. The cooks and confectioners would have to get extra stuff in, hire silver and porcelain because the household may not have enough. The finer silver would be pulled out from the butler's pantry, the best porcelain would be taken out of the cases and no expenses were spared.
"You would not only have very fine food, often very artistically made, but would show off your status with the quality of your silver, which is your wealth."
An 18th century English meal would leave quite a mess. Servants and maids would be need to have almost curatorial hands to handle the master's fine collectibles.
Born in 1733 in Doncaster, Mrs. Raffald became a professional servant as a teenager and was trained as a cook, confectioner and housekeeper. She worked for the daughter of the Earl of Derby, one of Britain's leading politicians connected to the wealthiest people in England.
She had to cook and lay the table for some of the most elevated aristocracy in the country.
When she married the gardener, she was dismissed as was customary. The happy couple moved to the burgeoning town of Manchester where new money demanded high-end services. There, she started a servant's agency and cookery school, wrote cookbooks and put together a guide to the local merchants — the precursor to the modern day phone book.
She managed shops and inns, though her husband's drinking meant any money saved contributed to his habit. She died poor.
Though the exhibition is on view through Jan. 29, "Punch Party: The 18th Century Imbiber" at 7 p.m. Thursday explores the historic English punch.