Francine Segan’s Elizabethan theme dinner started as a bit of a joke. As young mother, trained as a psychologist, Segan loved to cook but found following most recipe books boring. With babysitters a rare luxury, she preferred entertaining at home, inviting friends to her inventive themed dinners. Now Francine Segan has launched a new career as the author of historical cookbooks.

Francine Segan’s cookbook, "Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook," was released by Random House in October and will soon be followed by two more historic, theme cookbooks. Segan is one of the featured guests at "Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Eat for Art," a winter dinner party designed to benefit the 10th annual summer season of the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival.

The Rep’s "Evening of Renaissance Food, Shakes-beer, Love, and Good Cheer" takes place on Saturday, December 6, at the spacious Princeton home of Carrie and John Pallat, co-hosted by artistic director Victoria Liberatori and executive director Anne Reiss. The Pallat’s Winant Road home was built circa 1900, originally a part of the 273-acre Edgerstoune estate. The Historical Society of Princeton has recognized the renovated Pallat house with its award for "Outstanding Contribution to Historic Preservation in Princeton." Benefit tickets for Princeton Rep’s "Eat for Art" are $75 per person and include a Shakespearean feast, a slide talk by Segan, and food-themed scenes from Shakespeare’s plays performed by members of Princeton Rep Company. For reservations, call 609-921-3682.

Segan describes her journey from hobby cook to professional cookbook author as "a delicious opportunity to launch a second career."

Beginning with her earliest cooking days, her culinary art grew alongside her research skills. One of her early successful dinners featured the foods of Renaissance Italy. Then, at a summer Shakespeare festival in the Berkshires, Segan was watching "The Taming of the Shrew," when she remarked on the Bard’s comic "beef and mustard" scene. Petruchio is trying to starve Kate into submissive behavior, and the scene features his man Grumio tempting Kate with thoughts of savory meats served with mustard. Segan’s friends suggested she try to serve an English Renaissance menu — such a meal, she thought, would be a joke on them.

"I’m Italian American and I love to have people come to dinner. But to tell you the truth, as an Italian American, we don’t associate good food with England." For her original Shakespeare dinner she envisioned creating "sort of a joke — like goose with gooseberry sauce, or other horrid food like boiled pudding and overcooked mutton."

But once Segan began researching Elizabethan cookery books in the rare books collection of the New York Public Library, she was surprised at the cuisine she found.

"I was appalled at my prejudice and my ignorance," she says. "Here I was looking for recipes for my humorous dinner and instead I found recipes of Elizabethan England that were elegant, sophisticated, and complex."

No only did she immediately find recipes she wanted to use, but she was also enchanted that the cookbooks included tips on ways to amuse your guests. "There was such whimsy and fun in the descriptions," says Segan. And she launches into some examples:

"When you cook a swan, place a servant beneath the table to pull it along so the swan appears to be swimming toward the head of the table," she reports. "We’ve all heard of `four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’ and we thought it sounded terrible." The birds were indeed placed live into a cooled and cooked pie crust, she says, but when the pie was opened, "the birds would fly through the room to delight and surprise the guests."

Although many such recipes were intended for kings, princes, and noblemen, Segan eventually found recipes recorded in handwritten mothers’ journals, often prepared as a gift to a daughter who was about to marry. Although never intended for publication, these also became a valuable resource. Inventive seasoning is one of the strengths of this cuisine.

"One of the things we all know about is the beauty of English gardens and clearly, this tradition dates back hundreds of years," says Segan. "The Elizabethan garden included a whole range of herbs, and the number of herbs listed in the Elizabethan cookbook would put a modern gourmet cook to shame. Here we get stuck with parsley, basil, and oregano — but there are hundreds of herbs and the Elizabethans used them all." She also found suggestions on preparing wild edibles and making an early harvest of pea pod shoots and broccoli leaves.

The Elizabethans were ever optimistic about the use of foods as aphrodisiacs. "I found a recipe for `Courage Tart" that said it was intended `to build courage in a man and a woman.’ Looking at the list of ingredients I began to have suspicions. Sure enough, the word `courage’ in those days meant virility and sexual interest," says Segan.

"They also believed that if you cooked with gold it would restore youth and vigor. Noting that gold is completely inert, she says her cookbook includes a recipe for chicken stew with gold pieces."

At the Princeton Rep benefit, the evening’s Elizabethan menu will be prepared by Chef Carla Fuentes of Duck Soup in New Hope. Her choice of dishes includes: Salmon with Violets, Pate with Dates and Homemade Nutmeg Mustard, Olepotrige Stew from Renaissance Spain, Roasted Pork with Herbs and Grapes, and Banbury Cakes, among many other Elizabethan treats. Ingredients are being donated by Wild Oats Natural Marketplace in Princeton.

Triumph Brewing Company is donating kegs of Shakes-Beer, a special brew developed for Princeton Rep’s Shakespeare in the Square festivities in 1997. And Thomas Sweet will be donating the festival’s popular Shakespeare Chocolate Squares.

The evening’s entertainment will be served up by Princeton Rep actors Donald Kimmel and Nell Gwynn (seen as Mr. and Mrs. Ford in PRSF’s 2003 summer production of "The Merry Wives of West Windsor"), with Susan Garrett, Eric Alperin, and Julia Poulos. The "meat and mustard" scene from "The Taming of the Shrew" will be among the Shakespearean food scenes that will be performed.

Princeton Rep executive producer Anne Reiss reports that Maiken Scott and Jim Coleman of the nationally syndicated NPR radio program, "The Chef’s Table," will cover the Princeton Rep benefit festivities with an on-location story about the theater company by conducting interviews during the evening.

Reiss reports that the Rep’s 2003 summer season, featuring "Comedy of Errors" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor," was seen by 8,000 to 10,000 people. The season benefited from good weather (they lost only one performance) and improvements to the Pettoranello Gardens Amphitheater. "We had a fantastic season — one of our best," she says. "We had a great caliber of actors and better production values made possible by a substantially improved electrical system."

Looking forward to the company’s 10th season, Liberatori and Reiss will announce the playbill of two comedies or perhaps a comedy and a popular tragedy in January. Meanwhile they are working toward further improvements to the Pettoranello facility, as well as the addition of a summer film series of Shakespearean and independent films presented by the owners of Thomas Sweet.

Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Eat for Art , Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival, Pallat residence, Princeton, 609-921-3682. By reservation, $75. Saturday, December 6, 7 p.m.

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