Won’t somebody think of the politicians?: Fat Rascals, 19th century

What a bad week it’s been for Boris. Who would have thought that a man who built an entire career out of appearing to be nothing more than a benign buffoon would be so cruelly brought down by some party hats and the arse-end of a Colin the caterpillar cake.

The poor man claimed he didn’t know he was attending a work party during the lockdown. That plate of cake in his hands? He was just holding it for a mate. The assembled crowd of friends and colleagues with the rictus grins on their faces listening to his speech? Never met any of them before in his life.

Then: fine, so maybe it was a party, alright? But he only stayed for 0.3 seconds and he thought he was following the rules the whole time he was there. The rules that said you couldn’t congregate with other people indoors? Yeah, those ones. Look, he’s a smart man, he went to a £46,000 a year school and he’s got a degree from Oxford in professional clownery, okay? For God’s sake, he was the bloody PM during all this time, he was on the telly every night with those apocalyptic rhymes telling us all to keep our distance. Fuck, he was in a Whatsapp group with all the boffins who were texting him all the time saying “you mustn’t meet indoors with other people, Boris, please” so I think he, of all people, would know what the rules were, thank you very much.

And now this innocent man is the victim of a witch-hunt. Afforded no true opportunity to defend himself except for a 1000-word tantrum letter published across every major news organisation in the country and the inevitable parade of key-note speeches at political dinners and addresses. And thank God for these engagements, I say, because at least they’ll be financially lucrative for the poor man after he was forced to speak out about his paltry £160,000 a year salary as PM during the pandemic while the rest of us got to stay at home, isolated, away from our loved ones, unable to visit each other for months on end – no, not even for a fucking Colin the caterpillar cake whether it was at a work do or our gran’s funeral – because we were following the actual rules, properly.

It’s been a bad week for Boris, that’s true. Sadly satire waits for no man, be he benign buffoon or malignant moron. So without further ado I present this week’s experiment: fat rascals.

“Time to celebrate” indeed. I hope he’s proud of himself.
Credit: Marks and Spencer.


These are round scone like cakes with dried fruit baked into them. A Yorkshire delicacy, the Foods of England website states that the origins for the recipe are obscure, but the earliest recorded version appears in 1855.

The ‘fat’ part of the name is obvious: these treats are made with lard, butter and cream. What seemed less obvious to me was the ‘rascal’ part.

Nowadays, a rascal might refer to someone who is a bit cheeky but ultimately still likeable. This meaning is relatively modern, however, and it used to be that to call someone a rascal was to render them utterly base and worthless. The earliest mentions of the word in English survive from the 14th century and seem to originate from the Old French term rascaile

Today, fat rascals are most commonly known as being a popular treat at Betty’s Tea Room. Apparently they make millions from the almost 400,000 of them they sell every year and Betty’s owns the trademark name. I think we’re okay to make them ourselves, though…

The method

I began by mixing flour, butter and lard together until it was like sand. Unfortunately, while satire waits for no man, it also waits for no experimental food historian either (a lesser known version of the already misquoted phrase…) and in order for my introductory paragraphs to stay relevant, I had to make these rascals today. In 30 degree heat. By the time I was done mixing my fats and flour I already had a pretty cohesive paste rather than the dry sandy texture I think I was after. Oh well.

To the fatty paste I added dried fruit, sugar and baking powder. And then, just to really amplify the richness, a good glug of double cream. The dough was rolled out into a very sticky sheet about 3/4 inch thick and cut into circles. Each one was decorated with a glace cherry and some almonds and then baked at a high temperature, rendering the kitchen hotter than all of Dante’s circles of hell combined.

A party of fat rascals

These weren’t too bad. They were actually quite light and flaky, probably because of the addition of lard to the dough. I’m not a huge dried fruit fan, but if you like fruit scones and want something a little bit more indulgent, these could be a great alternative.

And Boris, if you’re reading: chin(s) up, love. It might be you that’s the butt of the joke now, but by next week I’ll have got bored of politics and will probably go back to focussing on Great British food classics instead, like Eton mess and spotted dick.

E x

Fat rascals (credit to Foods of England website)

Makes 12-16

56g butter
56g lard
280g plain flour
85g currants
56g mixed candied peel
85g sugar
170g double cream
1 teaspoon baking powder
glace cherries and almonds to decorate

  1. Rub the fats and flour together until sand like.
  2. Add the dried fruit, sugar, and baking powder to the mix and combine.
  3. Add the cream and mix together to form a wet paste.
  4. Roll out to about 3/4 inch thick and cut into circles.
  5. Decorate each one with the cherries and almonds.
  6. Brush with milk.
  7. Place in an oven at gas mark 7/425 F for 12-15 minutes.

OFUC: Egg Mince Pies

My marriage ended.

That’s not a super funny opening line, sorry. I typed a few puns out – some basic stuff about nuptials turning into nopetials or whatever – but it all sounded a bit like telling someone I was doing fine, no really, really fine, just fine!!! And as this is not an online documentation of a breakdown, I thought it best to start with minimal British awkwardness and get straight to the point (anyway – you can tell it’s all okay by the use of only three exclamation marks rather than four. Four’s the tipping point, isn’t it? Four’s when people start to worry, but three is okay.)

Genuinely: it’s fine. J continues to be the perfect father to both our daughter and our Le Creuset set, and we speak regularly (mostly to tell the other to get off Netflix so the other can have a turn – AND IF YOU DOB US IN TO NETFLIX FOR THIS I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN).

Fine or not, though, Christmas promises to be a bit shit this year. Worse than the year my parents misjudged my love of unicorns (and misjudged my sense of humour), and bought me a tin of ‘unicorn meat’ thus ruining Christmas morning for everyone. Worse than the year dad didn’t buy mum any gifts because she said she didn’t want anything and he believed her, which was somehow my sister and my’s fault. Even worse than the year we ran out of bread sauce because mum only made double the recipe…

Wasn’t funny at fifteen twelve; isn’t funny now, mum.

I managed to deny the inevitability of Christmas 2022 until about Halloween, but as soon as 31 October rolled over into November, reality descended and, like a tsunami of excrement breaking through sewer floodgates, the festive jollities of a nation flooded my every sense.

Every trip to Sainsburys came with pre-battle talks as I mentally prepped myself to march past the walls of Quality Street without giving in to the urge to kick them over, I reveled in imagining I could fix my heating bills by setting fire to all the Christmas trees that suddenly sprouted from shopfronts two weeks ago, and I’ve dithered in writing my list to Santa for so long now that, what with the Royal Mail Strikes, it’s unlikely to reach him in time.

(Keep it light, Ellie)

Yeah, yeah.

Because we are a society obsessed with Christmas, I cannot ignore that Doomsday is just around the corner, nor can I pretend I’m excited. I could start new traditions, but honestly, screw that shit – it might work for 20-something wellness gurus with sunlight in their veins, but I’m a 30 year old woman with a wardrobe of impractical clothes she bought in a fit of post-breakup mania, and mostly good old vitriol and wine coursing through in my veins. The point is I don’t want to build new memories or “embrace the differences” this year; I want to Fuck Up Christmas.

Specifically, Christmas Dinner.

If ever there was a year to flip through retro recipe books for genuine festive inspiration, rather than gagging in disgust at the horrifying delicacies, this is it. To hell with your family-sized roast turkeys, and screw your flambéd Christmas puddings; my showstopper will be the state of the bathroom after my guests’ digestive systems buckle under the unrelenting diet of Unspecified Things in aspic.

This seems like a healthy way to deal with things…

The first experiment in Operation Fuck Up Christmas (OFUC) comes courtesy of the 19th century, from a work called ‘A New System of Domestic Cookery’ by the anonymous A. Lady. Technically she wasn’t anonymous; we know that ‘A Lady’ was actually Maria Rundell, a writer of recipes and general household maintenance of little fame, who first published Domestic Cookery in 1806.

My copy is from 1842, I think.I do not look after it as I should.

The recipe is called ‘Egg Mince Pies’ and it was a great start to get me into the Grinch spirit. While I was familiar with traditional mince pies, which had meat in them, meatless, egg-heavy pies were new to me.

Boil six eggs hard, shred them small; shred double the quantity of suet; then put in currants washed and picked one pound, or more, if the eggs were very large; the peel of one lemon shred very fine, and the juice, six spoonfuls of sweet wine, mace, nutmeg, sugar, a very little salt; orange, lemon and citron, candied. Make a light paste for them.

Domestic Cookery, A Lady

The thing is, most of the recipe seemed pretty mundane and as I was mixing everything together part of me wanted to give up, livid that I’d been tricked into making what was essentially a normal mince pie when what I’d wanted was a Frankenstein’s monster of a yuletide pastry to make kids cry. The kitchen smelled like Christmas, the radio kept threatening to play All I want for Christmas is You before I managed to hurl my Sonos across the room, the mixture looked exactly like mixtures I’d grown up with when the world wasn’t so spiky.

And then. And then. The eggs, boiled so hard they could break through mortar, were duly added and a kind of gently threatening festive mayhem descended, shattering the saccharine scene I’d built up.

The dubious combo went into some pastry cases of equally dubious quality (but still made with increasingly diminishing amounts of energy love), and baked for – I don’t know, 30 minutes? Somewhere between 30 and 47 minutes.

I looked round the kitchen, furious that I was expected to clean up my own mess, and went for a nap instead, drifting off to suspiciously pleasant smells.

The verdict

Pastry looks good though…

These were actually not that bad. By which I mean they were quite good, which for the purposes of OFUC makes them bad??? One pie on its own was pretty filling, in part thanks to the combination of suet and butter in the recipe, but also because I don’t own any mince pie tins so I had to use American cupcake pans instead, meaning that one pie was big enough to feed a small city, maybe Ely, for about a week.

However, there was no getting away from the fact that it was very eggy, albeit in a deliberate yet inconsistent way. Because the eggs were diced and mixed in as if they were currants, each mouthful was hit and miss as to whether it would be egg free or egg heavy. It felt nicely passive aggressive: munching down on what seemed to be a normal, boring mince pie only to be confronted with a slightly sulphuric, chalky egg lump half way through.

Will these Fuck Up Christmas? Not on their own, no. They’re too aesthetically pleasing and err just a touch on the side of ‘normal’ to be powerhouses of my Christmas dinner this year. However, as a first foray into alternative provisions for this festive season they worked pretty damn well.

Finally, I do want to express my thanks to people who have reached out over the past months, mostly to ask if I’m still alive or if I succumbed to the ever-present threat of food poisoning. Thanks. And to those who have been reading this and think this post has been the blog equivalent of updating my location on social media as ‘At Hospital’ in the expectation that people will comment “DM me babe”, “OMG hun, are you OK?” and just loads of crying emojis, you’re absolutely right – fucking DM me, babe.

E x

DIY dairy: The problem of almond milk…

Look at any medieval recipe and you might be struck by a couple of things – the lack of clear instructions or bafflingly obscure titles for starters (‘Compost‘, anyone?) You may be surprised by the range of spices available to medieval Europeans, or the fact that numerous texts seemed to have a bizarre fondness for recipes involving scalded eel.

One thing that might initially pass you by while you’re wading through indefinite numbers of eel carcasses, though, is the sheer number of times almonds are mentioned. Specifically, almond milk.

Now, you might be partial to an oat milk latte. You might have strong feelings on whether sweetened or unsweetened soya milk is better over Cheerios, but believe me when I say this: your careful deliberations in the queue at Starbucks over which non-dairy alternative to add to your inevitably disappointing drink would be mocked by any Ye Olde Medieval Person standing in the queue behind you.

For medieval folk, only almond milk was the One True Milk Alternative. But why? After all, this was an age before veganism and concerns about arterial health. Until the 16th century, almonds didn’t even grow in England, yet in the 14th century English book Forme of Cury, almost 25% of the recipes use almond milk in some capacity. In the 15th century English work Liber Cure Cocorum, around 17% of the 130 or so recipes contain an almond milk base.

“We like to drink (almond milk) with Gerald, cos Gerald is our mate…”

And it’s not like almond milk is being used for one specific reason. Oh no. The ways medieval cooks used this ingredient were varied. Sometimes it’s used as a possible main ingredient, such as in a recipe for Daryols where it is specified as an alternative to cow milk:


Take creme of cowe mylke oþ of alma(u)nd(es) do þ(es) to ayro(u)n wyth sug(ur). safro(u)n (and) salt medle hyt yfer(e) do hyt in a coffyn of two ynche depe. bake h(i)t wel (and) [serve it].

Take cream of cow milk or of almonds and add this to eggs with sugar, saffron and salt. Mix it well and put it in a pastry case two inches deep. Bake it well and [serve it].

Forme of Cury from University of Manchester, John Rylands Collection, English MS 7, f84v/f85r

Sometimes almond milk is used instead of water and mixed with starches to make a thick pottage, such as in the not at all distressingly titled ‘Rice of Flesh’. Equally, it is also used as a thickener itself, especially when mixed with breadcrumbs ( see the recipe ‘Mortrews of Fysshe’, which appears to be spiced fish pate spread over a paste of almond milk and bread.)

Occasionally it’s added almost as an afterthought or economy ingredient, as in the case of ‘Frumenty of Porpoise’, where the cook is instructed to boil wheat in ‘the secunde mylk of Almaundes’ – suggesting that the ground almonds used to make almond milk were recycled at least once to make a second (presumably weaker) almond solution.

So why does this modern sounding ingredient crop up so regularly, and in so many different ways? Religion.

Thou Shalt Not Eat Anything Good for 40 Days…

Lent required 40 days of fasting. That didn’t necessarily mean eating less but rather restricted what and when you could eat: no meat, dairy or eggs. Slightly madly, fish didn’t count as meat and neither did certain water-adjacent birds like barnacle geese. In fact, medieval cooks seem to have expanded the definition of ‘fish’ to mean anything that spent time most of its time in water, which is why beavers were also considered A-OK. For this reason Lenten fare is often titled ‘…on fish day’, even if the recipe didn’t include fish.

Fishy looking beaver (ha), pursued by hunters. British Library.

Almond milk – almonds steeped in water and strained – was a perfect milk substitute for these days where cooks could, to a limited extent, capture the creamy essence of a meal without compromising their immortal souls (although almond milk was also popular in non-fast recipes too.)

“40 days?”, I hear you say. “That’s not very much of the year. Certainly not enough to warrant a whole 25% of a cookbook, surely?”

And you’d be dead right. If fast days only occurred during Lent.

Not content with 40 days of scaled eel and nutty water, the medieval Church dictated that in addition to Lent, there were to be Ember days – four additional fast days of the year – and Rogation days which followed Easter Sunday and called for an extra four days of fasting in the lead up to the feast of Ascension day, followed by another fast before Pentecost and further fasts during Advent. Oh, and in addition to this there were fasts on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

In total, Allen Frantzen estimates that by the 12th century the average lay person would have spent a minimum of 150 days of the year fasting – or 41% of the year. The figure rises to a whopping 200 days for monks – or 54% of the year. When seen like this, you start to wonder whether a cookbook which dedicates 25% for dairy-alternative recipes is really doing enough…

Of course the big question is how far did ordinary people actually stick to this? Most extant documents are proclamations and church documents which lay out what they thought the ideal should be. Whether or not farmer Jim was religiously sticking to dishes of boiled beaver tail for almost half the year, or whether he actually spent most of Lent secretly sticking his face into cheese and bacon flans is anyone’s guess.

Actually, the fact that people did struggle to adhere to all the fast days is documented. A late 13th/early 14th century manuscript known as the the Harley Lyrics details the reasons people were expected to fast on Friday in particular. In the introduction the manuscript tellingly reveals that people should fast “more willingly on a Friday than any other day of the week…” which suggests that the Church was aware that some people begrudged fast days and possibly did not adhere to them as strictly as they ought. A fifteenth century schoolbook also shows that students, perennially preoccupied with their stomachs, did not enjoy fasting in the slightest (and reveals that some fish were considered more palatable than others, showing that even when fasting people still adjusted their food to maximise taste):

Thou wyll not beleve how wery I am off fysshe, and how moch I desir that flesch were cum in ageyn…

Wolde to gode I were on of the dwellers by the see syde, for ther see fysh be plentuse and I love them better then I do this fresh water fysh, but not I must ete freshe water fyshe whether I wyll or noo.

British Museum, el 249

Interestingly (and it is interesting, thank you very much), certain people were exempt from fasting. The sick, young and old were not expected to fast and Christopher Dyer has suggested that records for the early 14th century show that harvest workers and labourers working on fast days were allowed to supplement their fish with cheese, which was otherwise banned during fast.

As I was reading through recipes in the FoC on a particularly fun and normal Saturday night, I was struck by references to almonds in three specific recipes: Creme of Almaundes, Grewel of Almaundes and Caudel of Almaunde Mylk*.

Photo from the Rylands Medieval Collection, University of Manchester

Creme of Almaundes

Take alma(u)nd(es) bla(u)nched. Grynd he(m) (and) drawe he(m) up thyke. Set he(m) ou(er) þe fyr(e) (and) boyle he(m). Set he(m) ado(u)n (and) spryng hem wiþ vyneg(er). Cast he(m) abrode uppo(n) a cloth (and) cast uppon he(m) sug(ur). When hit is colde gader hit togader (and) leshe hit i(n) disch(es) (and) sue it forth.

Forme of Cury from University of Manchester, John Rylands Collection, English MS 7, f43v/f44r

Grewel of Almaundes

Take ammau(u)nd(es) ybla(u)nched. Bray he(m) wiþ otemele. Drawe he(m) up wiþ watur (and) cast þ(er)on safro(u)n (and) salt.

Forme of Cury from University of Manchester, John Rylands Collection, English MS 7, f44r

Caudel of Almaunde Mylk

Take almau(n)d(es) bla(u)nched and drawe he(m) up wiþ wyne. Do þ(er)to poudo(ur) (of ginger) (and) sug(ur) (and) colo(ur) hit w(it)h safro(u)n. Boyle hyt (and) sue hit forth.

Forme of Cury from University of Manchester, John Rylands Collection, English MS 7, f44v

The three recipes are strikingly similar. They appear one after another and follow broadly similar methods: blanching almonds, grinding them and mixing them with liquid before boiling. Grewel of almaundes contains oatmeal whereas the other two have no other thickening agent.

So, why three versions of what is essentially the same thing?

One possibility is intended audience. While FoC was intended to be a working document for the royal kitchen, the introduction at the start of the John Rylands version makes clear that the recipes contained within it were intended to reflect “alle maner of States bothe hye and lowe”.

With this in mind we can start to rank the recipes in order of class, high to low. I’d argue that Caudel of Almaunde Mylk is the most expensive of the three as it contains both wine and saffron (the most expensive of all medieval spices.) By the same logic, second in the list would be Grewel of Almaundes followed by the lowly Creme of Almaundes, which contains no saffron, just sugar (and vinegar).

But is it as simple as this? I’ve always thought of gruel as bland slop served to Victorian orphans who knew better than to ask for more, but in this reading gruel is of a higher quality that creme, something that I would associate with luxury and wealth. Additionally, while oatmeal might have been relatively cheap, almonds were not, so the argument that Creme of Almaundes was written for ‘lowe’ persons doesn’t quite hold water…

It’s possible that Grewel of Almaunds and Creme of Almaundes were on a similar level; the instructions for Creme of Almaundes show that though some of the ingredients may have been cheaper, the necessary preparation was considerably more involved and skillful.

Another possibility, though it isn’t stated explicitly, is that these three recipes are a form of invalid cookery. Almonds were considered to have strong healing properties and were considered particularly good for brain development. The contemporaneous French text Le Viandier de Taillevent has a section called ‘Dishes for the sick’, in which a recipe very similar to Grewel of Almoundes appears.

FoC took a lot of inspiration from French texts like Viandier, however Viander only has one recipe for almond milk mush (for want of a better description): a recipe for ‘Lenten Slices’, which at first glance appears similar to Creme of Almaundes, but requires the addition of fruit.


What can we learn from all this? That the recipes were intended to be eaten during Lent is obvious. However, I think there’s an argument to be made that the three recipes represent an author showing off his skills and distinguishing himself from other cooks, specifically continental ones. I couldn’t find the same number of almond-milk-based recipes in other culinary texts as appear in FoC – the contemporaneous French text Viandier specifies the use of almond milk or almond broth in only approximately 13 out of 182 recipes (excluding nota style recipes). Likewise, the c.1430 German text Registrum Coquine uses almond milk in only 10 of its 75 recipes. In the c. 1400 text An Anonymous Tuscan Cookery Book, approx. 17 out of 184 recipes refer to almond milk.

What’s also interesting (and it is this time, I promise), is that An Anonymous Tuscan Cookbook has an entire section dedicated to the making of almond milk ‘for invalids’, a little like Viander, whereas FoC, as already mentioned, makes no mention of almond milk’s health-giving benefits.

Another possibility is that the use of almond milk, even in superficially very simple and economical dishes, was intended to highlight wealth. Almonds had to be imported to England – at great cost – from Arabic countries who supplied whole almonds to most of Europe via a network of trading routes. Could it be that countries in mainland Europe – that much closer to said trade networks and often interconnected to one another – had to pay less to import almonds than England did? And if so, did this mean that continental France or Italy saw almonds in a more utilitarian and less luxurious light?

There’s more to be said here about the politics of almond milk, I think, but even I would die of boredom at this point. Blog post 2 – where I make and compare each other three recipes above – may touch on it (or it may not – let’s keep you in anticipation, I know waiting to find out will be the highlight of your week…). In the meantime think of those 14th century cooks, grinding and soaking their almonds when you have your next non-dairy coffee, and thank God we have Alpro now…

Until next time!

E x

*A recipe for Jowtes in Almond Milk appears between Grewel of Almaundes and Caudel of Almaunde Mylk, but I disregarded it from this examination because in that recipe the almond milk simply acts as a base whereas the jowtes (herbs) are the main star. I’ve made Jowtes in Almond Milk before and the result was a vivid green soup as opposed to a thick paste like meal, which the three recipes listed above clearly are.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

If the past two years have taught you to view new beginnings with suspicion rather than excitement, I hear you. If you’re entering 2022 with the battle-weary persona of a ye-olde-medieval video game character about to embark on his final quest, I hear you. And if you’d rather just pretend 2020/2021 didn’t happen and have muted all alerts for ‘variant’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘Joe Wicks’, I hear you (especially about Joe Wicks; nothing against the man but I just can’t trust anyone who looks like they enjoy HIIT that much.)

If, however, you’re feeling a bit more optimistic about this year then I might have something for you. (For those in the first category I can only recommend gin?)

My #positivevibesonly NY recipe is inspired by the Scottish Hogmanay tradition of first-footing.

The origins of first-footing – the belief that the first person who enters your home on New Year’s Day will bring good luck for the coming year – are vague. A 19th century article on the topic seemed to suggest it was a relatively modern practice, invented in the 17th or 18th centuries by young women of a, um, lustful nature who encouraged their sweethearts to visit them just after midnight on New Year’s Day. Following this first-footing visit, a marriage was usually made between the suitors on the subsequent New Year’s Day.

That kid is done with this shit. Credit here.

By the 19th century the tradition had become a bit of community fun. Generally a dark haired handsome man would knock on the door after midnight on the 1st January with a variety of specific gifts and bestow good fortune on the household. He would then be rewarded with food and drink and the general NY festivities would continue.

One gift often mentioned in the sources is shortbread, which has become absolutely synonymous with Scotland. The earliest recipes that we’d today call shortbread date back to the 16th century under the name ‘short cakes’, with the earliest one I could find appearing in Thomas Dawson’s 1594 The good Huswifes handmaide for the Kitchin.

But, and this is meant with no disrespect to the noble Scottish delicacy, shortbread can be a bit… basic. I couldn’t help think that the combination of the fundamental components of shortbread – wheat flour, sugar and fat – had to have been discovered before the 16th century.

I also couldn’t help thinking that we were due some frankly fantastic fortune after the past two years, and I wondered if that fortune would be more forthcoming if ushered in with extra special shortbread.

And so, having established the most tenuous of tenuous links between current events and today’s experiment, I present one of the earliest ‘shortbread’ recipes I could reasonably claim: Khushkananj.

To make Kushkanaj

It is that you take excellent samid flour and put three ounces of sesame oil on every [pound], and knead it hard, well. Leave it until it ferments, then make it into long cakes, and into the middle of each put its quantity of pounded almonds and sugar kneaded with spiced rose water. Then gather them as usual and bake in the brick oven and take them up.

A Baghdad Cookery Book. trans. Charles Perry

This is shortbread in only the most technical of terms in that it is short (ie crumbly). I’m not here trying to attribute historic Scottish cuisine to the Middle East (although that’s actually not as far fetched as it might sound…), or slap European labels on non-European foods like an appropriation arsehole, Ok? Ok.

The recipe can be found in the 13th century Baghdadi work كتاب الطبيخ Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh (The Book of Dishes), compiled by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdādī. Originally it contained 160 recipes, with additional recipes being added over the centuries to account for changing tastes and techniques. Charles Perry – the editor/translator of the English version – has stated that the Kitāb al-Ṭabīkh was so influential that for centuries it was the Arabic cook-book of choice for Turkish sultans.

At some point after 1226 a further 260 recipes were added to book and the collection was renamed Kitāb Waṣf al-Aṭᶜima al-Muᶜtāda (which is a great title for exploring the rarely used symbols section in my Word). In the late 15th century the Turkish physician Mahmut Şirvâni added 82 extra recipes of his own and translated the rest into Turkish, thus compiling the first ‘original’ cookery book of the Ottoman Empire.

Today’s experiment appeared in a section basically titled ‘On making things mixed with flour’, which was a pretty underwhelming start for my new year of good fortune, but I continued.

The first thing that stood out to me was that the recipe contained quantities – actual recognisable quantities! What was more, they were helpful quantities that could be scaled down easily. Anyone who’s followed this blog for a bit now will know the biggest issue I have trying to recreate medieval (European) recipes is the lack of clear instructions. Yet here, on the first day of this auspicious year was a sign from the god of imperial units that good fortune was coming my way indeed. Sure, they were Perry’s interpretation of whatever the original unit was, but that wasn’t the point: the point was that they were there at all.

The next thing to contend with was the term samid flour. This has been translated by Perry and Laura Kelley, author of The Silk Road Gourmet, to be semolina.

The third thing I realised was that the semolina, once mixed with (untoasted) sesame oil, was supposed to be left to ferment – a definite move away from traditional shortbread. In all honesty, I gave it 24 hours with a bit of warm water to do its thing before I realised I was in serious danger of missing the New Year’s Day cut off for good luck, so I don’t know how fermented it really was in the end.

The rest of the instructions were reasonably straightforward. The dough felt and looked reasonably similar to shortbread dough in that it kept bloody crumbling up every time I tried to move it, and the rose water/almond additions filled the kitchen with a very appetising scent as it cooked.


Time to come clean: these were not very similar to shortbread at all. They were dry and crumbly, for sure, but they weren’t as sweet and they lacked that melt in the mouth feel because the semolina was much coarser than wheat flour and the sesame oil couldn’t match the butteriness of, well, butter.

Those aren’t all bad things; if anything the mild sweetness tempered with the perfumy rose notes was actually more nuanced than the high-pitched sugariness shortbread can sometimes have. I felt I had to work through each mouthful, in the same way one might work through a dry Weetabix, which made them weirdly satisfying.

In the end I had to be my own dark haired biscuit-bringer, but I hoped these very distant shortbread cousins shared some of the minimum required properties of New Year’s Day shortbread – enough to win me a year of good luck, at least.

Here’s to 2022!

E x

To make 8 Kushkanaj

450g semolina
85g untoasted sesame oil
40g sugar
20g almonds
Rose water
Spices: I used ginger, cardamom, saffron

  1. Knead the semolina with the oil and add enough warm water to form a relatively sticky dough that holds its form when you squeeze it.
  2. Leave overnight somewhere warm or until it begins to ferment (you can skip this step if you want).
  3. Roll the dough into 8 portions.
  4. Grind the almonds, and add to the sugar.
  5. Add the rose water and spices to the sugar and almond mixture.
  6. Create an indent in each dough portion and spoon a little of the almond and sugar mixture into this. Close and seal.
  7. Now it’s up to you: you can bake these in moulds as per the original instructions, or you can leave them as discs.
  8. Bake at 200 degrees C for about 30 minutes or until turning golden brown.

A good excuse to go to bed early: Buttered Beer, 1660

‘Where the hell have you been?!’ I hear you cry*.

It’s been a while, I know. I’ve been busy trying to raise my child to not be, at the very least, an empathy-devoid serial killer in the making WHILST ALSO attending classes full time (ha) WHILST ALSO running a house and being an attentive wife WHILST ALSO – oh, fuck it.

In all honesty, the seemingly never ending plague did such a number on my motivation to do any writing that it got easier and easier not to, and harder and harder to pull myself out of it. Truthfully, I can try not to raise a child that might grow up to dabble in casual murder, I can attend classes full time, I can let the house fall to ruin run a house and be an attentive wife — I just can’t do it all in a plague and keep up with writing.

However, I realised that if I didn’t write SOMETHING I was in real danger of not writing again, plague or no plague. Which is my way of telling you to go ahead and disregard this post; it’s really just me working through some stuff. You don’t need to see it. Go on: piss off.

Because it’s Christmas I thought I’d ease myself back in with something simple and tasty. And, preferably, alcoholic.

My inspiration for today’s experiment came by the way of Glyn Hughes’ The Lost Feast of Christmas. Specifically, it came from Robert May’s 1660 work The Accomplisht Cook, and it was for Buttered Beer.

May was 72 when he wrote his work, a collection of largely unrestrained recipes for the Restoration nobility, gathered from his experiences as a professionally trained chef. Rather sweetly, he addresses fellow cooks in his preliminary remarks on cooking, calling them ‘most worthy artists’ and hopes that they will find his writings helpful and insightful when beginning or continuing on their own career.

You just don’t get titles like this anymore

Buttered Beer or Ale Otherways

Boil beer or ale and scum it, then have six eggs, whites and all, and beat them in a flaggon or quart pot with the shells, some butter, sugar, and nutmeg, put them together, and being well brewed, drink it when you go to bed.

Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook

This seemed like the thing I was looking for: comforting, sweet and a good excuse to go to bed early. Interestingly, the recipe appeared under the chapter ‘Pottages for Fish Days’, suggesting (but not necessarily meaning) that it was considered relatively restrained; fish day referred to a time of relative abstinence when meat and dairy were cut down or avoided.

If you want to know more about 17th century beer check out this blog . Suffice to say, it was a little different from the mass produced ales of today. Unfortunately, the mass produced ales of today were all I had, and the guy in Sainsbury’s stared at me with a look akin to that of a turkey witnessing the approaching knife when I asked him to show me to his selection of historically accurate beverages.

I listened politely as he read out the blurb on the back of the bottle – the same one I’d just read myself – and decided to go for a traditional amber ale with an alcohol volume of 4.7%.

The next thing I remembered, with utter joy, was how fond people in the past were of not including accurate measurements. How much beer? Scrap that – how much butter? It was a titular ingredient and given the call for six eggs I feared we might be dealing in kilos rather than grams.

I muddled by on what I thought were appropriately scaled down quantities of butter and eggs. The recipe called for the egg shells to be included in the egg/sugar/butter mixture, but didn’t explain why. My only thought was that egg shells were used in other 17th century wine making recipes to clear the liquid.

This seemed unlikely to be the reason here, though, as the addition of butter ensured the finished product was always going to be cloudy. Apparently cowboys in the American West added egg shells to their coffee as they brewed it over campfires in order to mellow the taste by absorbing acidic tannins. Could it be that egg shells were added to beer to reduce the tannins in beer, thereby reducing astringency? I didn’t know, but the end result was pretty smooth and mellow, so maybe!

Once the beer was boiled and cooled a little, the egg mixture was added and whisked continuously for a few minutes before the whole thing was strained and poured out. Finally, it was bedtime time to drink.

I’d forgotten how to do soft wanky arty focus. Soon remembered though!

All in all, this was not too bad. Not too bad at all. It was very rich and thick, almost dessert like and there was a hint of brandy and Christmas pudding to it (though that might have been psychosomatic given the context.) I don’t actually like beer but found I could drink half of this easily. If you like snowballs or eggnog, I’d seriously think about adding this to your repertoire too.

Merry Christmas!

E x

* Some of you. At least one of you, surely.

Buttered Beer

500ml amber ale
30g caster sugar
20g butter
2 eggs

  1. Heat the beer until boiling, then remove from heat immediately.
  2. Grate nutmeg to taste into the cooling beer and let stand.
  3. In a bowl, whisk the eggs with their shells.
  4. Add the sugar and butter to the egg mixture and whisk.
  5. Add the egg/sugar/butter mix to the cooled beer and whisk continuously.
  6. When fully combined (and hopefully not curdled), strain the beer through a strainer and serve with grated nutmeg.

Recipe review: Clarified Punch or “Cup of Stars” from A Gothic Cookbook

I woke suddenly, already knowing the creature was in the room before I saw her. I kept my eyes closed, heart thumping, as the door squeaked open quietly and yet somehow with the impact of an orchestra of foghorns. The orange lamplight glow on my eyelids flickered as the beast crossed the window towards my bedside…

The stench about her was reminiscent of a city on a hot day. She stopped. I heard her paw the ground and imagined twisted claws as sharp as knives tearing through the carpet. The mattress bowed as she heaved her stinking form beside me which was when I finally mustered the courage to open one eye: Matted hair, eyes and skin and teeth glowing in the moonlight. She lunged towards me, mouth in a gaping open howl of an O and an ink-black throat that swallowed my own scream and mingled it with her wail:

“I need a pooooo!”

Okay, so it’s not going to win gothic of the year. But a terrifying midnight waking from a squitty child (mine, I should specify), a few nights ago did at least provide me with a decent opening into today’s creepy post, which comes courtesy of the creators of A Gothic Cookbook – a fully illustrated collection of recipes from some of the finest gothic stories in literature.

I was given the opportunity to try out a recipe and jumped at the chance with more excitement than Dracula at an open window. But before I reveal which recipe and book, here are a few words from Ella Buchan, one of the creatives of A Gothic Cookbook.

What is A Gothic Cookbook all about?

A Gothic Cookbook is, first and foremost, a celebration of food in Gothic literature. It’s about highlighting how authors in the genre, from the Romantic era to contemporary novelists, write evocatively about food. They use it, to varying degrees, to heighten tension, spotlight inequalities, highlight oppression, create a queasy unease, portend doom, reignite memories (warm or terrifying), or to warn of a greedy, gluttonous, dangerous nature.

So what can we expect to see?

Each of 13 chapters focuses on a Gothic tale, from Dracula and Frankenstein to Beloved and The Haunting of Hill House, and discusses how food manifests itself in that story before presenting the reader with recipes inspired by the text. From Rosemary’s Baby, for example, the mousse with the “chalky undertaste” becomes individual Chalk & Chocolate Mousses, with the dark dessert topped with peaks of white chocolate mousse and a walnut. We’ve recreated the Paprika Hendl that Jonathan Harker loved so much he jotted a note to “get recipe for Mina”, and our Rebecca chapter has chicken in aspic (from the ball) and the entire, lavish afternoon tea spread served each day (at half past four) in Manderley.

How do you decide what to include?

Each recipe is either based on a dish mentioned or described in the book, inspired by ingredients and themes that dominate in the story, or has a tale to tell about the author (such as a vermicelli dish galvanised with a lively herb sauce, in homage to Mary Shelley’s tale of being inspired by an experiment that saw a piece of pasta begin to move…)

The book will also include drinks and cocktails, from a breakfast-worthy hot chocolate (Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber) to a tangerine sour based on the “bitter” segments that tried so hard to warn the second Mrs de Winter not to become the second Mrs de Winter.

We’ve also created a beautiful cocktail booklet exclusively available via the crowdfunding campaign, with libations such as this “Cup of Stars” cocktail – a nod to the famous passage in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. We chose a clarified rum punch because it has an interesting history, dating back to at least the 18th century, because it’s milk-based (like the drink the little girl loved to sip from her cup of stars), and because it’s just really delicious.

Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped
you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it…

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Design by Ounce of Style

So there you go: today’s experiment is Clarified Milk Punch, or “Cup of Stars”, inspired by The Haunting of Hill House. This recipe comes from the cocktail booklet which accompanies A Gothic Cookbook. Thank you Ella for letting me loose on your creation!

Clarified Milk Punch or Cup of Stars


4-5 green or white tea bags
200g sugar
Cinnamon stick and star anise (optional)
600ml just-boiled water
3 lemons, zest and juice
600ml rum
500ml whole milk


1. Add tea bags, sugar and spices (if using) to a medium mixing bowl or saucepan, pour over boiled water, stir, and steep for around 5-10 minutes. Fish out the tea bags and spices and add lemon zest and juice.

2. Add the rum and stir well.

3. Pour the milk into a separate, large bowl and pour the punch mixture into it, stirring well. It will curdle, as it should.

4. Leave for half an hour to 45 minutes and strain through a sieve lined with muslin cloth. This can take a while, so leave to one side and let it work its magic.

5. Strain again (through the same sieve) and repeat until beautifully clear. You can reserve the curd-like remnants for baking, mixing into cheesecake recipes, or spreading on crackers.

6. Pour into sterilised glass jars or bottles and seal tightly. The punch will keep well, unopened, in the fridge for around 2 months.

7. Serve over ice and garnished with a lemon twist, ideally in cups with stars at the bottom.

In the absence of a cup with stars on the bottom, I strew sugar stars around the plate. Bit of a mistake; the combination of milk bottle, straw and cake decorations made my 3-year old daughter think this was all for her.


This recipe makes enough for about ten servings and suggests that it should keep refrigerated, in unopened sterilised bottles, for about two months. In all honesty my husband and I made it four days into the suggested two month shelf life before we’d finished it all, such was our greed.

I used dark rum which meant my Cup of Stars was slightly more golden than it would have been if I’d used white rum, though I think either type would work well. I’ll also admit that I was too impatient to continue straining the drink until it was “beautifully clear” – I made three cycles through a muslin cloth before my impatience got the better of me, forcing me to settle on “coquettishly murky” rather than gorgeous and translucent. No matter; it still looked and tasted fantastic and after a day in the fridge the remaining cocktail had cleared to a perfectly clear straw coloured liquid.

I’m not normally a liquor fan, but this cocktail might just convert me. It was light and sweet with a refreshing lemony twist, but the rum still caught the back of my throat with its spicy, molasses-tinged heat. Beware: this might look like an innocent drink (especially if you opt to serve it in a cup with stars at the bottom!) but it packs a punch (insert your own pun about ‘seeing stars’ here.)

For more gloriously gothic recipes you need to check out A Gothic Cookbook. At the moment the book is in production, but you can bag yourself a copy – with optional extra goodies – by supporting the crowdfunder on Unbound here. And if that wasn’t good enough you can use the code GOTHSTAILS10 for 10% off pledges up to £100. The code will run until midnight on 19th August.

Oh – and you can also follow the team at A Gothic Cookbook on Twitter here to get your fix of Frankensteinian food and Drac-tastic (not a word) drinks!

E x

“A bowl of stale bread and stewed fruit keeps the doctor away…” Hydropathic pudding: 1894

It’s the start of the summer holidays, and what a year it’s been for teachers and students!

By 6pm on the last day of term I’m usually arse-deep into a profusion of cocktails of unhealthy quantities of alcohol and sugar (sorry for that image). But this year felt a bit different.

For one, it felt like a less triumphant end to term than previous years. After weeks of sanitising upon entering the classroom (“one squirt’s enough, Ryan!”), mask wearing (“for the last time, it goes over your nose, Ryan”) and learning ‘zones’, (“I don’t care if the year 7 toilet area is nicer than year 10’s, Ryan, you still can’t use it!”) the final day felt more like a hobble over the finish line rather than a victory parade. Maintaining COVID protocol and encouraging 1000 kids to as well had been truly exhausting, but somehow* our school managed to avoid the tsunami of cases that overwhelmed many other local schools by the end.

The second reason the end of term felt a little flat was because it was my last one (as a teacher at least). From September I’m off to become a student again and get my Masters. Will I return to teaching? Possibly (probably?) – it’s a career I’m passionate about and I really believe there are very few other jobs that will fulfil me like teaching did. But for now I’m going to try something else – wish me luck!

So I spent Friday evening reading my goodbye cards (“my favourite lesson was when we drew castles” – a supply lesson, as I was away that day…) and generally moping. Until my husband pointed out that with the longest summer holiday ahead of me, I had more time than ever before to focus on historical cooking.

Summer pudding…

He was right, and summer was making its presence felt with a week-long heatwave, so I decided my first foray into summer-hols-historical-cooking should be distinctly sunshiney. Summer pudding, anyone?

Summer pudding is something I remember eating once or twice as a child. I recall being in a gloriously sunny garden aged six or seven, sitting on a stripy deckchair and being handed a bowl of purple and pink bread with vanilla ice cream and thinking it was the oddest jam sandwich I’d ever seen. For the uninitiated: summer pudding is essentially stewed fruit which has been left to soak into a mould of stale bread. It should resemble a bright red/pink/purple dome which when cut into spills forth oozing summer fruits. It’s been decades since I last ate summer pudding and I’d come to associate it with other old fashioned desserts that are slowly dying out.

summer pudding with berries on blue table
The ideal, I’d say. Copyright: BBC Good Food.

Of course it’s not true that summer pudding is completely dying out; Nigella Lawson, pinnacle of modern British baking, includes an updated recipe in her most recent cookbook. Search ‘summer pudding’ in the BBC Good Food website and you’ll get a fair handful of decently reviewed recipes. But for some reason when I think of summertime desserts I think of lemon tart, choc ices and eton mess before I think of summer pudding.

Perhaps it’s the name. It’s too eager, isn’t it? Too full of hope, and if there’s one thing a Brit knows not to trust, it’s the promise of summer of any kind. So come July, we eschew summer pudding for something that can be enjoyed with less irony as the gazebo and BBQ collapse in gale force winds, and hypothermia sets upon Uncle Alan.

But as poor as it may be now, summer pudding’s branding problem is nothing compared to what it was.

…or hydropathic pudding?

Let’s be clear: summer pudding’s reputation and history is murky at best. How do you sell a dome of stale bread drenched in stewed fruit, which has spent 24 hours being squashed down by a plate laden with the heaviest kitchen objects you could find – a cafetiere of stale coffee and a bottle of ketchup balanced precariously atop a kilogram bag of sugar?

To find the first truly identifiable summer pudding reference I had to move my research to the 19th century, when summer pudding went by many different names, including the infinitely less marketable name ‘hydropathic pudding.’ Today’s experiment is from the earliest reference I could find to anything resembling summer pudding and comes from Lizzie Heritage’s 1894 work Cassell’s new universal cookery book.

Hydropathic Pudding

This has many names. It is very nice when properly prepared, and the pudding served very cold. Required: fruit, sugar, and bread. Cost, variable; generally moderate.

The nicest fruits for this are raspberries or currants, or a mixture, or strawberries, with or without a few red or black currants; plums are sometimes used. Take a plain mould, and cut a piece of bread to fit the bottom; then put fingers of bread round; the sides should be bevelled a little so that they overlap and prevent the escape of the fruit. The latter is stewed with enough sugar, and poured in, and a cover of bread put on. A plate with weights on is put on the top, and the pudding put in a cold place to set.

Another way is to line the mould, and then fill up with layers of bread and fruit; and if the bread is cut very thinly, this will be generally liked better than the first mode, as there is less fruit, and it suits the majority better. For a plainer dish a basin may be used, and slices of bread put to line it entirely; then either of the modes can be followed. These should be turned out with care, and may be served plain, or with a simply made custard. They are useful for those who cannot take pastry or rich puddings, and for children.”

Cassell’s New Universal Cookery Book, 1894.

As you can see, the recipe above is almost identical to summer puddings today, further cementing my feelings that it was a very old fashioned dessert. But I wondered: if nothing had changed, ingredients wise, then why the name swap?

References to “those who cannot take pastry” and the suggestions to serve it plain suggest that the pudding was offered as a healthy alternative to heavier steamed puddings that were popular at the same time.

Even more compelling to the ‘healthy’ origins of summer pudding is the original name: hydropathic pudding.

Hydropathy is/was a belief that water alone can cure ailments – be it through drinking particularly pure water or through the use of water therapies like bathing. Now, no one’s disputing that getting plenty of H20 in your system is a good thing, but believing that Radox and a rubber duck will cure you of your gluten intolerance is nonsense. While immersing yourself in water will certainly alleviate certain symptoms (e.g. joint pain or muscle inflammation), it’s unlikely to actually cure you of the actual illness.

The rise and rise of hydropathy

Hydropathy experienced a boom during the 19th century thanks to Austrian farmer Vincent Preissnitz who apparently cured his own broken ribs by wrapping his chest in damp bandages and drinking a lot of water. Inspired by the seemingly miraculous healing properties that clean water, stripped down diets and regular exercise had on patients abroad, English Captain Richard Tappin Claridge popularised hydropathy in Britain.

In 1842 he published Hydropathy; or The Cold Water Cure, as practiced by Vincent Priessnitz, which was an instant hit and ran to multiple editions within a few months. Hydropathy dealt mainly with the various forms of bath invalids could take**, but one chapter explained the diet that hydropathic spas should offer to their customers.

Ah, bottom left corner – my favourite: stand on a balcony wearing a sheet, looking into a bath.

Unsurprisingly, Claridge recommended a diet of water and cold foods. He explicitly stated that hot food or food that had “stimulating properties” such as spices or rich sauces should not be served. Furthermore, he states that the ideal breakfast consist of bread, cold milk (or water), and fruit. Fruit should be eaten cold and regularly, but only the types of fruit that grow naturally in Britain; according to Claridge, exotic fruits were often particularly juicy “to refresh the blood [of those who are] parched up by a burning sun” which is hardly an issue in Britain, so fruits such as mango or pineapple were thought to overstimulate the temperament of the average Brit, undoing the good work of previous hydropathy treatment.

Summer pudding – or rather, hydropathic pudding – fit the bill perfectly: cold, wet, bready and British summer-fruity, it must have had a prominent place on the dining tables of hydropathic spas.

But while holidays to spas were all well and good for the social elite of Europe, when it came to home dining frugal health food wasn’t something you necessarily wanted to serve to guests. Hydropathic pudding might sound enticing to someone who had survived four days on tepid mineral water and raw carrots, but in real life – where the cakes and buns exist – it just sounded… naff.

Hence the name change; by the early 20th century, hydropathic pudding had fallen out of recipe books and had been replaced with identical instructions for summer pudding instead, which was infinitely more appetizing and far less reminiscent of urine-filled pools and eggy smelling water.

Today’s experiment

Whatever you want to call it, the 1894 recipe I followed was delicious. Yes, I had to pour over extra syrup when I turned it out because not all the bread had soaked the juice up. And yes, I did get a tiny bit of ketchup on the bottom of my pudding because someone hadn’t screwed the cap on properly before I used it as a weight. But despite this, my summer pudding was divine: tart and sweet, spongy and, above all, summery.

I stuck mostly to blackcurrants and raspberries as per Heritage’s instructions and added a couple of extra layers of bread inside the pudding itself as she suggested, which went down very well. Rather than plain, as I suspect Claridge would have liked, we ate ours with clotted cream – healthiness be damned.

Would I make it again? Absolutely, and to be honest I don’t know why I don’t make it every summer. Perhaps it’s because it takes a little bit longer than other desserts because it has to be left for quite a while to soak. Perhaps it’s because it seems like a bit more of a faff than ripping open a Vienetta and going to sit in the paddling pool. But I suspect, really, it’s because of the reason I mentioned before: its name is too gloaty, too self-confident; the day after I made this the heatwave ended and the heavens opened. Summer pudding indeed.

Extra juice may or may not have been poured on top…

E x

*It wasn’t really “somehow”; it was down to exhaustive, careful planning by SLT – who worked really hard to keep everyone safe – and sheer luck. Also the fact that Ryan went on holiday the last week of term helped stop the spread within year 10.

**I couldn’t not tell you about one of Claridge’s specific types of bath: the douche bath. Here, he says people can find relief for afflicted parts of the body by stripping off and exposing themselves to the “powerful action” of running water. Now, I’m sure that some people genuinely used these douche baths for purely medicinal purposes, but Claridge’s slightly disapproving instruction to stop using them “when it produces feverish excitement” and that, for some reason, the average duration of a douche bath “is from three to fifteen minutes” and that “most of the patients…are very much pleased with this part of the treatment” suggests many hydropathy spa patients weren’t finding complete relaxation from drinking twenty glasses of water a day alone…

“It’s supposed to be bad. And the worse it is, the more fun it is”: Exploring Eurovision’s predecessors

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; Some of the entrances are from the roof, on high wires. And some are through pyrotechnic flames and glitter.”

So said Shakespeare* in 1599. He was, of course, talking about Eurovision.

Now listen up, Americans, because this may be new to you (although perhaps not after Will Ferrell’s film Fire Saga.) You may have the Super Bowl “world” championships, (in which the only country that enter is the USA) but us Europeans have Eurovision.

What is Eurovision?

There’s no real way to answer that. Imagine a stage lit up with a million bulbs, all flashing with enough intensity to induce some sort of fit, even in people with no pre-existing conditions. A crew of performers wearing either matching neon fancy dress, national costume, or almost nothing at all dances with varying degrees of ease. Someone is singing with extraordinary passion about a loved one, or freedom, or ‘finding themselves’ or the battle of Waterloo. Half of the song will be in English, half of it (the most passionate half) will be in another language). Australia might or might not be there too.

At some point the performer might raise their arms up to reveal an enormous set of fully-feathered wings attached to the back of their dress. If not, there’s a good chance they’ll have a full costume change by the end of the song instead. For no discernable reason, someone will be in a human sized hamster wheel (Will Ferrell was right about that, at least).

Half way through the song the key will change. Thirty seconds later it will change again. If the singer is a woman the key will continue to rise until she is sure to break every pane of glass in the stadium. Someone will be playing the piano or saxophone, despite the fact they clearly can’t. Impossibly muscle-y men will writhe onto the stage, covered in oil, and the singer will awkwardly stroke one of them, like a pet owner stroking a puppy.

A naked man in full body paint might run across the stage with a political message daubed onto his chest but in his exuberance he’ll have run too fast and no one will be able to work out what his message was. At this point, everyone will stop watching the show and will turn to Twitter. Then a glitter cannon explodes, signalling the end of the song and covering the frenzied audience in a billion gold dust particles before the whole thing starts again with a new set of performers.

Now imagine all of that crammed into 3 minutes. And the stage is on fire/rotating/projecting lasers (pick at least two.)

That’s Eurovision.

Photograph of performance of "Love Love Peace Peace" at the 2016 grand final: Petra Mede and Måns Zelmerlöw perform on stage surrounded by performers dressed in costumes of past Eurovision acts
Grannies, demons, topless drummers, sexy milkmaids and a white grand piano: classic Eurovision.
Credit Albin Olsson

I need a lie down

It’s the greatest night of the year. Almost 200 million people from across Europe tune in to give the UK nil points and make pseudo-intellectual comments about political voting (oh, look – Cyprus gave Greece 12 points? Would never have seen that coming!) This year, post-Brexit, promises to be super successful for us in the UK.

But is this crazy, bright, brilliant night a 20th century invention, or are its roots much older?

Well, they’re older, obviously – or else what would be the point of this post?

Today I’m taking a quick tour of singing contests of Europe’s history to see how well Eurovision would have fitted in with events of the past.

The Pythian Games: Ancient Greece

Let’s start with a familiar one, shall we.

Greece has been a member of Eurovision since 1974. But before that, it had a festival of arts and entertainment all for itself.

The Pythian games were held predominately at Delphi in honour of the god Apollo. They were ranked second in importance next to the Olympics – so you could say they were a Big Deal.

Pausanias, the second century traveller and writer, gives a detailed account of what the games entailed:

The oldest contest and the one for which they first offered prizes was… the singing of a hymn to the god.

… But they say that Orpheus, a proud man and conceited about his mysteries… refused to submit to the competition in musical skill.

They say too that Eleuther won a Pythian victory for his loud and sweet voice, for the song he sang was not of his own composition. The story is that Hesiod too was debarred from competing because he had not learned to accompany his own singing on the harp.

… At the second Pythian Festival they no longer offered prizes for events, adn hereafter gave a crown for victory. On this occasion they no longer included singing to the flute… for the tunes of the flute were most dismal…

Pausanias, Description of Greece

Pausanias’ account of the Pythian games shows a surprising number of parallels with Eurovision.

Firstly, the idea that some people are ‘too good’ for the competition. Pausanias had Orpheus, a legendary Greek poet and musician who clearly felt the Pythian games were beneath him. In 2009 the UK had Rita Ora – a then relatively unknown singer who was selected to represent the country at the competition but pulled out, later saying “Imagine! If I’d stayed, it would probably have been all over for me. At best, I’d be a contestant on that diving show…?’ Splash!?”

Cesare Gennari Orfeo.jpg
Orpheus – too good for the Pythian games, but was he good enough for Eurovision?

Of course Orpheus and Ora might be right – singing competitions can be a bit naff and Eurovision especially has a reputation for humiliating acts that take themselves too seriously.

Still, ABBA did OK out of it…

Secondly, Pausanias alludes to certain rules – that contestants were supposed to compose their own songs and perform them with accompaniments.

Technically a performer can enter Eurovision without any instruments other than their voice, but they wouldn’t stand a chance. As for the song itself, yet again there are parallels between the games and the modern day competition; the rules of Eurovision state that a song cannot be publicly released before a certain date (usually around a month or so before the main event) – meaning that it must be a new song and not a cover or performance by an established band of their own already released material.

And finally – the flutes, of which Pausanias was clearly not a fan. But neither, it seems, are the judges at Eurovision who have never, not once in the history of the competition, allowed purely instrumental performances.

Sängerkrieg and Eisteddfod

Sounds like the name of a Eurovision group.

According to German literature, the Sängerkrieg was a 13th century singing contest between 6 minstrels in order to find who was best placed to sing the praises of princes. The judges were to be the Count and Countess of Thuringia. The story contains trickery, peril and wizards, so not too far off the standard Eurovision fare.

In the end a minstrel called Wolfram won the contest by singing such beautiful music about God that the devil (who had been summoned by the wizard to defeat the minstrel – do keep up) fell down, exhausted.

Whether the Sängerkrieg actually happened is murky, but what isn’t is the Eisteddfod.

The Eisteddfod is an ancient Welsh tradition of musical and literary competition where bards and performers would gather to sing it out for the privilege of being judged by the royal kings of the time.

The first documented Eisteddfod was hosted by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1176 but it’s likely the tradition stretches back further than this. In 1523 an Eisteddfod was held in Flintshire where a statute was drawn up detailing what the bards who were due to compete could and could not do. The statute stated that bards could not drink, womanize or gamble.

Rhys ap Gryffydd getting excited for the next performer.

Now I’ve never been to a backstage Eurovision party but judging by the performances I think it’s safe to assume that each one of these rules is soundly broken every year. In fact, gambling on who the winner will be though sweepstakes and bingo cards is pretty much compulsory where I am. This year, with coronavirus restrictions in place, will therefore perhaps be the first time all of the rules are adhered to.

As well as stating what the behaviour of the performers should be like, the statue also decreed that no bard worthy of his salt would perform “satirical” songs. Often political in nature, satirical songs would poke fun at the ruling classes and restrictions placed on the working people.

Clearly the powers that be were concerned with unpleasant tensions and controversial messages being spread through the performances, and the overseers of Eurovision must have similar concerns, because today every singer must operate under restrictions that prohibit songs and performances that are political or commercial.

Not that that rule is always stuck to, of course. In 2009, following conflict between Russia and Georgia, Georgia’s entry was criticised for being too anti-Putin (to make things more awkward, Russia was the host of the competition that year). When the Georgian delegates refused to change the lyrics, they were told to withdraw from the competition. In a similar way, in the sixteenth century a bard called Richard Gyyn was caught singing without a license he was accused of refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and for criticising the practices of the protestant church including “certain rhymes of his own making against married priests and ministers”.

Unfortunately for Richard it seemed Elizabeth (who feared the Welsh were plotting against her and the Church of England) wanted to make an example of his satirical songs. He was hung, drawn and quartered on 15 October 1584.

Victorian Opera

And so we arrive in Britain in the 19th century, where a new form of entertainment – full of drama, divas and divine dresses – was taking hold: opera.

If the costumes of Eurovision are extravagant then the costumes of 19th century divas were out of this world lavish. Adelina Patti, a darling of the opera scene at this time, once required a police escort at her Covent Garden performance of Verdi’s La Traviata after she had her jewellery taken apart and sewn onto the bodice of her costume – all £200,000 worth of it.

But an emphasis on the aesthetics could sometimes come at a cost to the performance itself. The French composer Berlioz commented at the time that the “music of the Italians is a sensual pleasure and nothing more… They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without having to think about it.” Berlioz was famously anti-Italian in his musical choices, but his criticism of how unchallenging and vanilla opera was is echoed today by some Eurovision enthusiasts.

Now I’m not saying Eurovision attracts the same standard of critic, but every year there are murmurings online that the songs are becoming more and more ‘radio-ready’ and the performances less unique as singers use the show to launch their careers. A few years ago we had performers like Conchita Wurst and Verka Serduchka who didn’t give a damn about what they were ‘supposed’ to look and sound like – now we have mostly very conventionally beautiful people wearing very beautiful gowns singing very beautifully about the struggles of the beautiful. Close your eyes today and you might find it hard to tell where one song ends and another begins.

Of course this isn’t completely true – one or two truly wow acts stand out every year. There’s always the performer who croons a little too much to the camera, or the one whose dress design looks like she’s sucked up a muddy puddle, or the singer who reaches notes only heard by dogs.

In 1821 Giuditta Pasta played the role of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello. Not only was her voice well received, but her showmanship held her audience absolutely captive. Her career continued after this part, with composers falling over themselves to write roles specifically for her. Even when she was too old to perform confidently, she continued to give performances with the singer Pauline Viardot commenting that Pasta was like the da Vinci painting The Last Supper: “a wreck of a picture, but it is the greatest picture in the world.”

Which brings us to the most famous Eurovision performance – one that won acclaim during the show itself but also spawned a successful career. Of course, I’m talking about ABBA.

Eurovision winners in 1974, ABBA went on to sell at least 200 million records worldwide. They are – to this day – the best selling Swedish band of all time. With eight UK number one albums and a Wikipedia page just for their awards and nominations, ABBA stands as the goal for all Eurovision entrants, proving once and for all that if you can embrace campness and novelty, Eurovision can be a career making event.

Have a happy Eurovision everyone!

So to any Americans watching for the first time – welcome. You won’t understand it all – nobody does – but if you can make it through the strobe lights, gyrating and 100 hour long voting system, you’re guaranteed to have a fantastic night. Happy Eurovision!

E x

*Seriously, people?!

No such thing as a bad sandwich?Three historical sandwiches you won’t find in a meal deal

This past week was British Sandwich Week, so in honour of this most auspicious of occasions I thought I’d try out something a little different. After all, as the saying goes: “once you tire of sandwiches, you tire of life.”

The sandwich is one of my personal favourite foods; sweet, savoury, hot or cold – there is a sandwich out there for everyone. Perhaps you’re adventurous and won’t touch anything unless it contains whopping slices of 2-day marinated meat, at least three types of mayo and some sort of “slaw”. Maybe you prefer to keep it simple with a couple of slices of cheese and, if you’re feeling particularly daring, a smear of chutney.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys a chip butty, good news: they count too! We don’t discriminate in the sandwich circle. There genuinely is no bad sandwich (apart from Tesco’s no-butter, no-mayo, wafer-thin ham. Dear God, why?)

Until recently, I thought that my marriage was built on the standard values of matrimony: love, respect and a mutual adoration of picnic food. Just this morning, however, my husband confessed to me that after working from home for so long he’s come to view sandwiches as – and I quote – “a bit of a ballache to make” and has switched his lunchtime allegiance to pot noodles.

So once again I find myself in the market for a new husband. Potential suitors please apply via my contact page.

The history of sandwiches.

We know the story, right? During a game of cards, John Montagu – 4th Earl of Sandwich – was so engrossed that he asked his servants to bring him a slice of meat between bread, rather than step away from the gambling table for his dinner. Thus the humble sandwich was born.

John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.jpg
John Montagu mentally ranking all the sandwiches he had ever eaten.

Except that might not be 100% true. The first time this story is mentioned is in Pierre-Jean Grosley’s 1770 work A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants. Just in case his name wasn’t a giveaway, Monsieur Grosley was French, and his book was a collection of fairly dry remarks about the English.

Take, for example, his comments on trade between England and France which, were it not for the flowery language, could be straight from the pages of a post-Brexit trade agreement today:

…Whilst England draws articles of importance from France, such as wines, silks, etc., she supplies the French in return with nothing but trifles of little or no value.”

 A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants.

The origin of the sandwich itself is treated in fairly understated terms, considering how popular it would become. Grosely seemed more concerned with the fact it was being used as a means to allow “destructive” habits to continue:

The English, who are profound thinkers, violent in their desires, and who carry all their passions to excess, are altogether extravagant in the article of gaming: several rich noblemen are said to have ruined themselves by it… A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorbed in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, without ever quitting the game.”

 A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants.

Of course this quote does rather beg the question: did he use the toilet at all in that 24 hours?

Grosley’s story could of course be completely true, but it could also be a dig at the slovenly ways of the English: too addicted to gambling to rise from their card games and too vulgar to appreciate anything more sophisticated than hunks of meat in bread.

The second problem with Grosley’s story is that it appears 8 years after the first literary reference to sandwiches. In the 1762 Journal of Edward Gibbon, he mentions men at a club dining on sandwiches:

“I dined at the Cocoa Tree. That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being a member, affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”

Journal of Edward Gibbon.

So either Grosley got his dates wrong and was recounting an earlier story, or he wasn’t witness to the creation of the very first sandwich after all.

So no sandwiches before the 18th century?

Though the term ‘sandwich’ might be an 18th century invention, putting meat, or cheese, or veg into bread isn’t. In fact, it’s not even an English invention.

Every culture has its own version of the sandwich, and the origins of using bread to hold a filling is probably as old as bread itself – in which case we’re talking neolithic, some some 12,000 years ago.

The 1st century Jewish teacher Hillel the Elder instituted the eating of a ‘sandwich’ using matzah (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs) on Passover. By eating this sandwich – called korech – he said that Jewish people would experience the taste of both the bitterness of slavery and sweetness of freedom.

Ancient Babylonian cylinders also show depictions of flatbreads with meat on top of them in what Cathy Kaufman suggests may have been forerunners of souvlaki sandwiches. Historians A.W. Lassen, E. Frahm and K. Wagensonner highlight a humorous cuneiform text known as “The Infernal Kitchen” which contains an allusion to bread with a filling:

Month of Šabaṭu, what is your food?
– You shall eat still hot bread with the buttock of a donkey stallion stuffed with dog excrement and the excrement of dust flies.

A literal shit sandwich.*

Ancient Babylonians debating the merits of margarine over butter.
Photo by Nic McPhee.

As the authors point out, this ‘recipe’ is not a real one, but one that combines authentic elements with ridiculous ones to create a semi-satirical commentary on food preparation and reliance on seasonal ingredients.

Please don’t make that.

You just can’t get hold of donkey buttock anymore.

Anyway, in honour of British Sandwich Week I decided to make three sandwiches that you don’t see on cafe menus anymore.

For ease and clarity I’ve decided to use only recipes that refer to sandwiches – rather than meat on flatbread or cheese stuffed rolls or the like.

Cheshire Sandwich

The first is found in John Farley’s 1811 work The London Art of Cookery and is called a Cheshire Sandwich.

TAKE anchovies, Cheshire cheese, and butter, in equal proportions; made mustard to the palate; pound well in a marble mortar, and with this composition spread thin slices of bread, and cover with thin slices of any kind of cold meat, and again with bread, & cut into shapes.

The London Art of Cookery

This actually didn’t sound too bad at all. In fact, it sounded like something I would choose to eat already – and had. A week ago or so I attempted a WW1 version of this (almost identical except for the meat), and it was very pleasant. Salty and very savoury, this was a sandwich I was looking forward to.

I chose beef as my cold meat in honour of the Earl of Sandwich but honestly I think I would have preferred it without. The beef just added another flavour to what was already a pretty bold palate and I’m not 100% sure it all worked together. 6/10.

Toast Sandwich

The next sammie was from the trustiest Victorian stalwart of all: Mrs Beeton.

A few years ago I went out to lunch with a friend who ordered a hash brown sandwich with bread sauce on the side. At the time I made fun of her carbohydrate obsession. But it turns out her love of carbs may have had a Victorian precedent:

Place a very thin piece of cold toast between 2 slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt.

The Book of Household Management

I mean, Beeton had given up by that point in the book, hadn’t she? I imagined her writing this recipe out as a dare, chuckling to herself as she wondered which idiot – which unsophisticated, dullen palated dunce – would bother making a bread sandwich?

Anyway, I popped a slice of bread into the toaster and then tried to forget about it until it had gone cold – an easy feat as I’m a mum to a toddler; I can’t remember the last time I got to eat something straight away.

This was not terrible, but definitely not what I’d call a sandwich. It was just three slices of salty bread – one of them slightly crunchier than the other – with butter. Decent, but not delicious. 4/10.

Dandelion leaves and Worcester Sauce Sandwich

Leave the weirdest til last, right?

This recipe is from Florence White’s Good Things in England and is a recipe she claims dates to 1929.

Thin slices of nicely buttered white bread, with just a speck of Worcester sauce spread on them, sprinkled thickly with finely chopped young dandelion leaves, and covered with a thin slice of brown bread and butter.

Good Things in England

Finally – an excuse not to cut the lawn! Dandelion leaves get bitter as they age so choosing young leaves was important here. I managed to grab a soggy handful from the garden that seemed small and fresh and onto a Worcester sauce specked slice of bread they went.

This was an odd one. It wasn’t unpleasant but butter was the main taste, with a very green, quite bitter herbal aftertaste at the back of my throat. Perhaps my leaves weren’t as young as I’d thought. 5/10.

L to R: Cheshire, Dandelion leaf, Toast.
I haven’t added the second layer of bread in order to show off these highly photogenic fillings.

No such thing as a bad sandwich?

I still stand by this – sandwiches are the greatest invention of all time and unless you hate sandwiches and only like boring, butterless, plastic cheese on plastic bread type things you really can’t go wrong.

Were these sandwiches ‘perfect’? No, not even close. No sooner had I finished my dandelion lead concoction I made a peanut butter and golden syrup sandwich for pudding and to get the slightly bitter taste out of my mouth. And as I munched on that delicious bready treat I realised that maybe not every sandwich was meant to be perfect; maybe some are there to remind us of the really great sandwiches of our past, and encourage us to keep searching for the truly remarkable sandwiches of our futures.

E x

*I also toyed with a joke about “ass ass”.

Dandelion and Worcester Sauce Sandwich

A handful of young dandelion leaves
A slice of brown bread and a slice of white bread
Worcester sauce

  1. Butter a slice of white bread and shake a few drops of Worcester sauce on top.
  2. Wash and finely chop your dandelion leaves and strew them over the buttered bread.
  3. Butter a slice of brown bread and place on top.

Toast Sandwich

3 slices of bread
Salt and Pepper

  1. Toast one slice of bread
  2. While waiting, butter the other slices of bread.
  3. Once the bread has toasted, let it cool and then roll it out thinly with a rolling pin.
  4. Sprinkle the toast with salt and pepper, and lay in between the slices of buttered bread.

Cheshire Sandwich

3 anchovies
A handful of grated cheshire cheese
A tablespoon of butter
A slice of meat
Mustard powder

  1. Pound the anchovies into a paste in a pestle and mortar.
  2. Add the mustard, cheese and butter and then mix to combine and form a smooth paste.
  3. Spread this on a slice of bread and then top with a slice of meat.
  4. Butter another slice of bread and lay on top.

New kid on the (writer’s) block: A history of writer’s block through food

Here’s a funny joke: writer’s block when you’re not a writer.

I know I write but as I don’t do it for a living I really thought I’d get only the fun and none of the pain with this hobby.

For a week or so I’ve been wracking my brains: could I write about the history of spoons? Seasonal vegetables? Dare I attempt another goat recipe? Nothing captured my attention and the more I tried to sit down and get something – anything – down, the more I found myself sinking miserably into season 6 of Schitt’s Creek instead.

So in true writer’s cliche style I’m attempting to break my writer’s block by writing about writer’s block and its relationship to food. Feel free to switch off now because I’m pretty sure this will be painful to write and even more painful to read.

Have you tried going for a long walk?

Yep. It didn’t work.

In fact I walked all the way back to ancient Greece, figuring that the culture which developed Western philosophies and art could surely shed some light on my congested creativity.

Ancient philosophers weren’t only writing to be read, they were writing to be heard, too. Plato wasn’t standing on his soapbox spontaneously spouting out his beliefs about mankind and nature; rhetoricians constructed their arguments beforehand so as to be most convincing and engaging before they gave their speeches.

Jonathan wished Dave wouldn’t get so lairy at these things.

This made for a polished speech, but it meant that ancient writers didn’t grapple with the notion of writer’s block in the way we do today. Firstly, as Irene Clark points out, speakers would be addressing current events or topics with a view to ‘solving’ issues and were therefore imbued with a sense of purpose beyond really wanting people to know about the history of spoons.

Secondly, and in terms of creative writing rather than speechwriting, how people viewed ideas and inspiration was different to how we do today. For many, inspiration was a gift from the muses – you were either worthy enough of this gift or you weren’t. Great creative writing was therefore divinely ordained and nothing to do with a mortal’s ability to imagine new ideas and convert those ideas into writing.

If we were back in Ancient Greece my malaise – or its symptoms – would probably be classed as ‘melancholy’ – a humoral diagnosis that school textbooks will tell you meant depression but also covered more general lethargy, wistfulness and restlessness too. This term was coined by the 5th century BC physician Hippocrates who noted that bouts of melancholia were more likely in springtime, along with “epileptic disorders, bloody flux, quinsy, coryza, hoarseness, cough[s] [and] leprosy…” …Yay.

Though Hippocrates had no cure for writer’s block per se, he did recommend a cure for “anxiety, yawning [and] rigor” which was to drink a glass of wine mixed with an equal amount of water. However, I decided that my case was so great that I could probably forgo the water.

Winebottle in hand, I sat down to see if there was any other ancient wisdom that could help me.

Seneca, the 1st century CE philosopher wrote about feelings of ennui which were perhaps closer to my emotions than melancholy.

Who Is Seneca? Timeless Wisdom from the World's Most Controversial Stoic
It took a team of four strong men to bathe Seneca.

“Here comes…a thousand waverings of the unsteadfast mind, which is held in suspense by unfulfilled hopes, and saddened by disappointed ones: hence comes the state of mind of those who loathe their idleness [and] complain that they have nothing to do.”

While I’m not sure I could describe an unwritten blog post on the history of spoons as an “unfulfilled hope held in suspense”, the sentiment was there – my mind was idle. So what was Seneca’s remedy?

“Occupy oneself with business, with the management of affairs and the duties of a citizen… to benefit individual men and mankind alike, both with intellect, voice and advice.”

I’d never thought of my blog benefitting the whole of mankind before, but I had to admit my chest puffed up a bit when I read Seneca’s words. The whole of mankind, eh? Well, when you put it like that…

Nice to see your ego hasn’t been affected by this block

Shut up, inner voice.

Trouble was, Seneca was a Stoic who believed that food was just a vehicle to stop hunger. He advocated for a very simple diet and turned his nose up at over indulgent or rich foods. Even more, he suggested that luxurious eating could cause certain illnesses and argued that to seek out expensive and lavish food rather then eat what was cheap, simple and readily available was the real sign of mental imbalance: “A hankering after delicacies is a sign of self-indulgence; by the same token, avoidance of those comforts that are quite ordinary and easy to obtain is an indication of insanity”.

The trend of linking food and melancholy continued through the ages. By the 15th century, scholars such as Marsilio Ficino ruled out certain foods which were believed to bring on bouts of melancholy, such as “burned food” and “old cheese”. No hardship to avoid these, but instructions to abstain from fried food, rich food and wine might be slightly harder to stick to.

And then, in the 17th century, something quite remarkable happened – the first full length look at melancholy as a subject in its own right.

In 1621, English writer Robert Burton published a book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Or to give it its full title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. Which would have intrigued me, had I not been suffering from melancholy and lost the will to read on half way through the first title-sentence.

The Anatomy of Melancholy - Wikipedia

Luckily for me, Jonathan Sadowsky (a medical historian at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio) has read and dissected Burton’s work, which was so popular that it was republished multiple times over the first few decades of its existence. Like me, Burton wrote about melancholy “by being busy to avoid melancholy”.

Burton thought of melancholy as something more than an imbalance and viewed it as a deeply complex range of emotions, including “…heaviness or vexation of spirit…and lumpish[ness]” Again, there was no reference to writer’s block specifically but after a quick glance in the mirror I had to admit that after a week of consolatory biscuits my ‘lumpishness’ could not be denied. Perhaps his book was what I needed after all.

“Member II” of the book contained a list of foods to avoid if trying to get over a bout of melancholy/lumpishness. A long list. A very long list. If you have time you can read the full list here but the headlines include beef, pork, goat (thank God), venison, rabbit, milk, chicken, fish, cucumber, cabbage, melon, ALL FRUIT, ALL PULSES, honey, ginger, pepper, sugar, bread made of anything but wheat, wine and beer.

T’would appear Burton’s remedy for lumpishness was starvation.

Getting off topic…

By the 18th and 19th centuries, writers were back on the idea that inspiration could be given or blocked by unknown forces.

In 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously wrote “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month – O Sorrow and Shame… I have done nothing!”

English Romantics like Coleridge were pretty aware of the effects of writer’s block but had no definitive way to cure it, other than sighing despondently and looking out of rainy windows. I’ve tried both, neither works.

But writing just after the time of the English Romantics, the British doctor George Blandford may have had some idea of how to cure the poets’ ailments:

“Before getting out of bed in the morning, [nervous or depressed patients should drink] rum and milk, or egg and sherry; breakfast of meat, eggs, and café au lait, or cocoa; beef tea, with a glass of port, at eleven o’clock; and a good dinner or lunch at two, with a couple of glasses of sherry; at four, some more beef-tea, or an equivalent; at seven, dinner or supper, with stout and port wine; and at bed-time, stout or ale, with the chloral or morphia.”

I’ve actually tried beef tea before and let me tell you: never again. Nevertheless I felt it was at least worth exploring the medical properties of Blandford’s multi-course regime of alcohol and meaty dinners.

Sadly for pre 20th century writers, it wasn’t until 1947 that writer’s block even had a name. Coined by Austrian psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, the idea of suffering from lack of inspiration or motivation became less about airy fairy ideas of tortured artists denied by gods, and more about science.

Edmund Bergler
No you’re not imagining it – he is judging you.

Amazingly, Bergler also believed that writer’s block was inherently linked to food – of a kind. A huge Freudian theorist, Bergler argued that writer’s block was caused by mothers who refused or were unable to breastfeed their babies. Trapped by rage towards their mothers, people who grew up to suffer writer’s block were – in Bergler’s mind – experiencing a physical representation of the emotional starvation they had experienced as children.

“I have never seen a ‘normal’ writer” Bergler declared. All writers were, to him, megalomaniacs “entirely surrounded by neuroticism in private life.” Moreover, he wrote that “every writer, without exception, is a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an ‘injustice collector’ and a depressed person constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity.”


So are you still blocked?

Who knows. Maybe that spoons post will see the light of day, maybe not. At the end of this all I know is three things:

  1. Writer’s block, or the associated emotions, are not new.
  2. Despite the literally thousands of years people have had to figure it out, no one has come up with a watertight solution to it.
  3. I probably shouldn’t mention this post to my mum without deleting Bergler’s comments first.

And on that note, I’m out.

E x