Novelist's contribution to cookbook is a feast in the style of Tudor England

A PAGEANT OF PLEASURE

December 22, 1991|By Lynn Williams

There's more to eating a la Henry VIII than throwing bones over your shoulder.

Feasting in the era of the Tudors was -- for the upper classes, at least -- an opulent pageant of pure excess: trestle tables groaning under their burden of food, nobles with fur-trimmed garments and greasy fingers, pages circulating with pitchers of claret, hounds lounging on the rush-covered floors, gnawing the bones indolently tossed to them. Nobody worried much about silverware.

As the 20th century draws to a close, we might look to the 16th for holiday party inspiration. While we are certainly too well-bred to toss bones around or wipe our hands on a passing dog, who can resist the era's combination of magnificence and down-and-dirty party spirit? Especially when such courtly hospitality can be achieved without a huge outlay of time and money.

"I believe in as little effort as possible, but as much effect as possible," says Nicole St. John. Ms. St. John, who writes novels of romantic suspense ("with an emphasis on the suspense") for Random House, has had a busy writing career under eight different names. She specializes in young adult novels, multigenerational family sagas and tales of mystery and intrigue. And, as Norma Johnston, she has just finished a biography of Louisa May Alcott.

But Ms. St. John, who lives in New Jersey, is also a food maven. Several years ago, while writing a monthly food section for her local newspaper, she developed several imaginative party plans: strawberry social, a re-creation of her mother's 1926 wedding reception, a Middle Eastern feast. So when Jean and Ron McMillen, owners of the Mystery Bookshop: Bethesda, asked her to contribute to See TUDOR, 0X, Col. 0TUDOR, from 1Dtheir mystery-writers' cookbook, "Cooking with Malice Domestic," she didn't just send in a couple of recipes. She provided instructions for throwing two gala dinner parties with an English theme: a luxe Edwardian dinner and a colorful Tudor feast.

The Renaissance dinner, explains Ms. St. John in a phone interview from her Midland Park home, was inspired by the research she did for her 1976 novel "Wychwood." The real Wychwood, she says, is in the Cotswolds area of England ("where the Waleses live when they're not at Kensington Palace"). During Tudor times, it was a royal hunting preserve, and many uncanny supernatural legends are associated with the place.

"It was a marvelous excuse to spend the summer where I wanted to spend it, and write it off as a business expense," Ms. St. John admits with a laugh.

During her English summer she immersed herself in Tudor architecture and lifestyles. She also attended castle banquets, and re-created the dishes she ate when she returned home.

Ms. St. John has served her Tudor banquet both as a dinner party and, suitably expanded, as a charity fund-raiser for 125 people. "I had fresh hams marinating in refrigerators all over town," she says. "One woman's husband worried that the smell of the marinade would penetrate through his beer cans."

Her Wychwood-inspired dinner begins with a salad inspired by the interlaced love-knot garden designs beloved of the Elizabethans. Salad greens in a variety of textures and colors are arranged into a knot shape, using a pattern from a garden book or the cook's imagination. Fixings might include red and green lettuces, shredded carrots, spinach, mushrooms, broccoli, scallions, watercress, red and white onions, dark or golden raisins, dates, figs and vinaigrette on the side.

Putting together this salad might be a good project for older children in the household, Ms. St. John says, keeping them involved but out from under foot.

The major offering is a roast fresh ham or pork shoulder in a spicy marinade. Strong spices were popular in Tudor times; not only did they give barnyard pork the more exotic flavor of wild boar, but they disguised less-than-fresh meat. We can enjoy it strictly for its savory flavors, though.

The ham is served with a "hunter's sauce" of pan drippings and pureed vegetables, and traditional Cumberland sauce, a sweetish sauce made with fruit preserves, orange juice, liqueur and mustard.

(If you have friends who don't eat pork, or who shun red meat, she suggests "stewed fowl," a chicken fricasseelike dish in a crust, as a traditional alternative.)

Vegetable side dishes include stir-fried green beans with ginger and other spices, sauteed red cabbage and apples, and potato and onion pie.

For dessert, Ms. St. John serves lemon sorbet, nuts, candied fruits and liqueurs. "There are a lot more fancy things, but when people finish plowing through all that food, they can't eat anything else," she comments.

"We served hot cider or mead [honey wine], which you can get at some liquor stores, or good English ale, with hunks of bread and cheese to sop up the liquor."

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