Poor Knight’s Pudding: 1859

A friend of mine was visiting New Zealand at the end of February. All was going well – she’d been welcomed by her daughter and son-in-law, was enjoying immersing herself in the local customs (read: doing the park run every weekend) and had eschewed traditional tourist sites in favour of public toilets so splendid and magnificent they had their own tourist marker on the map and 4/5 stars on Tripadvisor.

And then: lockdown. Months have passed and she remains, in her own words, stuck passing the time on the phone to the airport trying to book various flights home, only for them to be pushed back indefinitely or cancelled. It gives her something to do now the toilets have stopped taking visitors, apparently.

One thing she did manage to do before we were all plunged into quarantine was visit Poor Knights Islands, whose English name possibly comes from the islands’ resemblance to an English dish called Poor Knight’s Pudding – a sort of Anglo version of French toast. Poor Knight’s Pudding was a popular dish at the time of Captain Cook; the man who ‘discovered’ the islands, much to the surprise of the Ngatiwai people who already lived there, in 1769. The islands are also famed for their red flowering summer pohutukawa blossoms which mimic jam on Poor Knight’s Pudding. Maybe I could do some research on the dish, she wondered, and possibly recreate it?

Jammy French toast? Count me in.

The earliest records of Poor Knight’s Pudding comes from ‘W.M.’s 1658 work The Compleat Cook (“To make poore knights”) where bread is dipped in cream and eggs, fried in butter and drizzled with rosewater, but this recipe doesn’t shed much light on why it was called Poor Knight’s Pudding. Foods Of England reveals that there are similar European dishes with equivalent names (a German recipe called arme rittera and a Finnish one called köyhät ritarit), but that none of these alternatives gives any indication as to the dish’s name either. To add some more confusion to the mix, Regula Ysewijn points out that after 1791 the English version of the dish seems to have changed name to Poor Knights of Windsor and the cream was replaced with white wine and sugar before being fried and served with cinnamon.

The original Poor Knights of Windsor were a group of knights who became financially ruined during the Battle of Crécy in 1346 by having to ransom themselves after being captured by the French; probably the most awkward and expensive realization of one’s own unpopularity that ever existed. Though Edward III clearly didn’t think enough of them/have enough money to pay their ransom personally, he did set up The Alms Knights of St. George’s Chapel which provided shelter and a pension to twenty-six ‘Poor Knights’ in exchange for them attending four Church services a day and praying for the king. As time went on, the Alms Knights for retired impoverished military personnel continued to lodge ‘Poor Knights’ at Windsor Castle with subsequent kings and queens decreasing and increasing the number of ‘Poor Knights’ on roll as they saw fit, until William IV renamed them the Military Knights of Windsor in 1833.

Whether or not this dish was named after them, one thing was becoming clear: there was a distinct and disappointing lack of jam in all of the early recipes. Now, it’s very probable that jam or stewed fruit was served alongside traditional Poor Knight’s Pudding so maybe Captain Cook wasn’t totally delusional when he looked at flowery rocky islands and saw a bread and jam based pudding, but as jam is absent from all the recipes I looked at I didn’t include it in today’s experiment.

The recipe used today is a Victorian incarnation from J.H. Walsh’s 1859 The English Cookery Book, chosen for one thing alone: its accompanying side dish.

First I took a stale white bread roll and sliced it thinly into five slices. The slices were then dipped into a mixture of whole milk, one egg, one tablespoon of sugar and nutmeg and left to absorb it for an hour. After an hour the soggy, swollen slices were lifted and drained on a wire rack over a bowl for another hour.

Poor, flabby, blob knight’s pudding.

Once the dunking and draining had been completed it was time to transform the bread from globby blobs to golden brown toast. I fried each slice in a pan of butter for a few minutes on each side and then turned to the reason I’d chosen this version of the dish – the wine sauce.

Walsh insisted the way to serve Poor Knight’s Pudding was with wine sauce, which it turned out was melted butter and sugar mixed with sherry and brandy. Who was I to argue?

For some reason (probably because we are both in our 20’s and neither of us is landed gentry) we didn’t have any brandy in. We did have sherry though, left over from Christmas and – inexplicably – cherry brandy. God knows why, maybe we won it in a raffle?

It wasn’t quite what Walsh recommended, but it would have to do. Almost as soon as I added the sherry and cherry brandy to the melted butter I knew I was onto a winner. The liquid turned a deep amber and the smell became intense and fragrant. I added lemon rind and nutmeg and took it off the heat. There might have been a chronic lack of jam, but I felt confident that the wine sauce would make up for it.

Everything looked great, and I was looking forward to eating this alone. I’d timed it all to perfection; the fried bread was still steaming, the wine sauce was warmed through and, best of all, my daughter was napping upstairs only able to dream of stealing my food rather than attempt it for real. And then. And then.

“That looks good. What is it?”

A shadow in the doorway loomed larger and my husband came into the room.

“I’ve just been outside fixing the trellis, like you asked” he said to my plate of food. “I’m starving.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Really hungry.” Eyes still on the plate.

There was a pause almost as awkward as a knight realising he was going to have to pay his own damn ransom.

Long story short: I did 100% of the research for these myself, I made 100% of these myself, I ate 40% of them. Ladies, add Poor Knight’s Pudding to things that are victims of a gender-gap.

I didn’t even get the bigger slices. Outrageous.

They were bloody brilliant, though. Which kind of made the fact I semi-voluntarily gave three of the five slices up even more bitter. The fried bread was much softer and richer and less ‘toast-y’ than normal French toast because it had been soaking for so long. It had a slight spiciness to it thanks to the nutmeg and a sweetness thanks to the sugar.

But the real star was the wine sauce. Buttery and boozy, it was almost too indulgent. Even once the fried bread had been eaten we sipped at the leftover sauce with spoons. As time went on the butter separated from the alcohol which created a pretty two-tone element to the sauce; gold overlaying amber.

French toast, eggy bread, Poor Knight’s Pudding – call it what you want. As long as you’ve got wine sauce (or jam if you prefer a modern version) I can think of no better way to use up a stale bun.

E x

Poor Knight’s Pudding with Wine Sauce

For the fried bread:
1 white roll
1 egg
1/2 pint whole milk
Sugar to your taste (I added 1 tablespoon)
Grated nutmeg

For the wine sauce:
50g butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1 sherry glass of sherry
1/2 sherry glass of brandy
Rind of 1/2 lemon
Grated nutmeg

  1. Slice the bread roll into slices approximately 2cm thickness.
  2. Add egg, milk, sugar and nutmeg to a large bowl and mix together well.
  3. Place the bread slices into the mixture and coat each slice. Then leave the slices in the mixture for 1 hour.
  4. After an hour, pour off the mixture and drain the bread on a wire rack for 1 hour.
  5. Fry the slices of bread in a frying pan with a knob of butter. Fry each side for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to a warm plate.
  6. In a pan heat the butter for the wine sauce. When melted, add the sugar and dissolve over low heat.
  7. Add the sherry and brandy and swirl into the butter and sugar.
  8. Add the lemon rind and nutmeg and heat on a low heat for a couple of minutes to give time for the flavours to infuse.
  9. Remove wine sauce from heat and drizzle over the fried bread. Eat immediately before your husband can see.

Seed Cake: 1928

There’s something so comforting about the idea of afternoon tea, isn’t there? Like a scene straight out of an Agatha Christie novel; dainty ladies of a certain age in floppy hats and charmingly flowery dresses sitting outdoors, sipping tea out of china cups and chatting about the Church fundraiser. Maids laying delicate slices of loaf cake on three tiered cake stands already groaning with scones and cucumber sandwiches while men play croquet in the background. You know, just before the murder starts.

Very comforting indeed. And I realised, as I gazed at my own wasteland garden with its pigeon-poo-pebble-dashed picnic table, so very, very unobtainable.

For one, I didn’t own any proper china. Most of my cups are of the novelty, chunkier than a brick kind and none of them will ever match unless I happen to be given two of the same sets of hot chocolate kits for Christmas.

Secondly (and I really can’t stress this enough) I will never be dainty, delicate or charming enough to fit in with the quintessential afternoon-tea-on-the-lawn set. How do they not descend into animal grunts every time they bite into an eclair? Why must they wear those restrictive (but still charmingly flowery) dresses when a bin bag with a hole in it would cover one’s modesty whilst allowing for maximum bloat and serve as a ready made ‘take home’ bag if there are any cakes left at the end. Which, let’s face it, there would be. There are always cakes left over at those sorts of afternoon tea parties; hundred of cakes to choose from yet people only ever select one and then spend the whole afternoon taking sparrow-like pecks at it. Because apparently it’s not “decent” to slide an entire plate of fondant fancies into your handbag, or “socially acceptable” to stand by the buffet table windmilling shortbread into your mouth and trying to roundhouse kick anyone who approaches you with a plate of their own and laughably optimistic views about the notion of ‘sharing’.

It wasn’t my finest hour and no, I’m not expecting any more invitations to my grandma’s afternoon tea parties.

I have nothing in common with this girl.

Catherine Ives’ recipe

Today’s experiment is an attempt to conjure up some of that classic nostalgia that surrounds a good Marple-esque afternoon tea. Seed cake was a classic guest of vintage tea parties. Its presence at village fetes and W.I. meetings was as guaranteed and cliched as finding out that yet again the murderer was the doctor (butlers of the world rejoice; it’s always the doctor now.)

The recipe I’m using is from Catherine Ives’ 1928 book When The Cook Is Away – a handy companion aimed at alleviating pressure on a whole generation (and class) of women who had suddenly found themselves cook-less and somewhat unwillingly independent following the end of World War One some ten years previous. Ives’ recipe was re-printed in Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food which focused on recipes from the interwar period. Boxer highlighted that after WW1 the heavy, bloated Edwardian dining habits of the middle and upper classes ended thanks to the fact no-one could afford to pay for a full set of household staff. A whole host of well dressed, well spoken, well helpless women were suddenly faced with an unimaginable prospect: learning to cook for themselves. Catherine Ives’ When The Cook Is Away was therefore aimed at young aristocratic women with little prior experience in the kitchen who needed a few tips (although in reality many of these women were able to continue employing at least one member of staff who might help out with cooking.)

Boxer also argued that the 20 years or so between WW1 and WW2 were largely forgotten about, food wise. With stodgy Edwardian puddings at one end and strict rationing at the other, the interwar period had quietly slipped out of society’s recollection. Thanks to the work of historians like Annie Gray, the whole scope of 20th century food is coming back into focus, but Seed cake remains one of those ‘forgotten’ dishes, occasionally remembered by a nostalgic relative or Nigel Slater.

It’s not even an interwar creation, which makes the fact it’s been consigned to the dusty corners of kitchen memory even more upsetting (I imagine; I don’t know all the emotions cakes have.)

There are references to Seed Cakes throughout pre-20th century literature: Miss Temple dazzles Jane Eyre with a “good-sized seed cake” in 1847, David Copperfield shares a “sweet seed-cake” with Miss Clarissa and Miss Lavinia in 1850 and as far back as 1573 the poet Thomas Tusser used not at all annoying rhyming couplets to advise wives that the best time to prepare seed cake was during the harvest.

Recipe books mention cakes and tarts containing caraway seeds as far back as 1591, such as A. W’s ‘Tarte of Prunes’ in Book of Cookrye. But the beginning of seed cake’s heyday was the 1700’s where it appeared in Hannah Glasse’s 1784 edition of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy multiple times: “A Cheap Seed-Cake”, “A Fine Seed Cake”, “A Rich Seed Cake”.

Reassured that seed cake’s withdrawal from common society was an unexpected consequence of the outbreak of WW2, given its previous popularity, and not because it was a disgusting waste of sugar, I set about recreating my own from Ives’ recipe. “We’ll see who’s a “disgrace to polite society” when they see this”, I muttered (or I would have, if I’d been a real murder mystery character.)

Firstly, I beat butter into a cream and added sugar. I used a hand held mixer for this but it woke my daughter, who sleeps in the room above the kitchen, and my husband assured me that if I didn’t stop making noise he’d add “thief of domestic harmony” to my list of cake-based crimes. Also that I would have to do all of the subsequent nighttime settling if she woke for good, which was the bigger incentive to stop, to be honest.

Butter and sugar combined, I added half the flour and one egg, stirred it in and then added the rest of the flour and another egg. Catherine Ives then said to add between 1/2 and 1 tablespoons of caraway seeds (I chose 1/2) and the rind of 1/2 a large orange, which we didn’t have. What we did have, though, was Tropicana With Bits – so I spent 10 minutes sieving juice into a jug and scraping out the pulp into the cake, much to my husband’s exasperation.

“Just say you used an orange – who’s going to know?”

I said people would, because I’d tell them. He said I was cutting off my nose to spite my face so I said he wouldn’t be saying that once it was baked and he wanted a slice. He told me that with the length of time it was taking to get enough pulp, I’d never get round to baking the damn thing anyway and I replied that I’d be sure to include this exchange as part of the blog so people could see how unsupportive he was being. So there you go.

The next part of the cake was physically demanding. I didn’t expect it to be because, well, it’s a cake. It’s literally the food of people who aren’t good at physically demanding things. I had to beat the mixture for 10 minutes by hand because of my bat-eared toddler and because it was lacked any liquid it was a very dough like batter and not very pliable at all. There was a huge disparity in the ratio of dry ingredients to wet ingredients and it was like beating cement. I managed about three minutes before I limped back to my husband sweating profusely and gasping for air, and begged for help.

Like the gentleman he is really, he obliged and spent the next seven minutes huffing and puffing as he walked round the living room stirring and complaining about the bowl “too flimsy!”, the handle of the spoon “too sharp!” and the speed of time in general “too slow! There were four minutes left when I asked three minutes ago!” Finally, after about 12 minutes (sorry darling, but I was still a bit annoyed with you) it was done. The mixture was less solid but still very dense. I spooned it into a loaf tin and baked it for 1 hour.

I had high hopes for this cake; it was no longer a simple, humble seed cake in my opinion but had taken on a more significant meaning. In its making it had caused a minor rift in my marriage and helped me drop a dress size. With its completion I anticipated my triumphant return to tea party society where I would resume my rightful place at the buffet table and no one would dare come near me or the shortbreads again.

WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, GRANDMA?

I hate liquorice, which I know caraway can be reminiscent of, but when I tasted this cake I was very surprised. Yes, there was an aniseed hint there but it was very subtle rather a flavour that shone through. Mainly the flavour was mild and creamy – there was a hit of almond that I couldn’t work out since there was no almond in the recipe. The cake was also surprisingly light given its dense appearance pre-baking, and quite dry, but not unpleasantly. For all its simplicity of appearance it tasted and felt rich and buttery; I began to wonder whether grandma would even need shortbread at her next tea party if she had this.

But therein lies seed cake’s biggest problem (other than getting bits of caraway seed stuck in your teeth): it’s not pretty. It isn’t attractive like a fondant fancy or sugary sweet like Battenberg. It lacks the gleam of ganache on fudge cake, the call of caramel in millionaire’s shortbread, the appeal of apple in a tart (and so on, and so on. Have fun making your own up.) Yes it tasted great, but it has to convince people to actually choose to eat it before they realise that it tastes great, and when faced with a scone topped with cream and jam or a slice of plain seed cake, I know which one I’d go for.

Still, we enjoyed our seed cake – my husband, daughter and I. Sat among weeds and wildflowers on furniture that had seen better days, sipping out of a Sports Direct mug fighting over the last few slices – there was no other tea party I’d rather be at. And since there weren’t any Christie-inspired doctors invited to our tea party, no one ended up murdered which was an added bonus.

E x

P.S. By the way – since this is a tea party cake and I haven’t mentioned any tea I recommend a variation of masala chai without the heat of the peppercorns or cloves (recipe below). Its combination of mild spices and sweetness perfectly matches the creamy notes (who do I think I am?!) of the seed cake. Try it – you won’t regret it.

Seed Cake

180g unsalted butter
120g caster sugar
2 large eggs
225g self raising flour
1/2 to 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
Grated rind of 1/2 large orange

  1. Set the oven to 160 degrees C.
  2. Beat butter to a cream, add the sugar and cream both.
  3. Beat in one egg and half the flour and combine.
  4. Beat in the second egg and the rest of the flour and combine.
  5. Add the caraway seeds and orange rind.
  6. Mix the mixture by hand for 10 minutes (or blend with a handheld mixer/food processor for 2 or 3 minutes.)
  7. Pour mixture into a loaf tin and bake for 1 hour or a little longer, until the the cake is set and golden brown on top.

Masala Chai

Almond sized piece of fresh ginger
3 cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons of black tea (or 2 teabags if you don’t have loose tea)
Milk
Sugar to your taste (or honey, maple syrup, agave syrup etc)

  1. Fill a medium saucepan 3/4 of the way with water and bring to boil.
  2. Crush or grate the ginger into the water.
  3. Crush the cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks and drop into water.
  4. Allow the spices to boil in the water for 3 or 4 minutes before adding the tea.
  5. Once the tea has been added, turn the heat off and allow tea to infuse into water. You want a strong brew, not a weak one. Wait about 5-10 minutes.
  6. Pour milk into a cup – just under 1/2 of the way up.
  7. Strain the tea and spices and pour into the cup of milk.
  8. Add sugar to your taste – though I think the sweeter the better.

Doucetes: 15th century

We were all in need of something that wasn’t chocolate this morning. Don’t get me wrong – no one loves the stuff more than me, but our cupboards were beginning to look like we were an accredited wholesaler to the Easter Bunny and when my daughter picked up a large mud covered pebble from our garden path and tried to eat it shouting “Egg!” I knew things had gone too far.

So – what to make that was 100% chocolate-free but was still as indulgent and delightful as a Dairy Milk bar you’d forgotten was in the bottom of an Easter Egg? Egg custard tarts, obviously!

Today’s treat is from Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books. These cookery books were first published in 1888 by Thomas Austin who, along with others, had prepared two sexily entitled manuscripts: Harleian MS. 279 and Harleian MS. 4016 (archivists aren’t big on marketing and PR, it would appear) and published them together to create one historical cookery book. In 1964 the texts were republished by the equally excitingly named Early English Text Society and a little more light was shed on their origins.

Harleian MS. 279 dates from about 1430 while Harleian MS. 4016 dates from about 1450. As was standard for cookbooks of the period, there are instructions in each not only for individual recipes but also feasts and table designs – a bit of a how to manual for cooks of rich households.

Not from the Harleian MS, but a good reminder that fine medieval dining required epilepsy inducing backdrops.

Some of the recipes in Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books appear alarming: Cinnamon Soup, Fried Brawn, Swan Neck Pudding. I quickly shifted my laptop as my husband asked hopefully what treat I was making.

“Oh…something, haven’t decided yet.”

“Just as long as it doesn’t have anything too weird in it!”

I glanced down at the screen, my eyes resting on a recipe for something called Meat Custard.

“Nope. Nothing weird here.”

Luckily this time I was able to stick to my word.

Medieval egg custard tarts

Yep – this is exactly what Doucetes turned out to be. I don’t know the etymology of the word (if anyone does please let me know!) but they were delicious and very easy to bake. Seriously, if you’re a fan of eggy puddings but not of sugary saccharine stuff, then this is the thing for you.

As with all good medieval recipes, there were no instructions. Well, none that would have been helpful – quantities, measurements, baking times. It was all a bit of a guessing game. The only thing I felt confident about was that I was making several small tarts rather than one big one – thanks to the references to ‘cofyns’ which were medieval pastry cases. Big ones for morbid imagery, medieval cooks.

Medieval pastry was sometimes little more than flour and water because it wasn’t always intended to be eaten but instead was just a vessel for the filling. Stuffing meat into a pastry case was a good way to ensure the food could be baked without fear of burning or going dry (and could also provide a laugh – when serving chicken pie, cooks might leave the legs of the chicken dangling out of the top of the case. How those long winter evenings in manor house kitchens must have flown by.) For that reason some cooks didn’t want to waste precious ingredients on pastry that would end up being thrown to the dogs. However, other cooks took a more modern approach to pastry making, recognising that a good pastry crust was as much a part of a meal as the filling it protected.

The recipe for Doucetes didn’t give instructions about which sort of pastry I was dealing with so I allowed myself some creative freedom and decided that I’d treat my family to Paest Royall – an early version of shortcrust pastry that required eggs and butter. True, it was from A Proper New Booke of Cookery which was about 100 years after my Doucetes recipe, but who was going to stop me?

Pastry made and shaped into tart cases thanks to a very un-medieval muffin tin, I blind baked it and turned to the filling.

First I mixed cream, milk and three egg yolks together to form a thin custard. I expected to have to heat this mixture, but the original recipe didn’t call for it. To this I added sugar and saffron for colouring and that was the custard done. It couldn’t have been easier. Thanks to previous historical experiments I knew that something always goes wrong, it’s something of an unspoken code, a game between modern cook and historical cook – part of the fun is trying to spot what it will be before it happens. I began to get very suspicious indeed.

Once the pastry had blind baked for 15 minutes, I poured my silky smooth custard into the cases and popped them back in the oven for 20 minutes. Surely here was when the monstrous reality of the dish would rear its ugly head? Would the saffron react with the egg in the heat? Would the medieval pastry twist out of shape and the custard burst forth, creating an eggy mess I would quietly and without explanation leave for my husband to clear up later? I awaited with a mounting sense of excitement and foreboding.

But…nothing. It was almost disappointing.

After 20 minutes or so the tarts were a pleasing golden colour. The custard had set without issue with a suggestive, almost scandalous, wobble. Apart from the couple that seemed to have developed major cellulite during baking, they looked very appealing. Even the little runty one (you know the one – the scrag end of the pastry where you’re trying to gather all the scraps together to force one last case) was standing proud. They were really rather splendid.

Glorious eggy, cellulite-y tarts. Mmm!

I tentatively brought them to my husband and daughter.

“No chocolate?” she asked me incredulously.

No chocolate indeed. I couldn’t imagine anything could improve these further. The anonymous author of MS. 279 knew what he was talking about – they smelled and tasted bloody delicious.

The pastry was rich and buttery, exactly as pastry should be. My daughter treated her first tart as though the pastry case was just a vessel and scooped the filling out, leaving the pastry behind. Fool. I ate the empty pastry shell before she could realise her mistake.

The filling was divine. Creamy and rich – there was nothing stingy about it at all. I had worried that it would end up a bit like scrambled egg, or that egg would be an overwhelming flavour, but there was nothing of the sort. If anything cream with saffron were the main flavours – a sort of milky richness with an earthiness to it that made these tarts incredibly moreish. In fact, they were brought out of the oven at 11:00am and were all gone by 11:30 (and 10 minutes of that was spent fighting my daughter off them as I tried to get a decent photo.)

Had to pin my daughter to the floor to get this picture.

It was then that I realised what had gone wrong with this particular dish, as I knew something must. It was me. Wary of ending up with hundreds of burned scrambled egg tarts I had made a conservative number of them – eight small ones. I should have made more – these were easily one of the best things I’ve made so far. I have doubled the quantities I used for the recipe below to yield 16 small cases.

If you’re looking for something indulgent but not too sweet, give these a go. I know I’ll be making them again and will continue making them until my daughter begins picking up things from our garden path shouting “Doucete!”

E x

Doucete (makes about 16 small tarts)

For the pastry:
225g plain flour
100g butter
2 egg yolks

For the filling:
6 egg yolks
350ml double cream
125ml milk
65g white sugar
Saffron strands

  1. Make the pastry: Rub butter and flour together until combined to a sand like consistency.
  2. Add egg yolks to flour and butter and combine to form a dough. Add water if needed.
  3. Roll pastry out and cut into discs. Push each disc into a well of a muffin tin to form the pastry cases (you might need to do some re-shaping!)
  4. Using baking beans or weights, blind bake the pastry cases for 15 minutes at 200 degrees.
  5. Remove the weights and continue baking at 160 degrees for 5 minutes.
  6. Begin on the filling: Beat egg yolks in a bowl.
  7. Mix in cream, milk, sugar and saffron and combine well to form a thin custard.
  8. Pour custard into pastry cases and return to oven, baking at 160 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops are golden and filling is wobbly but set.

Winner winner chicken dinner: Tudor carving habits

I’ve always loved roast dinners. Not to cook – I find that end bit where everything’s bubbling over, the potatoes are turning from ‘golden brown’ to ‘lightly cremated’ and the sink’s full of every pan you ever owned piled high in a dangerously greasy game of Jenga quite stressful. But to eat? Oh yes.

In fact, I would go as far as classifying a good roast dinner an essential health food. Let me explain…

When I was younger I had to spend a few weeks in hospital. Before being admitted I’d been reading one of the Harry Potter books but because of an astounding lack of forward planning on my part I got sick during a weekend trip to my grandpa, who lived over 100 miles away and ended up in a hospital that was too far for my parents to nip back home for one lousy book. I don’t remember much about the first week apart from one event in particular: languishing in bed, I turned to my dad and asked if he could tell me the end of the Harry Potter I’d been reading, you know, “in case I don’t make it.” (Yep – even from a young age I’ve always had a flair for hammy melodrama.)

I remember thinking that my dad was taking a long time to recall the story and almost gave up waiting for him before he suddenly answered. At this point it’s worth saying I was genuinely life threateningly ill, I was a young child and we were a long way from home. All he had to do was come up with something comforting and simple. He cleared his throat…

“Voldemort broke Harry’s wand so Harry couldn’t fight back. He killed Harry and then set fire to Hogwarts. Dumbledore managed to escape but Voldemort cast a spell and he lost all his powers…” his eyes gleamed brightly as he found his rhythm.

“Ron and Hermione were captured by Voldemort’s henchmen and forced to work for Voldemort. They weren’t allowed to talk because Voldemort cast a silencing spell on them so they couldn’t speak ever again. Eventually Voldemort controlled everything and no one could stop him. Dumbledore came back and tried to fight him but he couldn’t cast any spells and he was eaten by Hagrid’s big spider. Or it might have been that big snake that lived in the walls instead. The end.”

I remember asking him if he was sure that was the ending and him glancing at my mum, who had turned very pale and was clenching her fists very hard.

“Er…I might have forgotten some things,” he admitted. “Hang on…oh yes. It turns out that Hagrid was a secret agent for Voldemort all along – him and McGonagall -“

“Could I have a quick word, darling?” I watched as my mum frogmarched my dad out of the ward. She must have cast her own silencing spell on him because when they came back he wasn’t allowed to talk to me for the rest of the visit and just sat grumpily at the end of the bed eating my grapes.

I was pretty upset. I was also convinced he’d got it wrong, but this was in the days where most people had phones without internet so there was no way of checking apart from getting better and getting home to read it for myself. And what was it that lifted my spirits after my father had so callously crushed them, and spurred me on to good health? A roast dinner.

Oh, I know some of you will pipe up with other factors for my survival like the compassion and skill of the doctors and nurses, modern testing, medication, expert surgery and round the clock care. But to those people I say – could you cover any of that in gravy?

Yes, I know it takes a great deal of skill to become a medical professional. I know it’s a vocation that takes years to master and great levels of intellect that an apricot stuffed pork loin can never hope to possess. But what I also know is I’ve never, ever tasted a roast dinner as good as the one I had when I was finally able to eat a proper meal again. It was bliss. It was heaven. Things that I’d previously shunned, like boiled cabbage, I wolfed down like nectar from the gods. Was the meat chicken or pork? Lamb or beef? I couldn’t tell because it had taken on that worrying grey colour and had no discernible flavour from sitting in warm water for so long. Did it matter? Did it hell! The potatoes were soggy round the edges, there were no Yorkshire puddings and the gravy had clots of fat floating on the surface. It was, to this day, the best roast dinner I’ve ever eaten.

Each day after that I got a bit better, until I was allowed to go home. So yes, a roast dinner is a health food. It’s up there with acacia berries, flax seeds, coconut oil and quinoa and I truly believe it will only be a matter of time before Holland and Barrett start selling vacuum packed roast dinners alongside their perplexing array of supplements and protein powders.

You can tell this roast thinks it’s too good for you now.
Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Pexels.com

For many, myself obviously included, a roast dinner would have been the obvious Easter meal last weekend with lamb being a popular and traditional choice. Some, however, may have chosen to shun tradition this year by skimping on certain side dishes now that Aunty Barbara wasn’t coming round to sit on the sofa for three hours lamenting the absence of mashed potato, and certain heathens might have even done away with a roast entirely. Not so in our household. I spent most of Easter morning locked in the kitchen doing Very Important (veg) Prep which involved the veg setting calmly in water and the lamb taking care of itself in the oven. I also spent a lot of time on Twitter. Every so often my husband poked his head in and asked how things were and if I might join him in looking after our toddler, who was rampaging round the living room high on sugar screaming “Egg! Egg! Chocolate Egg!” over and over.

“Sorry, love, I can’t. Need to check on the spuds.” I wiggled a pan of very placid potatoes that had yet to be cooked and shrugged. “I would help if I could, but it’s about to get mad in here.”

And, 45 minutes later, it did.

Have you finished with your anecdotes yet? When does the history start?

Soon.

The point is, when I brought that roast dinner to the table I was really looking forward to it. We assumed the traditional roles – you know, the one where the woman does all the work but the husband steps in at the last second to take the glory of carving it – and I watched through my fingers as he absolutely butchered my beautiful lamb joint.

When he placed a slice of meat on my plate that looked as if it had been carved with all the delicacy and deftness of a wooden spoon I knew it was about time he received a history lesson in the lost art form of meat carving:

The terms of a Carver be as here followeth:
Break that dear –
Slice that brawn –
Rear that goose –
Lift that swan –
Sauce that capon…

Wynkyn de Worde, The Boke of Keruynge 1508

Carving was a big thing at aristocratic Tudor tables. In fact it was such an important aspect of dining that several books were published to instruct squires and other young men aspiring to noble ranks in the correct methods for carving each animal they might come across at the dinner table. It was clear that my husband had read approximately none of them.

Putting aside what books such as the fabulously named Wynkyn de Worde’s Boke of Keruynge can tell us about Tudor tastes (porpoise, anyone?), the first thing to notice is that Tudor carvers were nothing short of wordsmiths. Where my husband had two main carving techniques (the classic ‘back’n’forth’ and ‘pull the legs off’), Boke of Keruynge contains no fewer than 39 inventively named techniques for different animals, each distinct from the last. Some of them are familiar, if a little graphic for modern day tables – “Dismember that heron”, “Unjoint that bittern” – while others are elegant in their ambiguity – “Frusche that chicken”, “Trassene that eel” – and yet more were clearly just made up when Wynkyn was running out of ideas – “Untache that curlew”, “Splat that pike”.

Only the very rich could afford whole animals, so the purpose of having so many methods of carving wasn’t necessarily down to making the most of the meat (after all, how much difference could there be between carving a swan and carving a goose – other than the legal implications of one of them?) It was about showing off.

In bringing a whole animal to the table the lord was inviting people to gaze upon his wealth. Having a highly trained carver was therefore a necessity – what you didn’t want was someone who would mangle the meat into unrecognisable chunks, but would instead arrange the choicest cuts and present them in as pleasing a way as possible. The role of the carver also wasn’t to cut the meat into tiny bite sized portions, but to slice certain cuts off and possibly de-bone sections which could then be speared onto a diner’s plate and cut up with their own knife (forks weren’t introduced to England until the 17th century.) A carver should therefore be someone who cared, ideally because one day they would be dining on beautifully carved meat themselves and they had to learn how to recognise what it looked like. For this reason carvers of non-royal aristocratic households tended to be young men who were living and serving in the households of lords, perhaps as squires, as part of their training for the ranks of the nobility.

There was also another element to carving: power. As well as following the correct procedure, the carver had to carve the meat according to a rigid hierarchy. The man who owned the land where the animals had been killed had to be given the best cuts so one of the key jobs of the carver was to ensure that once the meat had been carved appropriately, he chose the gristle-free, richest and tastiest morsels for his lord. Once that had been done the platter of carved meat would be passed round the table – on a hierarchical basis, naturally – and diners would spear the cuts they wanted with their own knives. The carver could now breathe a sigh of relief that he had served his lord well and wouldn’t receive his own dismembering or unjointing later.

The role of the carver was so important that it had long been elevated in society. When what you served and how you served it said so much about your status and rank, the wealthy couldn’t afford to take risks with sloppy knifemanship from bog standard kitchen servants. During the 15th century the role of the carver therefore became highly coveted and developed into a special courtly office called the ‘carvership’ which only selected officials could hold. These roles paid well, as Elizabeth of York’s carver William Denton’s wage of £26 13s. and 4d. in 1503 attests.

The people in the background are just as horrified as I am with her lack of safe knife skills.

Knives in Tudor England

Knives were an essential part of life in Tudor England, and not just for preparing food. They were used for everything: cutting rope, whittling wood, stabbing clowns in the arse – you name it. Every man and boy over the age of five carried a knife with them at all times – I mean, I have child locks on all the kitchen drawers to stop my daughter getting at sharp objects, but sure – hand knives out to five year olds; they can definitely be trusted at that age.

But the carving knife was different.

Throughout the Tudor era and subsequent centuries the status of those who crafted carving knives – cutlers – increased. Cutlers who created the tools necessary to carve meat enjoyed a similar status to other master craftsmen such as jewellers and armourers. During the middle ages a cutler’s prestige could be increased according to the intricacies of the designs he created: a handle of polished brass was good, one that was inlaid with gold or silver was better, one set with amethysts and amber was best. And sparkliest.

As the Tudor era took hold, banquets became more elaborate and, what with the falling price of meat, feasts would contain numerous displays of meat carving and exotic animals for guests to sample, all with expensive spices and sauces to show off the king’s wealth and generosity. Such was the abundance of meat at Henry VIII’s court that his courtiers could easily be offered menus containing 5000 calories a day. To complement the richly overflowing tables a carver would be expected to put on a bit of a show and the knives he used were the main star. The accounts of Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond (also Henry VIII’s only acknowledged illegitimate child) show that he possessed a pair of carving knives weighing just over 500g (an average modern day one weighs approximately 160g) that were also gilded.

It’s obvious that by now carving knives were more than just shiny tools. Yes, they showed wealth but they also represented a lord’s masculinity (you know, because the Tudor era was in dire need of yet more ways men could peacock around slapping their masculinity onto things.) The carving knife and what it represented became a symbol of how much of a man the lord was. A blunt knife could indicate a weak man who struggled to make an impression on the world. A plain knife could reveal a man’s miserly, simple ways that weren’t worthy of respect. Knives were so tied up in the concept of manliness and good honour that men who swore oaths would sometimes hand over their knives as testimony of good faith. As betrothal gifts young men would send their bride to be (or her family) gifts of knives which probably seemed sexier and a lot less threatening than it would today.

And in all of Tudor England, who should have the biggest, longest, hardest knife of all? Obviously Henry VIII. The inventory of his utensils described his knife case alone as “garnished with sundry emeralds and pearls and rubies about the neck and divers amethysts, jacynths and balases upon the foot thereof furnished with knives having diamonds at the ends.” I’m sure he wasn’t overcompensating for anything.

First the knives, now the codpiece? Henry love, simmer down.

My husband didn’t seem too interested in my history lesson. By now he was done hacking at the lamb and the walls were flecked with bloody juices. Scraps of meat lay strewn across the table and floor as he triumphantly proffered me the first glob.

Wynkyn de Worde hadn’t mentioned lamb in the pages I had come across, but if he had I expect he wouldn’t have called for it to be “Sawn Apart like Something Out of Jaws“. For all intents and purposes it appeared that my husband had adopted de Worde’s advice on how to carve a peacock instead and had thoroughly “disfigured” it.

Still, it tasted nice with or without bejewelled handles and ruby encrusted knife boxes.

E x

Shrewsbury Simnel Cake: 1879

Happy Easter!

In honour of Jesus’ disciples (NOT YOU, JUDAS) and as a virtual homage to modern simnel, there are eleven hidden* Easter eggs of the nerdy variety in this post – find them all, win a prize.** In the Easter spirit of goodwill and peace I feel I must tell you that there are also a good few egg-related puns thrown in to keep hardcore egg fans (you know who you are) sunny side up. I make no apologies for these, although I’m aware we’ll all be feeling eggstremely awkward by the end. Feel free to log off now (I would.)

Hopefully by the time the day’s done you’ll have argued with loved ones over how large your Easter hunt haul is, vomited up an unholy (ha) amount of chocolate and had at least one Zoom call that went: “We can see you! We can see you! Can you see us? Oh wait…it’s frozen. Darling, do you know how to get it to unfreeze? It’s just showing me a picture of their dog’s crotch at the moment. Hang on… yes! HAPPY EASTER! How are you? Oh no it’s frozen again. Gosh, she’s got quite the nose on her hasn’t she? I’ve never really noticed it before – oh! You can still hear us? Ah.”

Easter will be a weird one for lots of us this year, what with the Easter bunny not being allowed out apart for non-eggsential travel, but that’s no reason to negglect history. I know, I know. You thought you could use these unprecedented times as an excuse; that I’d take pity on you and give you a break. But really – do you think that Jesus arose on the third day to make an Easter bonnet out of pipecleaners and mini chick toys so that you could “have a break” from my ego?

Get over yourselves.

Gone are the days of meaningless night-before trips to the supermarket to load up on Cadbury’s 3 for 2 to dole out to our nearest and dearest. This year I’ve been surprised at how touched I’ve been by the gifts left by family members on our doorstep for my daughter – a bunch of flowers, a chocolate rabbit, an Easter card. They feel extra poignant and though it’s true I ate that bunny within 30 seconds of it being inside the house and before she knew it existed, it’s nice to think that despite our troubles this year still can still feel special.

It’s family that’s the focus for today’s cake, actually. There’s a million and one posts about the history of Easter, why we celebrate Easter bunnies and the hot cross bun and they’re all much better than anything I could write, but there’s only a million about the history of simnel cake so plenty of space for me to crack on and throw my take on it into the ring.

I don’t know the reason, but this guy’s Easter has taken quite the turn.

Why’s it called Simnel?

Eggsellent question (I know you were waiting for that one.)

Modern day Simnel is a light fruit cake with a marzipan top and 11 marzipan balls circling the edge to represent Jesus’ disciples. Yes it’s true there were 12 disciples, but in order to show how cross they were with Judas for betraying Jesus, bakers denied him his own little marzipan ball. It’s the baking equivalent of cropping someone out of a picture – which is what da Vinci should have done. It’s a cake that lots of people feel they should make at Easter, but don’t really want to on account of the abundance of much more convenient and “treaty” food after 40 days of Lent (I mean, who would pick fruit cake over chocolate? Lunatics, that’s who.)

Having said that, Simnel Cake wasn’t originally a cake for Easter. In fact it wasn’t even a cake, and the marzipan balls that are so synonymous with simnel are actually a relatively modern concept. True simnel contained no marzipan whatsoever.

An almost certainly untrue story told in Chamber’s Book of Days of 1879 says that a couple a long time ago called Simon and Nelly found some spare dough one Easter and had a fight over what to do with it. Simon, the bloody weirdo, wanted to boil it but Nelly, who was clearly carrying over 50% of the brains of the couple, said they should bake it instead. In the end they came to a pointless compromise and boiled it for a bit before baking it afterwards so that “this new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known as the cake of Simon and Nelly…Sim-Nel, or Simnel!” An earlier 1838 poem in the Wiltshire Independent switches the madness round and has Nelly insisting on boiling the dough and Simon as the voice of reason, but the general absurdity of the tale is still the same. In reality simnel has been around for a lot longer than either Simon or Nelly.

Simnel is referred to as early as the 13th century, though it probably pre-dates this, but there are no surviving recipes for it. This is partly because the word simnel wasn’t necessarily describing a specific recipe; possibly a scrambled form of the Latin ‘simila conspera’, meaning ‘fine flour’, medieval simnel refers to a type of leavened bread that was prepared for spring. This bread was high quality indeed: the Chronicle of Battle Abbey tells us that William the Conqueror granted the monks there 36 oz. of “bread fit for the table of a king, which is commonly called simenel.”

As the 13th century progressed, however, simnel began to take on another meaning, much more similar to our concept of a cake. In 1225, John of Garland wrote in his Dictionarius that simineus was a French word for the Latin for cake, placenta, possibly highlighting that simnel was moving away from a description of flour into something more like a cake we would recognise.

Skipping past the story of the 15th century pretender Lambert Simnel (who’s nothing more than an eggregious red-herring in the history of the simnel), by the 17th century the simnel cake had eggceeded simnel bread in popularity. It seems to have been particularly popular in Shrewsbury, Bury and Devizes with all three locations claiming slightly different variations of the simnel cakes as their own.

At the same time, the symbolism of the simnel was forming. Since the Middle Ages people had followed the tradition of returning to their ‘mother’ church and bringing presents to their mothers on the fourth Sunday of Lent: Mothering Sunday. As the centuries progressed Mothering Sunday became more of a bank holiday with domestic servants, girls in particular, given the day off to return home to visit family and the church of their baptism. Naturally, as good daughters, they brought their mothers homemade gifts and it’s in this context that the simnel cake came into its own.

A servant might have to poach some ingredients from her mistress to make the cake or, if she was well thought of, the mistress would donate the ingredients to her. The better quality the ingredients, the higher regard the mistress had for the servant – meaning that a girl had to adopt a souffle souffle approach with her mistress in the weeks preceding Mothering Sunday to ensure she was given the best ingredients. The mother would be given the simnel by her daughter but wouldn’t usually eat it until Easter Sunday, when she would cut into it and, in an act of motherly love, intensely scrutinize the efforts of the daughter to see whether the cake was still moist or whether she’d raised a disappointment.

The best simnels are gluten-free, dairy-free and Judas-free.
Image credit here.

Shrewsbury simnel

Since I’d missed Mothers’ Day by a good three weeks I wasn’t off to the best start. In addition to this, the Take That Greatest Hits albumen I’d bought for my mum hadn’t gone down well, least of all because my mum can’t stand Take That so there was a lot resting on this cake.

Traditional Shrewsbury simnel cake was nothing like I was expecting. Slightly disconcertingly, I had to start by making a dough out of flour, water and saffron until it was a very stiff, which I had to shape into a pastry case that would hold its shape, without baking it.

Luckily for me my temperamental kitchen gets very hot at the slightest hint of sun and I had chosen to make this on the first day of the mini heat wave. I wailed as my pastry case wilted under my clumsy hands. When I’d had en-oeuf of failing, I cheated and shaped the dough in a saucepan lid and stuck it in the fridge to firm up while I got on with the actual cake.

The recipe for simnel in Book of Days is succinct and unhelpful: “a very rich plum cake with plenty of candied lemon and other good things.” I can’t stand fruit cake myself, so wasn’t sure how to just whip one up. I consulted Chambers’ English contemporary, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management for what constituted “rich plum cake” and “good things”.

Mrs Beeton had three distinct recipes for plum cake, of varying quality. The best one, which she enticingly called “an unrivalled plum pudding” used a cholesterol-boosting 16 eggs. Since my hypothetical mistress had granted me 2 because that was all we had in before the next shop, I worked my way onto the second best recipe, which called itself “an excellent plum pudding made without eggs”. This one looked good eggcept it contained mashed carrot and mashed potatoes. These ingredients might seem bizarre today, but they would have helped keep the cake moist for the weeks leading up to its consumption. Unfortunately we didn’t have carrots or potatoes in either. With a heavy heart, already seeing the disappointment in my mother’s eyes, I turned to her most basic of recipes which she had tartly entitled “a baked plum pudding.” No eulogising here – just a straightforward cake with currants, sultanas, suet (we actually did have some of that in, don’t ask me why), flour, eggs and lemon peel. No sugar, I noticed. Also, Mrs B wanted to me to add milk to this, (or water for a “very plain pudding”, which really highlighted how far I’d strayed from my quest for Chambers’ rich plum pudding), but I added brandy instead, which she’d used in her unrivalled plum pudding.

The mixture was very wet because it used a higher ratio of egg to flour than I was used to working with. I realised later that I’d messed up my calculations when converting Mrs B’s lbs to grams so I ended up adding a bit more flour and suet to firm it up a bit. I then spooned it into the chilled pastry case it went, which promptly began sagging at the sides, all my careful chilling undone.

The next stage involved boiling the pastry encased pudding for several hours. I had added a pastry lid and by this point the whole thing resembled a sort of deflated pastry ball. In my mind I saw my mother’s eyes fill with angry tears. Panicked, I tied it in a muslin cloth and forced it back into the saucepan lid for structure and as I crossed my fingers I poured boiling water over it. After half an hour I pulled it out of the saucepan lid, confident that 30 minutes boiling would have helped set the pastry, and replaced it, lidless, back into the water.

I did feel eggceptionally Victorian during this bit, it has to be said.

After two and half hours I lost patience. I was already pretty sure this wasn’t going to redeem me from the Take That CD and wanted to get it over and done with. Tentatively, I pulled the dense mass from the seething pot, peeled off the muslin and looked upon my deformed doughy creation. My husband chose that moment to wander in.

“What’s that?” he asked fearfully.

“It’s a simnel cake.”

He paused. “Oh, for Easter?” Then, completely oblivious to the irony: “It looks like a cake for Satan.”

Once I’d chased him out of the kitchen I dotted some pastry blobs on, because I’d seen them on a drawing of a simnel in Book of Days (though Chambers made no reference to them being the disciples), glazed the Satan cake with egg wash and baked it for an hour. It was then that I read that truly authentic simnels should be so hard that they felt “like wood” and that Chambers could recall a lady who had never seen one before mistaking a large one “for a foot stall.” Because nothing says Happy Belated Mother’s Day/Easter like a cake that could double up as furniture.

After an hour it was ready. I took a photo of it and texted it to my mum.

“Happy Easter! It’s a simnel cake!”

I saw she’d seen it. Three little dots appeared as she formed a response. Then they went away. They came back for a minute and then disappeared again. She was either really, really delighted or cutting me from her will. Finally:

“Is it though?”

Oof.

Despite her lukewarm response, it was instantly obvious why this would have been a good cake to take back home to keep for the weeks before Easter – with its thick impenetrable pastry case there was no way this cake could go off. Even before I cut into I knew that if I left it for 1000 years it would survive.

Taste-wise, this was not as good as a modern day simnel. It was incredibly eggy, because I had messed up the ratios, although it wasn’t completely inedible because the amount of currants and sultanas provided a little natural sweetness. I could definitely taste the brandy, and was glad I’d not just used milk because it made the whole thing slightly richer. Without it it would have been quite bland, which is why I see why Chambers called for a “very good” plum pudding because what I’d made was essentially a weak fruity flan.

The pastry was weirdly pleasant, though. It tasted of saffron, because there were no other flavourings in it and eating it felt like a bagel. The outside crust was very hard and I reckon if I’d wanted to I absolutely could have used it for a little foot stall. Once I got through it, though, it was softer and chewy. I know it looks a bit underdone in the picture, but it wasn’t – again, it had the dense chewiness of a pretzel.

All in all though, it was probably a good thing I wasn’t able to give this to my mum. Even though I hope I’ve shown the modern day simnel isn’t technically traditional, she counts herself as a simnel purist and the lack of marzipan balls and over abundance of pastry in this version wouldn’t have impressed her one bit.

Hopefully you’ve had a great, if weird, Easter with at least one chocolatey treat in it somewhere. I also hope you managed to catch up with family or friends without Skype freezing on a picture of the dog’s marzipan balls, that you were able to enjoy the sunshine and that wherever you are you remain healthy and safe. This will end, one day, and when it does? Well, let’s just say there’s a boiled simnel cake encased in pretzel pastry waiting for you. Aren’t you eggstatic?

Happy Easter.

E x

*Loosest use of the word hidden
**Prize does not eggist.

Shrewsbury Simnel Cake

160g plain flour
80g currants
80g sultanas
80g suet
2 eggs
1/4 pint of brandy
Candied peel or lemon rind

(For the pastry)
250g plain flour
Saffron
Water to mix

  1. Mix the ingredients for the pastry together and knead until it forms a very stiff dough.
  2. Shape the dough around a pan so that it forms a pastry case. Keep some dough back for a lid. Place in the fridge to chill and set.
  3. Begin on the cake. Mix flour, suet, currants, sultanas and lemon peel in a bowl.
  4. Add the eggs and brandy and mix well.
  5. Spoon the cake batter into the pastry case. Add the pastry lid onto the case and pinch the edges tightly to stop cake batter escaping during cooking.
  6. Wrap the pastry case with cake in it up in a muslin cloth and place in a pan of boiling water. Boil for at least 2 hours.
  7. Remove pastry case with cake in it and unwrap. Glaze with egg wash.
  8. Place it on a baking tray and bake in an oven at 190 degrees for 1 hour.

The spread of Manichaeism: an ancient conspiracy theory?

Hello fellow lizard overlords – sorry, I meant people. Perfectly ordinary hot blooded, delicious, bipedal people, which is a normal human greeting and Not Suspicious At All.

It’s that time of the week (or is it month, or year? Time has become meaningless) where I substitute some mediocre cooking for some mediocre history and the topic for today is: conspiracy theories.

I know, right? I’m excited too.

I love a good conspiracy theory. Not to believe in, I urgently must add. I’m not sat here thinking there’s any merit to the idea that Australia doesn’t exist or that early noughties pop star Avril Lavigne died and was replaced by a clone called Melissa (for one – loving the fact they’ve called her clone something as ordinary as Melissa and two – surely the bigger news here would be that human cloning exists?)

Without wanting to get too emotional about it all, I love what conspiracy theories tell us about human nature. Last year I ran an on-off history club and one of the topics we looked at was the 1969 moon landings. We analysed the evidence to suggest the landing were real and then looked at the evidence that some people had put forward to suggest the landings were faked. At the end we had a debate and took a vote. Most of the club ended up deciding the moon landings were fake and we had to disband for a couple of weeks while they went away to do more accurate research (and I could have a lie down in a dark room with a lot of calming gin as I ignored emails from parents wanting to know just what the hell I was teaching their kids.) Why did the conspiracy theories about something as well documented and culturally significant as the moon landings trump the reality? What was it about these theories that seemed more appealing or truthful than the weight of all the evidence to the contrary?

To speak in vague terms akin to a conspiracy theorist: The answer lies in the question. It was to do with the appeal of the theories. When they knew they’d be given a platform to argue their findings on, the students instinctively wanted a wow! factor to their arguments. They wanted controversy and something unique or original that would make their voice stand out from the crowd. Arguing against the accepted (logical!) history was a chance for them to argue against the establishment – science and scientists (and, I guess me as their history teacher) – and they wanted to take that opportunity.

Sure, there were some sweethearts who watched as I rocked under my desk after hearing conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory and took pity on me by presenting wholly logical and scientifically sound arguments that the moon landings did happen, but even I have to admit their presentations weren’t the ones I remembered later that evening.

The boy who stood on his desk and chucked paper balls at the rest of us to show the effects of gravity, therefore ‘proving’ (tenuously) that NASA must have slowed down footage of the astronauts jumping around in space to make it look like there was no gravity? Yeah, I remembered him. If not for his terrible argument, at least for his showmanship. Afterwards he admitted he didn’t believe the conspiracy theory, but that it was more fun to argue that side of the debate.

What I’m trying to say is this: the truth is boring and conspiracy theories are exciting and get you noticed. That’s part of their appeal – that some purely hypothetical small time football player in the 70’s who sadly had to give up his dream of making the big league and become a sports presenter for a short amount of time before being fired could still make a name for himself as a ‘professional’ conspiracy theorist which would keep him in the public eye. Hypothetically.

But what makes Sharon on Facebook share clickbait articles like ‘THE SECRETS BEHIND CHEMTRAILS – YOU WON’T BELIEVE NUMBER 6!!!’? She’s not going to get famous from someone else’s theory, is she? All she’s doing is signposting that it’s absolutely fine for the rest of us to go ahead and never take anything she says seriously again.

Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Karen M Douglas give a good explanation of why people are so drawn to conspiracy theories. They argue that in times of crisis, usually on a large communal scale (and as we’ve seen recently on a global scale), people feel a inherent loss of control. The feelings that this loss of control stimulate, such as fear and confusion, propel people to try and make sense of the crisis so that they can regain some of the control they feel they lost. They begin to look for patterns or explanations in places and things that in ordinary circumstances they wouldn’t and – crucially – listen to people who claim to have the answers and are able to provide cast iron solutions to the problem. In addition to this, because the best theories serve a function, once they gain enough traction they can enter a group’s culture and become embedded in people’s philosophies and beliefs, eventually being passed down generations with little analysis on the part of those who believe it. That’s partly why the Flat Earth Society, founded in 1956, is still going strong today.

For today’s conspiracy theorists, torching 5G towers seems like a solution to coronavirus. During the Black Death of 1348 hounding Jewish communities who were accused of poisoning wells seemed like it would fix the problem (and, to be honest, was just another instance of Antisemitism in an achingly long tradition of using Jewish people as scapegoats for society’s ills.)

There are countless theories from history and as much as I personally love the sound of my own voice I don’t imagine everyone else does, so to narrow it down I’m leaving out the flat earth, JFK assassination and moon landings stuff – you’ve heard it before and nothing I could say (no matter how brilliantly) could offer a viewpoint that’s any more interesting or informative than what’s already been written. What I’m going to focus on is about as close to a conspiracy theory as I could find from ancient Rome – the story of how the emperor Diocletian dealt with the spread of Manichaeism.

Mani-what-chaeism?

On Sundays Manicheans went to their local swimming pools for some holy breaststroke practice.

You mean you don’t know? Ha. What an amateur.

Manichaeism was a Persian religion that focused on an early form of dualism during the 3rd century. To put it in terms so simple as to render it almost totally null (and to maybe hide that I don’t understand all the religious terminology) essentially followers of Manichaeism believed that flawed human nature was a consequence of a power struggle between the forces of good and evil, more often referred to as light and darkness. In a nifty sidestep to Mackie’s inconsistent triad, Manichaens believed that though God – the ‘Father of Greatness’ – was powerful, he wasn’t omnipotent and was therefore locked in a battle with the devil – the ‘King of Darkness. All the world’s suffering, evil and even just things that made people go “ugh”, like a rainy day, were byproducts of this struggle. One more of these byproducts was the potential for humans to do wicked things, since the battle was fought not just in the world, but inside each and every one of us – with good actions acting as triumphs for God and negative actions acting as triumphs for the devil. The whole world was one big battleground. A beautiful blossoming flower might be construed as a victory for God, but it could be neutralised by a victory for the devil when some nob came along to pick it and stick it in a vase, thus killing it instantly. In this way, nothing was inherently good or evil, but rather each thing had the capacity for both good and evil (light and dark) within it and the goal was to do more good things so that when the eventual day of judgement came and light and dark was separated for ever, there would be more light than dark and God would ultimately triumph.

Got it? Good.

By the 290s, Manichaeism had spread far and wide, finding a particularly strong foothold in Egypt, and had arrived in Rome by the 300s. Accounts of Manichaeism in Rome are largely written by anti-Manichaens so it’s hard to get a fully accurate picture but it seems that for a short time Manichaeism rivalled Christianity in its popularity. Saint Augustine of Hippo – part theologian, part Nile creature – had even been a follower of Manichaeism before his conversion to Catholicism in 386.

In 284 Rome got a new emperor: Diocletian. He’s not as famous as Nero (who was also the focus of an ancient Roman conspiracy theory when Rome was burned down in 59AD), or as totally bonkers as Caligula, but was known for being the architect of a fun 10 – 15 year period where Rome attempted a total annihilation of its Christian (and Manichean) population.

Emperor Diocletian. Look how disapproving he is of your Bible.

Losing interest…what has this got to do with conspiracy theories?

I get it: ancient conspiracy theories aren’t as exciting as modern ones. Fewer lizards, no robots and largely centered around mysterious and secretive organisations (actually, that’s one conspiracy theory that hasn’t gone away.)

Hear me out, though.

Diocletian took power following a pretty turbulent period in Roman history. Not the most turbulent by any means, but still a politically stressful time. The emperor before him, Carinus, is alleged to have gone power mad, spent most of Rome’s money on things he didn’t need and lived a generally debauched lifestyle – reportedly marrying and divorcing nine different women in a three year period. The emperor before him had been, er, killed in a mutiny just before Rome was due to fight the Persians – its very longstanding and much hated enemy.

So it was that Diocletian came to power. Rome was a bloated, rapidly waning super power with growing social divisions, increasing political and military corruption and witnessing an influx of religions and cultures which caused some to feel that the true essence of what made Rome great was disappearing. Surely there was a cause to this slow slide into the dung heap of oblivion?

Well, yes, actually. The Manichaens.

The conspiracy theories began: the Manichaens were sent by Persia to destroy Rome. They operated covertly to hide their evil doings. There was no religious element to them at all, rather their motives were purely political. At some point, much later on, Augustine piped up with more information – that Manichaens enjoyed eating sperm and menstrual blood during their quasi-cannibalistic religious ceremonies. Bit of a two faced backstabber, was Augustine; his old Manichaen mates must have felt more than a little betrayed, if only because their rituals were meant to be secret, damn it!

It was the perfect conspiracy theory; one reason for Rome’s decline from its glorious golden age centuries ago could now be attributed to this weird little religious sect. Even better that this so called religion was started in the Persian empire, Rome’s enemy – if anything that just proved it couldn’t be legit. It was all a Persian conspiracy to destroy Rome.

In 302 Diocletian issued his edict on Manichaeism, laying out what a conspiracy it was and paving the way for religious persecution:

As for these people who set up new and unheard of sects contrary to the ancient rites [of Rome], in order that in support of their perverse belief they might drive out those doctrines which had been granted to us in earlier times by divine influence…we have heard that they, namely the Manichaens, have arisen and advanced into this world very recently from among the Persians – our enemies – just like new and unexpected diseases, where they are committing many crimes against our communities…

We should be afraid that they might attempt, as is their wont, to corrupt men of more innocent natures, the modest and tranquil Roman race, and the whole of our empire with the deplorable customs and sinister laws of the Persians as with the poison of a snake…

Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio

I mean, he doesn’t hold back. Poison? Perverse? Corrupt? Diocletian meant business when he set out this conspiracy theory. Woe betide you if you were a Manichaen in Rome after 31 March 302 – you’d probably end up in prison!

We command that the heads of Manichaeism be subjected to the harshest punishment; that is to be consumed by the burning flames along with their condemnable writings.

Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio

Ah. So…not prison then?

While Manichaen leaders were being burnt alive, low status Manichaens were being beheaded and high status Manichaens were being enslaved in quarries and mines to do literally back breaking labour until they died. All Manichaen property was seized and destroyed and all wealth was deposited straight into the imperial treasury.

There were no internet chat rooms and tin foil hats here; it was, as responses to conspiracy theories go, pretty hardcore. And yet, like most conspiracy theories, it was also pretty baseless. Whether or not Diocletian truly thought Manichaeism was a Persian conspiracy or whether he spotted an easy scapegoat is unclear, especially given the anti-Manichaen nature of the surviving sources about Manichaeism in Rome. What is clear, however, is that he certainly wanted the people of Rome to buy into the conspiracy theory.

Sure, there may have been some Persians and Manichaens who hoped for the downfall of Rome. And what religion doesn’t want to ultimately take over other cultures and civilisations? But in the end Rome’s alarm that Manichaeism was a massive Persian conspiracy to overthrow the status quo was unfounded. In subsequent years, Diocletian would go on to persecute other religions, most famously Christians, for many of the same reasons as he gave in the edict of 302. Ultimately, these persecutions were unsuccessful and within 25 years of the start of the Christian persecutions, the emperor Constantine would make Christianity the empire’s religion of choice. Too late for the Manichaens in Rome, though.

So what can we learn from this? Well for a start, the next time you comment on Sharon’s Facebook post asking her why she has to be like this, you can take heart knowing that to an extent humans have always “been like this”. Conspiracy theories are nothing new and in times of turmoil we’ve always sought to make sense of what’s happening, often by pinning blame on those we’re already angry with, or those who we think will be easy targets. Human nature is, in that regard, unfortunately timeless.

But if there’s one thing you should definitely take away it’s this: you can fight them all you want, but what the Illuminati wants, the Illuminati gets.

E x

Parsnip Pie: 1954

I languished at home, the very picture of a glamorous but troubled 1950’s movie star, (think Grace Kelly or Elizabeth Taylor, thanks) cradling my wailing child and weeping to my husband that we hadn’t tasted anything that wasn’t tinned and steeped in sugary tomato sauce for 84 years now.

“Well – just go to the bloody shops. You’re still allowed, you know”, was his unsympathetic response.

“I can’t just go out”, I snapped back, “I’m social distancing. No, this is it for us – a diet of spaghetti hoops, Marmite, and that jar of chutney my mum gave us back in 2012. Oh, cruel world, why must things be this way…” My husband had already walked off.

‘How rude’, I thought, and went and got a bag of crisps.

Later, he told me he’d booked delivery of a veg box from a local farm shop that was due to arrive in two days. You just got what they had in, so I awaited its arrival with mounting excitement.

Finally the day came and the veg box arrived – overflowing with carrots, onions, potatoes, swede, courgettes, apples and oranges. I’d post a picture, but you all know what a carrot looks like. Also, there were rather a lot of parsnips. In fact, without wanting to sound ungrateful, there was an almost obscene number of parsnips. You know that nursery rhyme about the magic porridge pot that won’t stop cooking porridge until it overflows and engulfs an entire village? It was like that, but with parsnips. I checked with my husband that he’d not asked for so many of them, or inadvertently ordered the delivery under the name ‘Parsnip King’, but he hadn’t. It seemed that whoever packed our box just really wanted to spread the parsnip love.

No matter, though, I was sure there was a historical recipe to be found somewhere. And there was. Lots of them, in fact. It would seem that the humble parsnip has quite a longstanding history of its own. I hope you’re ready.

The story of the parsnip

Stop being so childish. Credit: wikimedia.

It’s not really a sexy vegetable, is it? (Okay, bad example. Although, I am a bit worried if humorous root veg does it for you.) Lumpy, wonky and with enough crevices for dirt to get really stuck in, the parsnip isn’t a veg celeb like its sleeker, more colourful cousin the carrot. In fact, it’s almost like the parsnip doesn’t want us to like it; the leaves of the parsnip can exude a sap that is toxic to humans and the flowering part of wild parsnip looks incredibly similar to the violently poisonous water hemlock – which can be lethal to humans. The parsnip’s anti-social personality hasn’t gone unnoticed in the world of showbiz, either; in 2018 Aldi’s successful Christmas mascot, Kevin the carrot, battled an ‘evil’ parsnip called Pascal.

And yet throughout history the parsnip has been lauded as a king of vegetables (or at least a courtier of vegetables.) The Roman emperor Tiberius had wild parsnips specially imported from the banks of the Rhine as part of the tribute owed to Rome by Germany and in 1288, the writer Bonvesin da la Riva spoke about the parsnip as being one of the delightful foods enjoyed by the people of Milan in his work Marvels of Milan. The golden age of the parsnip took off in the Middle Ages, before Europeans became aware of the potato and that flashy bastard, the carrot, thanks to its unbeatable sweet flavour and versatility. As well as providing bulk and nutrients to stews and soups, mashed parsnip was added to sauces as a thickener and to puddings for sweetness when sugar or honey wasn’t readily available.

Parsnips were introduced to North America during the 16th century, predominately as a root vegetable, but the Americans knew they had a good thing in their own homegrown spuds and the humble foreign parsnip failed to take off on a huge scale. Unfortunately for Pascal and his parsnippy pals, things were about to get worse as demand for parsnips dwindled thanks to falling sugar prices during the 17th and 18th century and potatoes (which, let’s face it, are so much better) became available on a global scale. Today, parsnips are mainly eaten in northern Europe in soups, as accompaniments to roast dinners and as the disappointing bits of vegetable crisps.

That’s enough parsnip history, thanks

Okay.

So what was I to do with my unexpected glut of parsnips? For inspiration I turned to Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England. Hugely acclaimed from the moment of its publication, Food in England is both a cook book and a history of English food from the middle ages to the 20th century. As testament to its popularity, it has remained in print since the first edition and has been called a classic by both food critics and chefs alike.

Reading through the book it was clear to see that Hartley loved what she did. The recipes were littered with her own opinions and comments and at a whopping 676 pages long it was far longer than a cookbook need be, suggesting that the author was enjoying researching and writing about as many foods as possible. Many of the recipes that Hartley states as being ‘historical’ aren’t cited, which is a bit frustrating for someone trying to uncover the history of a dish, but rather are recorded by Hartley in the tradition of oral history; she travelled along England collecting old family recipes from far flung communities that had been passed down through generations. Sometimes she could pinpoint the origins of a recipe, such as a 1615 recipe for ‘Eggs and Bacon’, but mostly it was just a record of ordinary people’s meals, carefully collected and curated under appropriate titles with vague time periods such as ‘To Pickle Mackerel (a very good, old recipe)’.

Good old Dotty. She knew that nothing would improve the reputation of English cuisine than a cookbook with a pig’s head on the front of it.

Parsnip pie is one such vague recipe, which is why I’ve stuck with the publication date of Hartley’s book. There are literary references to it from 1810, but no definitive recipes for it that I’ve found.

I began my pie by peeling and boiling three of the largest parsnips I had. This still left plenty of parsnips over for a roast dinner and more than enough for anyone who cared to glance into the veg drawer of my fridge to exclaim in honesty, ‘gosh, that’s a lot of parsnips!’ Parsnips naked, I chopped them and boiled them until they became very soft – the goal was to be able to push them through a sieve.

While the parsnips were boiling, I enlisted my husband to make a shortcrust pastry for the pie case. I am fortunate that my husband is a man blessed with above average intelligence, so I was astounded when he replied that he didn’t know how to.

“What do you mean? Use a recipe – it’s just flour and butter?”

He tentatively began mixing. Then he paused. “It says to add some water.”

I waited, but it appeared he had finished speaking.

“So? Add some!”

“How much? What water?”

I gestured towards the thing called the tap. “Enough to make it stick together.”

He brought the bowl over and stood looking at it for a long time. I have never seen someone more petrified by a sink.

“You do it – I’ll add too much.”

I know it’s learned helplessness, but I was so bemused by the sight of a grown man so utterly unable to mix flour and water into a dough that I did it for him. He began to mix it together as if in a trance and I turned back to the parsnips, with a lot to think about.

Once they had boiled into a semi mush, I attempted to sieve them. This was a bloody pain in the arse and I wondered if Dorothy had included this but as part of her witty approach to recipe writing – was she laughing at me from cookery heaven, like I’d laughed at my husband? I really couldn’t see much difference between the small mound of parsnip I’d managed to push through the sieve and the great mass still in the sieve that I’d mashed up with the back of the spoon so, checking that my husband wasn’t watching my momentary lapse of culinary superiority, I tipped it all in the bowl.

Hartley suggested adding one tablespoon of honey to each pint of parsnip which by my estimates was about two tablespoons, and a good deal of ground ginger and allspice. To this I added an egg yolk and the zest and juice of two lemons and then rolled out the finally finished pastry to cover a pie dish. Long time readers of this blog (hi, mum!) will know that when it comes to pastry, I don’t believe a pie to be a pie unless it has a pastry base, sides and top. I’ve said it so much that it’ll probably become an epithet on my tomb when I die, but: A pie without a pastry case is just a stew with a lid.

I was so close. Dorothy Hartley was so close. We had a full pastry case with a filling neatly contained inside it – no faffing about. And then she suggested a lattice work crust. The barest, most meagre pastry top a pie could have. A pastry top that only covers approximately 50% of the pie, leaving 50% open to the elements and thus creating an unholy pie/flan combination.

I couldn’t work out what I was more disgusted by: a stew masquerading as a pie under a puff pastry crust, only to reveal its true self in all its charlatan misery once broken into, or an almost-pie with no sense of mystery that spilled its delicious secrets before even being cut into, thus ruining the anticipation. In my distress both options seemed equally devastating. All I knew was that my admiration for Ms Hartley had evaporated, much like the moisture and intrigue in a pie with a lattice work crust.

Stoically I continued, cutting strips of pastry slightly thicker than was necessary to compensate for the abominable holes in the crust and laying them in a lattice. It will come as no surprise to you to learn that the skill of lattice work was an evil magic I had no prior experience of and I actually found it quite tricky to start with. In fact, I had to restart it a couple of times to get the overlapping and underlapping just right.

Lattice work completed and brushed with egg yolk, the ‘pie’ went into the oven at 180 degrees for 30 minutes while I started on the meringue.

Oh yes. Parsnips and meringue – don’t say I don’t treat you.

Hartley’s meringue wasn’t cooked in an oven. She described it as being beaten sweet egg whites with lemon rind which was piped onto the edges of the completed pie and then returned “to the cool oven to set.” The absence of an oven, or mention of cooking the egg whites in any way led me to believe the recipe meant an Italian meringue, since this version of meringue held its form best and did not require any cooking other than boiling sugar syrup.

Once the pie was out of the oven and sufficiently cooled, I piped my meringue in very fetching 1950’s rosettes along the sides. I was so pleased with my piping skills I got a bit carried away and added unnecessary dots of meringue around the rosettes, which sort of ruined the look to be honest. I let it sit for an arbitrary amount of time, since the meringue was good to go anyway, before cutting a slice for me and my husband.

Yeah, I was pretty proud of the lattice work in the end, thanks for asking!

Straight away, my husband dived in for a bit of the pastry, ignoring the filling.

“This pastry is delicious!” He cried. “It’s the best pastry I’ve ever tasted. It’s so buttery and rich. Well done you. Except, I suppose well done me, really. Who knew I’d be a natural?”

I resisted the urge to hurl my plate at him and bit into a forkful of my own pie. It was…disappointing.

Because it looked very similar to pumpkin pie I had hoped for buttery sweetness. What I got was a weird mix of sweet and sour, because of the amount of lemon juice in the mixture. The sweet wasn’t all that sweet, either. Either my measurements were off with the honey, or Dorothy didn’t try all her own recipes, because I had to search very hard for the honey at all. The flavour of the parsnip wasn’t wholly unpleasant, but it was somewhat lost with the acidity of the lemon and the two flavours together seemed to fight rather than complement one another.

I didn’t get much of a ginger hit, either. The spices were too subtle against the two warring flavours of parsnip and lemon, so other than a residual heat from the ginger, there wasn’t much to indicate any seasoning at all.

The meringue was great, though. It provided much needed sweetness to balance out the filling. The only trouble were the ratios – there was far too little meringue to filling so after one pleasant forkful it was back to parsnip and lemon gruel.

I will, grudgingly, admit that the pastry was also good. That’s because it was a BBC good food recipe for basic shortcrust pastry I’d found by googling a ‘really easy shortcrust pastry recipe – like, really really easy’ for my husband to follow after his kitchen meltdown. There was no way it could have gone wrong. Still, there he was sitting gleefully on the sofa still sampling the delights of the foolproof pastry without having tried any of the weird sour filling. I had an idea.

“You’re right, the pastry is great,” I told my husband, sneakily scraping my serving into the bin. “I’m actually going to try and cut down on my carb intake while we’re indoors so the rest can be for you. Thank you so much for helping me make it. This one’s basically like a joint effort!”

“Yeah, and it couldn’t have turned out better.” He bit down on more pastry. “I’d be happy to help you next time too, if you want?”

“Yeah. That’d be great. Enjoy the rest of it.”

Four hours later and he’d eaten every bit of the pie. Every bit, that was, except the filling which had been carefully scraped out, dumped into a bowl and pushed to the back of the fridge along with my mum’s homemade 2012 chutney to be rediscovered next lockdown.

I went back to the veg box. I could still see at least four parsnips nuzzled in amongst the broccoli. Dorothy Hartley also had another recipe for Parsnip Cakes. I considered it for all of one second before cutting them into chunks for a side dish to our roast dinner – king of the veg they may have been and no matter how much Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would love me to embrace the ‘snip, for me they’re best as a side dish to a roast dinner. With carrots. Thank god for carrots.

E x

Parsnip Pie

3 large parsnips
2 tablespoons of honey
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
Ground ginger
Allspice
2 large eggs
225g plain flour
100g cold butter, diced
100g caster sugar
25ml water

  1. Peel, chop and boil the parsnips.
  2. While parsnips are boiling, rub flour and butter together until it resembles sand. Add in a little water to form a dough and roll out to cover a pie dish.
  3. When parsnips are soft, push them through a sieve, or mash until very fine.
  4. Add the yolk of an egg, honey, lemon zest and juice and spices to the parsnips and combine thoroughly.
  5. Smooth parsnip mixture over pastry case evenly.
  6. Cut remaining pastry into strips and cover parsnip mixture in a lattice work pattern. Brush with egg yolk.
  7. Cook at 180 degrees for 30 minutes or until pastry is golden.
  8. While pie is cooking, begin on the meringue. Weigh out 50g of egg whites into a bowl.
  9. Into a saucepan, weigh 100g of sugar and 25ml of water. Heat until boiling and sugar is melted.
  10. Whip the egg whites with a handheld mixer until foamy and then pour boiling sugar syrup into the mix. Pour down the side of the bowl to avoid splashing yourself with hot sugar.
  11. Whip the egg whites and sugar syrup until peaks form.
  12. Once pie is out of the oven and cooled, pipe meringue around the edges.

Apple Pandowdy: 1869

It’s very hard to sum up America in the 19th century. Every day I lament to myself: why, oh why, can’t America in the 19th century be summed up more easily? But that’s just the way it is.

Where were its skyscrapers, malls and subways? Its millions of tourists flocking to see shows on Broadway and the sights of the Grand Canyon? Where were its property tycoons rigging up chains of luxury hotels before inexplicably becoming president? And, for the love of God, just what was going on with the flag?! (There were over 20 incarnations of it during the 19th century alone as more and more states were admitted to the Union.)

From the 1810 census we are told there were just over 7 million people living in America, with most of them listed as living in the Northern and Southern Eastern states such as New York and South Carolina. However, it’s best not to take everything the 1810 census says at face value; until 1830 there was no standardised method of acquiring and presenting information, some states’ census returns got lost or altered over the years and, pretty crucially, it didn’t take into account the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who lived in the Great Plains to the West. It’s also pretty inaccurate in that it categorises the free white settlers into groups (males under the age of ten, females aged 26-44 etc), but then allowed slave owners to record a single lump sum for the number of slaves they owned, so detailed records of the demographics of an entire 1.5 million people are absent.

Flawed as it was, the 1810 census did provide some context to how much America changed in the 100 years of the 19th century to become more like the America we know today. As the 1890 census attests, the population (including Native Americans this time) had increased to just under 63 million and because slavery had been abolished in 1865, no slaves are listed either. That didn’t mean the problems of slavery had vanished; the reconstruction of the south following the American Civil War (1861-1865) had been messy and many ex-slaves found their lives had changed not a jot and in some cases worsened as they were left to fend for themselves in communities that made it clear they were still slaves in all but name, despite the then President Ulysses S. Grant’s attempts at promoting civil rights.

Ulysses S Grant, American president 1869 – 1877. Also half alien, apparently.

Who were the Americans?

As well as political changes, the people of America were changing their perceptions of what it meant to be American. Was it that you had to have been born in the country, or was ‘American’ a state of mind? This was the century to find out.

In the first half of the 19th century there were some very dull land exchanges which men with big beards sitting in wood panelled rooms tend to get very excited about, but your average 15 year old always switches off for when it comes round to that part of the GCSE course. Essentially, in 1803, the Americans experienced their first major foray into capitalism when they bought 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River off the French for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase practically doubled the size of America but the problem was the Americans didn’t quite know what to do with all this land. In 1819, one particularly excited beardy man called Major Stephen Long was sent on a mission to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River and came back to tell the government that, in a spectacular example of ‘Buyer Beware’, the lands the government had paid so much for were:

“…wholly unfit for cultivation and farmers cannot hope to live on this land. Occasionally there are large areas of fertile land but the shortage of wood and water will mean settling in the country is impossible.”

Major Long, 1819

Yikes. So inhospitable and barren did the American people believe the West to be that they called the Great Plains the ‘Great American Desert’ (thereby proving that the American talent for self promotion has grown over time, or at the very least that PR and advertising has changed dramatically.)

The government tried to promote the idea of moving westwards for expansion as much as it could until in 1845 John L O’Sullivan, founder of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review coined the term ‘Manifest Destiny’. He argued that since God had given Americans all this land, they had a duty – nay, a destiny – to take it, cultivate it and control it. Never mind that there were already people living on the Great Plains, the government said. Were they white? No? Christian? No? They didn’t count. This slant was very popular, (and helped by the discovery of gold in 1849), and from the 1840’s onwards America’s population boomed as migrants from the East and immigrants from other countries flocked West to take their share of the land and its resources.

Conflict and tension between settlers and the Native Americans of the Great Plains increased sharply in the 1860’s as more and more Native Americans fought against the settlers for the land they had lived on for generations. Stories of brutality were common on both sides, although it’s worth remembering that one of those sides was made up of people with non mechanical weapons and the other side was made up of organised armies backed up with guns and profoundly racist passions: “…It is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” John Chivington, a pastor-turned-colonel (yes, really), said in 1864 before the Sand Creek Massacre.

Ironically, there was now a sense that the land, which had seemed too enormous and unending only a few decades ago, was suddenly at risk of overcrowding and of natural resources drying up. As settlers fought to take over the land and Native Americans fought to stop them, it might seem to some that this was a fight about more than just space; this was a fight about national identity and ideals. By the 1890’s it seemed that being a true American meant having a fighting spirit, a devotion to God and a belief that the right thing to do was to make use of all the resources available in order to better oneself, whatever the cost. That doesn’t mean that all people of the 1890’s were heartless, not at all. Just that they mostly operated, as with everyone else, within the parameters of their time and society.

Are you going to talk about food soon?

That’s a pretty long and surprisingly impassioned preamble to what is essentially a recipe for dry apple crumble, sorry. I’m struggling not having a class in front of me so you, poor reader, have become a bit of a stand in – I hope you were taking notes, there will be a test.

The reason for that not very relevant history is that for 19th century America, a recipe wasn’t just a chance to show off wealth or skill. It was often a mark of who you were – what your brand was. At a time when people were making the most of the new opportunities available to them and fighting for a sense of identity and belonging, no one published anything, not even cookbooks, without wanting to say something bigger about themselves than just ‘I make a good pound cake.’

The recipe for Apple Pandowdy comes from Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Recipt Book for 1869 and although the origin of the word ‘pandowdy’ isn’t clear, some historians believe it came about because of the dish’s appearance as being a bit boring, or ‘dowdy’, and having been baked in a pan.

For Charlotte Winslow, the 1800’s were the perfect opportunity to make her fame and fortune. A paedriatric nurse, she rose to prominence in the 1840’s as the face of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup – a cure all for ‘fussy babies’ that was manufactured by her son in law and his partner for sale in America and Britain. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was sold as a remedy for babies who were teething or had dysentery, because obviously those two things are very similar. It was hugely popular and in 1868, more than 1.5 million bottles were sold. The secret? Morphine.

“Would baby like his syrup inhaled or injected?”

One teaspoon had enough morphine in it to kill the average child. Just to make sure that non-average, already morphine-addicted children didn’t miss out, it also contained alcohol. Unsurprisingly, parents began to notice the adverse affects (to put it mildly) of giving the syrup to their children and the medicine quickly gained the nickname ‘Baby Killer.’ Despite this sales continued to do well and it wasn’t until 1906 that morphine was removed from the ingredient list (although the alcohol remained) and 1930 when it was finally removed from the market completely.

Domestic Recipt Book for 1869 proudly advertised itself as a book, or pamphlet, which could help women cook meals for their families as well as cure them with home made treatments. If the remedies inside the pages couldn’t help, then the adverts on the front of the book for Mrs. Winslow’s ready-made cough and cold remedies could be purchased at nearby pharmacies (or maybe street corners, given the contents of such treatments.)

What better recipe book to cook a meal for my family – including a young child – than from the manufacturer of the ‘Baby Killer’ herself?

It was a surprisingly easy recipe to follow and only used five basic ingredients. (Un?)Fortunately none of them was morphine.

First, I sliced three apples and laid a layer of them in a buttered dish. On top of this I scattered a tablespoon of brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of breadcrumbs, sprinkled on a pinch of lemon zest and dotted some blobs of cold butter on top. I then repeated the process another two times until I had almost reached the top of the dish and the whole thing looked very ‘dowdy’ indeedy.

Mrs. Winslow added to the bottom of her recipe a note stating that “a little cider improves this very much” which was unnerving because a) she was basically telling me that this wasn’t worth eating without alcohol and b) given the proliferation of alcohol in her medicines I wasn’t sure what counted as ‘a little’ by her measurements. Also c) we didn’t have any in. We did have boring old apple juice, though, so I tipped 1/2 a cup full in. No baby killers here, thank you very much.

It baked for just over 30 minutes until the apple slices were soft enough to pierce with a fork and then I served it with some ice cream (which actually wasn’t anachronistic at all given that the first hand cranked ice cream freezers were introduced to America in the 1840’s.)

I don’t think I need to tell you that it was pretty dry. Perhaps my cup was too small, but it seemed as though I’d not added any liquid at all. I was thankful for the ice cream, which when melted into the dowdy made it much more like an apple crumble and less like slices of dehydrated apple under bits of toast. I also think that in my lockdown induced panic to make food last I’d been a bit stingy with my butter blobs, so that probably contributed to the dryness a bit too.

It smelled lovely, though, like sweet bread and other than the fact it sucked all the moisture out of my head it tasted pretty good too – faintly citrusy and not overly sweet. For an 1860’s family trying to save all the money they had in order to pay for the long journey westwards, it did a good job of acting like a sweet treat. Plus, it was handy for using up bread that had gone a bit stale and also didn’t need to use any eggs, like other recipes for stale bread did.

A recipe that used simple ingredients, was quick and easy to make and – bonus – didn’t kill any children: I think that’s as close to the American Dream as I could hope to achieve.

E x

Apple Pandowdy

3 large cooking apples
4 or 5 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
4 or 5 tablespoons of brown sugar
Grated lemon rind
Butter
150ml of apple juice or cider (or more if you want a bit of a sauce.)

  1. Peel and slice the applies thinly. Spread a layer of them into a buttered dish.
  2. Sprinkle some grated lemon rind onto the apples.
  3. Sprinkle over the apples a tablespoon and a half of brown sugar and a table spoon and a half of breadcrumbs.
  4. Dot five or six chunks of cold butter onto the breadcrumb and sugar.
  5. Repeat the whole process twice more.
  6. Bake in the oven at 190 degrees for 30 minutes or until the apples are soft.