Wittenwiler’s Wedding Feast VII: How Not to Eat Eggs

Just as I was finishing my translation of culinary excerpts from Der Ring, a friend pointed out that there actually is an English translation by George Fenwick Jones. I am a bit irked with myself for not having found it earlier, but I still think the effort was worth it for the culinary-minded among us. Here is the last major piece of the wedding feast, an improvised course of fried eggs:

Front page of Wittenwiler’s poem Der Ring courtesy of wikimedia commons (and yes, I think Bertschi, the dapper fellow on the left, is doing exactly what it looks like he’s doing. It is that kind of poem)

Bertschi said: “It is all lost everywhere anyway.” He filled a nutshell with wine (most), that was properly poured. “Kochunsauber (lit. cook-dirtily), bring out the wine” he called to his servants, “And tell him to fry up four eggs! We must stave off starvation!” And behold, this was quickly done.

By now, the gentlemen had begun shouting: “Bring us wine! The fish want to swim!” But it availed them nothing. All the perry (piermost) and cider (öpfgeltranch) and all the sloe water (schlechenwasser), too, had already been served. But they were brought a bucket of sour milk, and they gladly drank that. Rüefli raised the bucket to his mouth at that time and turned away to face the wall, which suited him well. He took such a mighty draught that it displeased the bride and she began to scold him: “I think you have fallen asleep in the bucket, or have you drowned in the milk?” she said. That made Rüefli laugh, and what did the milk do? It went right up into his brain and out of the nose again, back into the bucket. He offered the drink to the others and the bucket passed from one to the other. But Lärenchopf (lit. empty-the-glass) spoiled it. He did not find enough milk and threw the bucket against the wall.

Now the fried eggs were done and were served to the companions. Now was the time to grasp firmly, and they truly did so. They acted according to their old custom and fought for the eggs (no different from wild bears) with hands and feet. Nobody could stop them. He who came first did best for himself; He took everything, and that was that. Chrimbolten got one egg, Scheubinsak (lit. put-in-the-bag) got two, and Chnotz and Troll had caught the fourth. Thus the spoils were divided. Count Purkhart with the ganglion cyst (mit dem überpän) said: “We are not pleased by this game, I and my companions. The worst sharers are those who will allow one person to get drunk while another dies of thirst.” Thus he reached out straightaway and took an egg from Scheubinsak, but he did it so firmly and clumsily that the soft part ran through his hands. He thrust the fingers into his mouth and licked it off, that did him good.

Then spoke Jänsel: “Give me some, too!” “Be quiet”, he said, “you are a fool (gauch).” The long nails on his thumb helped him scoop out the egg. Scheubinsak held on to the other one. He split it quickly and thrust a large slice of bread through the middle of it, back and forth. Thus the yolk and the white ran off uselessly, except that the cats got hold of it and smoothed their tongues with it. “No matter”, the man said then, “someone who fortune will not smile on must lose a king’s treasure and an emperor’s power overnight.”

Chrimbold had watched carefully and grasped his egg entirely, threw it straight into his mouth and would have choked to death if his gullet had not been so wide the egg dropped down into the stomach whole. Then he said: “How good, how good! Now my share is safe from you.”

Chnotz and Troll were two fellows that none dared stand against. They took comfort in that knowledge and they were also quite clever. They grasped their egg together and opened it carefully. Eating mannerly, they gently dipped their bread slices in the egg, moistened them slightly, and threw them into the gates of their mouth. They did not swallow the slices entire, but dipped what remained of them into the egg again, and once more moved them to the mouth’s gate. They continued doing this until no bread was left on the table. All the others watched them like wolves watch a cow. There was one part of the egg left yet, but they held it fast, they would not part with it (es was nicht vail). They wanted two more loaves of bread, but none was found anywhere in the house. Then what was left for the poor? Truly, I cannot say. They scolded the host and gave the egg to the servants so they would remember to bring them something to drink.

As I pointed out before, this is the kind of vicious mockery of the peasantry that was unfailingly popular in German literature for many generations and should not be taken seriously as an account of actual manners. Well-mannered diners were expected to show restraint at the table, and the image of doltish thugs fighting over food must have had a certain cathartic quality for a bourgeois readership.

The description of the dish is more interesting. These are clearly fried eggs, not boiled, and they are served without their shell – they can be split with long fingernails – and with a soft centre. Thus they were most likely cooked immersed in hot fat, ancestors of the airimschmaltz that were so popular throughout the sixteenth century. A similar recipe features in my Landsknecht Cookbook, and this adds guidance to its most plausible preparation.

The manner of eating them, too, is interesting. When they are not devoured in undignified haste for fear of greedy rivals, the custom is to open up an egg and use bread to dip into the liquid yolk. We should not trust any quantity given in this poem – four eggs for a wedding company is ridiculously little – but it is clear that a small amount of egg was supposed to go with a larger quantity of bread. This is a general pattern in medieval dining. The poem also calls attention to the practice of double-dipping, most likely something the author disapproves of. Letting anything that had already been bitten off come in contact with shared food was considered uncouth and disgusting.

Heinrich Wittenwiler‘s massive poem Der Ring (the ring) is a somewhat puzzling piece of literature. Most likely produced in Constance around 1408-10, it tells a complex story of love, adventure, and deceit set in a peasant environment exploited for comedy value, but seems to have a genuine didactic purpose, though one often enough achieved by satirically describing the very opposite of desired conduct. In this, it resembles later Grobianic literature. I will limit myself to translating the parts that are relevant to food and table manners, but would advise anyone with an interest in the period to read it in its entirety.

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