Pancake Day…with a twist

Yesterday was pancake day – a day as good as Christmas, if not better.

Think about it: there’s no wrapping or unwrapping to be done. There are no strange men clambering down your chimney to judge you for being bad or good. Most importantly – for me, at least – there’s a distinct lack of glitter or loud toys for my daughter to rip into and play with for hours and hours.

Instead there’s just warm pancakey goodness. Topped with sugar and lemon (the only acceptable way to eat them, in my not-so-humble opinion), or golden syrup, pancakes are one of my favourite foods and pancake day is one of the best days of the year.

This year I tried a new type of pancake – a 19th century recipe that used snow instead of eggs. I managed to collect a bowl of (clean!) snow from the garden before it melted away and spent a day experimenting. In another twist I videoed my experience, which you can watch below if you have nothing better to do with your time.

Don’t worry, fans of the written word (and fans who can put their love of the written word to one side in order to support this blog), I’ll still be writing. I’ll probably write about food history a little more often than recipes, but the odd one may slip in occasionally.

In the meantime, enjoy my dulcet tones and enjoy any leftover pancakes!

E x

Breast or thigh?: A history of cannibalism

Last week I wrote about aphrodisiacs, which was a fun pre-Valentine’s date-night foray into the type of food history I don’t usually do. If, however, your ideal date night ends with you deboning something instead, perhaps today’s offering will be more suitable…

(I’m not sure I can get away with that joke. Sorry, mum.)

Cannibalism is a topic that seems to interest a lot of people; there’s a whole Wiki page dedicated to ‘cannibalism in popular culture’. Not to mention an entire horror movie subgenre called ‘cannibal films’. I haven’t seen any of them because I’m still recovering from watching Shaun of the Dead, which puts my tolerance for horror at roughly that of a seven year old child. Nevertheless, I remain very intrigued by this topic.

Is it technically food though? Not to get too Merriam-Webster about it, but the dictionary counts food as “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth.” In some circumstances, such as the ones I outline below, I think some forms of cannibalism can be seen through a food lens.

Er, would now be a good time to ask how your husband is?

He’s delicious. Sorry, I meant fine. He’s fine.

The word ‘cannibal’ comes from the Spanish word for an indigenous West Indies tribe called the Carib, who practised it. Incidentally, we also get the word barbeque from the Carib tribe too.

Girolamo Benzoni’s La historia del Mondo Nuovo. Credit here.

And here is where I encountered my first problem with the topic. The practice of eating people without ascribing the term ‘cannibal’ to it is prehistoric – human bones dating to 14,700 years ago bearing butchering marks have been found at Cheddar Gorge in England. And that’s relatively modern, too; some Homo Sapiens bones have been found dating to around 600,000 years old that bear similar marks.

It’s when people begin to slap terms on the practice of eating other people – especially when one civilisation uses the name of another to describe it – that things get messy. Messier.

And that’s because a lot of the earliest accounts of cannibalism are exaggerated. Herodotus wrote about cannibalism being practiced by a tribe called the Androphagi in his 5th century BC work The Histories. He describes them thusly:

The Man-eaters are the most savage of all men in their way of life; they know no justice and obey no law. They are nomads, wearing a costume like the Scythian, but speaking a language of their own; of all these, they are the only people that eat men.

Herodotus 4.106 trans. A. D. Godley.

Not one to hold back his feelings, Herodotus.

He was also not one for telling the truth. Many of his accounts in Histories – especially when concerning other civilisations than Greece – are exaggerated, vilified or just plain made up. So whether or not the Androphagi were truly ‘savage men eaters’ is up for debate.

Well what about later accounts?

Unfortunately it seems hardwired in humans to appreciate a good story over accurate history.

Many early-modern European accounts of cannibalism are also wildly exaggerated. They’re stories travellers brought back to make themselves seem more heroic and to make whatever violent acts they committed seem less serious. Think about it: if you’re a 15th century explorer retelling the story of your travels to your kid what would sound better? “I burned a civilisation to the ground and stole its riches for no other reason than greed and the hope that the queen would bang me” or “I destroyed a monstrous community of cannibals while also furthering our economy in the hope that the queen would bang me.”

Probably neither is appropriate for small children, but you get the picture.

Isabella of Castile patronised Christopher Columbus’ voyage to ‘discover’ America – much to the surprise all the people already living there.

That’s not to say that some civilisations weren’t cannibals, by the way, just that accounts of their desire for human flesh and how often they actually consumed it were misrepresented. Actually, (just to confuse things further) sometimes these civilisations, when they came into contact with Europeans, exaggerated stories of their cannibalistic ways to appear fiercer or just for their own amusement.

My point is, it’s not possible to take every early European account of cannibalism at face value.

No-one expects the Spanish… conquistadors.

Perhaps the most famous civilisation to practice cannibalism was the Aztecs (here referring to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan – now Mexico City.)

The Spanish conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo fought alongside Hernán Cortés to destroy the Aztec Empire in Mexico during the 16th century. His account of what he saw there is perhaps one of the biggest pieces of pro-Spanish/anti-Aztec racist propaganda there is, but also shows how gripping these kinds of tales were to people.

Indeed hardly a day passed by that these people did not sacrifice three or four Indians [Aztecs], tearing the hearts out of their bodies to present them to the idols and smear the blood on the wall of the temple. The arms and legs of these unfortunate beings were then cut off and devoured, just the same way we should fetch meat from a butcher’s shop and eat it: indeed I even believe that human flesh is exposed for sale cut up, in their markets.”

The Memoirs of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, trans. John Ingram Lockhart.

Castillo also talks about how the Aztecs cooked people with “the salt, the pepper and the tomatoes.” The idea of Aztecs selling human at meat proto-farmer’s markets alongside artisan cheeses and homemade jam might have been fabricated, but that they ate people definitely wasn’t. Archaeologists have found butcher marks on human bones along with scorch marks to suggest roasting and even staining that shows the meat was cooked with certain spices. Fun fact: Castillo’s gory cannibal recipe is also the first recorded Western recipe that uses tomatoes.

“Human legs! Get your human legs, only £2 per kilo!”

Del Castillo was at least honest about his reasons for being in Mexico; he admitted that it was to “serve God and also to get rich or die trying.” And so he always links cannibalism with heathenism (which must be eradicated) hoping that people will see a connection between the two.

Culture or survival?

Del Castillo’s account of Aztec cannibalism reads as though it was an everyday part of their culture and religion. But was it purely ritualistic?

Well, no.

It’s true that cannibalism was practiced as part of ceremonies and rituals but, according to author and historian Tom Nealon, one other reason for it might come down to a good old fashioned Malthusian threat.

Basically this is the principle that suggests that sudden population growth will eventually lead to disastrous food shortages, ultimately ending in famine and extinction unless something stopped it. Usually this would be something like a war or the development of really tip-top birth control but in this case it might also have been… eating people.

There’s evidence to suggest that this is what happened to the Aztec empire. In Food Fights and Culture Wars, Nealon asserts that by the 16th century, the population had grown so rapidly that food was in short supply. Maize was the staple and most common crop, but the Aztecs didn’t domesticate any animals like pigs or sheep, and most people lived pretty precarious lives in various states of malnourishment.

Combine a nutritionally-unstable diet with a deeply hierarchical and rapidly growing society where no-one questioned the leader (and add in a few vengeful Gods who could only be appeased through human sacrifice) and you have near-perfect conditions for cannibalism.

In the end it boils down to this: if you’re going to sacrifice someone to please the gods, and there was the constant risk of food shortages, you’re kind of going to end up eating people because, well, waste not want not.

If you and your friends were trapped on a desert island, who would you eat first?

It’s a game we’ve all played before (haven’t we?) If you were trapped with your friends and nearing starvation would it be better to eat Toby (whose dedication to the gym could make for some pretty juicy burgers), or Sarah (whose over-enthusiastic use of peach body spray might give a fruity picancy to kebabs)? Choices, choices…

Cannibal survival stories are very common. Distressingly so. I cover the Donner Party with my GCSE groups and we often spend time picking apart the survivor accounts and discussing the perils of the journey to west America in the 19th century. For those that don’t know, the Donner party was a group of American pioneers who travelled westwards to California in 1846. Unfortunately they ended up stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountain range halfway through their journey. In freezing conditions, with winter setting in, they had no option but to stay put in an inhospitable territory and, as the days turned into weeks and months, eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Patrick Breen, a member of the Donner party, wrote in February 1847 “Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would commence on Milt & eat him. I don[‘]t that she has done so yet, it is distressing.”

It’s a theme echoed in the horrific accounts of the 1972 Andes flight disaster, which saw survivors of a plane crash in the Andes resort to the cannibalism of their dead friends and relatives in order to stay alive.

But rather than just retell these well-known events I want to talk about another survival story, one that often gets overlooked.

The case of the hungry sailors and the unfortunate cabin boy

In 1884 the yacht Mignonette set sail from Southampton, England to Sydney, Australia. There were four men aboard: Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brook and Richard Parker.

About two months after setting sail disaster struck and a wave partially destroyed the yacht. The captain – Tom Dudley – ordered the crew into the lifeboat.

“That’s it: the more the merrier. We can get a really good stew going now.”

They survived for about two weeks by eating tins of turnips, the carcass of an unfortunate turtle, and by drinking their urine. By the third week 17 year old Richard Parker was slipping in and out of consciousness, possibly due to extreme dehydration.

The other men now faced a choice: die of dehydration themselves or kill Parker and drink his blood. When Stephens protested, Dudley reportedly responded “the boy is dying. You have a wife and five children and I have a wife and three children. Human flesh has been eaten before.” Nice.

Parker was killed on around the 25th July and his blood was caught in a chronometer case and passed between the three men to drink. They (a bit weirdly, I think) then chose to eat his heart and liver straight away, saving bits of his arms and legs for later.

On the 29th July – only 4 days afterwards – they were saved by a German ship. Interestingly this ship was called the Moctezuma, named after a famous Aztec leader who was himself a cannibal. Funny, right? I mean probably not for poor Richard Parker, but he got the last laugh when Yan Martel named the tiger in his novel Life of Pi after him (the novel also touches briefly on the idea of cannibalism.)

The men were pretty honest about their actions and almost as soon as they arrived in England they were put on trial to find out whether or not they had committed an unforgivable murder or whether their need to survive – their need for food – was an acceptable excuse to kill and eat someone.

The case – Regina v Dudley & Stephens, as it was known – was a huge case at the time, despite being a total shambles. 

Firstly, the judge basically instructed the jury to find them guilty saying that the law “could not recognise necessity as justification for killing”.

But the jury wouldn’t find Dudley and Stephens guilty. So the case was moved to a higher court where a panel of 5 judges found the men guilty. The men were sentenced to death but the Home Office intervened and reduced the sentence to six months imprisonment – a pretty huge climb down if ever there was one.

Ultimately though, the verdict wasn’t overturned. The Home Office agreed with the courts that despite the men’s argument, the killing of Richard Parker could not be deemed a defence of necessity. Notice here that it’s not the cannibalism that the judge had the biggest issue with, but the killing of the boy in order to eat him. Had they waited until he was already dead, perhaps the verdict would have been different. But perhaps they would have been dead by then too. Choices, choices indeed…

Is anyone else getting hungry?

And this is where I’ll leave it for today.

I’ll do a future post on cannibalism in mythology because that’s where things get really crazy, but it seemed sensible to start with the stuff that actually happened first.

For now, I seem to be overcome with desire for fried liver with a nice chianti. Or even better: steak tartare with salt, pepper and tomatoes. Bon appétit!

E x

(I promise my husband is fine.)

“Sleeping with the anemone”: Aphrodisiacs through time

Have you ever felt like your love life could do with a little bit of a boost? Like you’re still banging on about that time in year 6 when the popular kid accidentally brushed their hand against yours? (Later, he said my fingers were “sort of wet, like slugs”; I’m still waiting for him to call.)

Well, fear no more you loveless lot! For today I’m delving into the world of aphrodisiacs: foods that can apparently increase a person’s ‘natural abilities’ in the bedroom.

How long did it take you to come up with that title?

A long time, alright?

The word ‘aphrodisiac’ wasn’t invented until the 17th century when people realised they couldn’t keep describing asparagus and chocolate as “sexy time food” because it sounded stupid and lo, the word ‘aphrodisiac’ was invented, named after Aphrodite – Greek goddess of love, lust and all things sensual.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that there’s no evidence to suggest food can actually increase a person’s libido. Some people believe that alcohol might help, but – to quote Shakespeare – alcohol provokes desire but takes away performance. Hardly the sexiest of outcomes.

But a lack of scientific evidence hasn’t done anything as sensible as stop people believing in aphrodisiacs. It might be chocolate covered strawberries now, but people throughout history have tired all kinds of strange and wonderful foods to get them in the mood, and I’m going to look at (but not try, thanks very much) three of them today.

Ancient Greece: Humourous Veg (in more ways than one)

We’re starting with ancient Greece because their goddess Aphrodite so kindly lent her name to the concept of aphrodisiacs. Aphrodite’s origin story could be an entire topic in its own right; it’s got violence, incest and magic – it’s basically Game of Thrones for classicists.

“I swear to God, Brian, if you get that chord wrong one more time…”

Essentially, Aphrodite was created out of sea foam after Cronos, a divine giant with one hell of a grudge, cut off the genitals of his own father Uranus and absolutely booted them into the sea – as you do. In fairness to him, Uranus had eaten all his brothers and sisters in a sort of paranoid frenzy… but still – ouch.

Even detached, Uranus’ bits and bobs were still very powerful and they fizzed around in the ocean for a bit. Eventually from the sea foamy fizz Aphrodite arose – beautiful, divine and somehow completely untraumatized.

People in ancient Greece prayed to her about carnal matters and issues of love. There were many temples and sects dedicated to her and one at Paphos ordered new initiates to give the priest goddess money in exchange for some sea salt, a phallus and instructions “on the art of intercourse.”

I have no idea what was in the instructions, but it’s possible they contained recipes and remedies to help performance. This wasn’t a new concept – ancient civilisations had been experimenting with food in the bedroom for thousands of years and documenting their (presumably quite sticky) findings. One of the first documented records comes from a 2000 year old Hindu system of medicine called The Shushrata Samhita. It suggests taking remedies – called Vajikarana – such as sweet and refreshing fruit to restore a man’s virility.

The Greeks enjoyed a fruity pick me up as much as the next person but they also appreciated vegetables. Specifically onions, garlics and leeks which, when eaten raw, had a pretty potent kick to them but also apparently reminded people of certain body parts.

Just in case you don’t know what an onion looks like

But just being shaped in a funny way wasn’t enough. Bring a leek to bed and it’s a good time for everyone, but try and introduce a cucumber…?

And that’s because Greek aphrodisiacs weren’t just ideas they pulled out of thin air. They were based on the science of the time. Essentially, many Greeks believed in the 4 Humor Theory, a medical idea created by Hippocrates and developed, centuries later, by Galen. The 4 Humors were liquids that everybody had inside them: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. People’s mood and health was, supposedly, affected by how much of each liquid they had and it was believed that blood was especially important for carnal matters.

Any food that got the blood rushing or caused the skin to flush by creating a ‘hot’ feeling was therefore great for the bedroom. Foods that were very cold and wet, no matter how suggestively shaped (like a cucumber) were major party poopers and were tossed out faster than a god’s severed testicles.

Anything less smelly than an onion?

Sure – how about this recipe from the 3rd century Greek writer Metrodora:

Take the womb of a hare fried in a bronze frying pan, add 3 litrai of rose oil then mix with sweet perfume, fat, excrement of crocodile, sap of the plant scorpion, blood red sumach, honey…”

On the Diseases and Cures of Women, Metrodora

Certain herbs and flower were also symbolic of love. The red flower anemone carried significance, for example, because Greek mythology claimed its origins came about when Aphrodite’s lover Adonis died. Distraught, the goddess apparently sprinkled nectar onto Adonis’ blood and from this the flower was born.

So it’s whatever you’d fancy from that, really – onions or some sort of crocodile dung mixture possibly decorated with flowers. Take your pick.

Medieval Europe: Womb for more?

If you know anything about the medieval Church you’ll know they were big on sin. Not committing sins, obviously (although lots of priests did) but getting very high and mighty about what ordinary folk could and couldn’t do. Sex, surely, would be up there on the list of things you weren’t supposed to enjoy?

Well… during a 200 year period up to around 1200, the population of Europe more than doubled. No one can be certain but by 1500 the population of London was around 50,000 having grown from around 25,000 in 1200.

And these babies weren’t just growing on trees were they? Clearly something was causing this increase. Part of the answer, weirdly, could have been down to the Church. Because although the Church liked it if you kept your hands (and other parts) to yourself if you weren’t married, it was fine – no, a duty – for a husband and wife to have children. But the population growth wasn’t just down to married couple alone, non married and extra marital affairs accounted for many new lives too.

Sex seemed something that people were obsessed with in medieval England. There is so much erotic artwork hidden in marginalia, a good smattering of lewd poetry (hello, Chaucer) and dirty jokes that it sometimes feels like medieval people did nothing but, er, bonk?

Medieval aphrodisiacs

Medieval medical texts are where we find most European aphrodisiacs, although they’re not called that.

Remember at this time in Europe anything medical or religious to do with sex tended to focus on the goal of procreation, rather than offering generic advice for a good time – so the description of aphrodisiacs is often pretty to the point, and presented in a way that suggests it will help with conception. The other thing it’s probably good to understand is that during the middle ages, it was believed by many that conception could only happen if both parties enjoyed themselves fully.

What that means is that when a text discusses what food to eat to conceive a baby, it’s partly because it thought these foods would help strengthen sperm, or prep the womb or whatever, but also because it was about getting both partners in the mood; if one of them wasn’t, then no baby.

You’d expect that these foods would be appetising then. Ha.

The 12th century Old English translation of Medicina De Quadrupedibus has a couple of very un-enticing recipes to try, one of which is this:

To arouse a woman for sexual intercourse, take the testicles of a deer, grind them to dust, do a part of this in a drink of wine.”

Medicina De Quadrupedibus

Not quite a chocolate covered strawberry, is it?

Another famous, albeit later, medieval medical text was the Trotula. It’s less explicit in its dealings with aphrodisiacs but follows a similar line of thought to Medicina De Quadrupedibus. According to Trotula, to conceive a boy a man should take the womb and vagina of a hare, dry them, crush them into a power and then drink in wine.

“Take my womb, would you? Bastard.”

I’m going to need some alternatives to rabbit womb, please.

Well if we look outside of Europe, then things get interesting.

Unlike the Europeans, who linked sex with procreation, there are hundreds of medieval Arabic sources which discuss food and herbs to increase desire without linking them to conception. These documents liken these mood boosting foods to medicines which can correct or enhance sexual function.

The 9th century Persian work The Book of Choice Sexual Stimulants and the Sultan’s Mixtures (which sounds both gross and intriguing) was a text dedicated solely to aphrodisiac-style medicine. Likewise, the 11th century Persian physician Avicenna, who wrote the Canon of Medicine, dedicated an entire section to aphrodisiac-like remedies and their uses and suggested medicines made from honey, almonds, fish, dates and herbs.

Avicenna had an enormous influence on European medicine and if you compare Trotula to his Canon you’ll find myriad comparisons. When it came to embracing performance enhancing drugs, though, European literature seems not to have embraced Islamic ideas as readily as they did others.


You know what’s really sexy? 18th century slimy raw fish.

To this day oysters are considered an aphrodisiac. I’ve never understood why. I mean, yes, I get the symbolism and I understand they’re supposed to resemble certain body parts, but I don’t understand why anyone would think having a phlegmy lump of mollusc slide down your throat would do anything but make you vomit on your lover’s pillow.

Yet here we are. Oysters have been written about extensively and in ancient Rome they were seen as luxury items, a little like they are today. There’s not a lot of evidence, however, that the Romans viewed them as aphrodisiacs. Actually, it’s not until the 16th century or so that there was a meaningful shift in how people thought of them.

In 1566 the French poet Alain Chartier wrote that “oysters provoke lechery” – apparently so much so that some brothels began serving them to their clients.

By the 17th century the word oyster had become a slang word for female genitalia and by the 18th century oyster sellers – women who stood on street corners selling baskets of oysters – found their job title had morphed into a byword for sex worker.

So who’s driving up the demand for oysters in the 18th century?

Who else? Casasnova.


His name has become synonymous with philanderer, womanizer, seducer. He wasn’t shy about it either. In his memoirs he recounts over 100 encounters – some consensual, others less so – with women and men. But aside from his peacocking, he also mentions food. A lot.

Casanova holds food and women up as two things he celebrates more than all else:

I have always liked highly seasoned food…as for women I have always found the one I was in love with smelled good.”

The Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt, trans. Arthur Machen.

There you go ladies – ditch the perfume and just douse yourself in peri peri sauce.

Casanova loved many types of food. He wrote a ten stanza poem about macaroni to gain access to some sort of elite poetry society and then, once in, ate so much of the stuff that they nicknamed him the prince of macaroni.

But the thing that Casanova seems to eat more than all else is oysters. He supposedly consumed 50 of them every morning. Oysters weren’t just a food to him, but a means to an end and they often crop up in foreplay.

He plays a game with rich women which he literally calls the “oyster game”. The game consists of him persuading women to let him feed them oysters which he then “accidentally” drops down their tops. Or bodices. Or whatever, I’m not an expert in 18th century clothing. As they say, hilarity (and sex) often ensues.

“LOL so funny Bernard, but if you drop one more of those things down my top I’ll punch your eyes out, OK?”

Casanova never explicitly calls oysters an aphrodisiac. At one point he suggests that a meal of oysters shared between himself and one of his paramours “had their natural effect” and later on he refers to them as “an aid”. Similarly, one woman who attempts to rebuff him says she will “pick up no more oysters” as she fears the effect they’ll have on her.

Unfortunately for Casanova, it may have all been in his head. Not that it seemed to stop him, but though oysters are high in zinc, which has in some studies been shown to boost testosterone, it’s not present in high enough levels to have any sort of meaningful effect on libido.

Does it matter, in the end?

Probably not.

Whether aphrodisiacs work or not almost certainly comes down to your mindset. The action of taking an aphrodisiac, be it a bumper bag of onions, a dried rabbit womb or a plate of oysters could prime a person to expect it to work, which might lead to increased confidence and thus success with any lovers.

What your partner thinks of your breath after eating all that? Well, that’s probably the thing that decides if you get lucky or not.

E x

“You want me to put WHAT on top?!” Herbert Hoover’s Sweet Potatoes: 1929-1933

The swamp of one-term presidents – specifically presidents who failed to be reelected – is not a deep one to drain.

The reasons an incumbent president loses reelection are numerous and nuanced, but fall into a couple of broad categories. Either they are completely incompetent in the face of global or national crisis(es), or they have deep personal and/or moral failings. It is rare that one president manages to fulfil both categories so equally.

Despite not living in America, the election has dominated headlines here in the UK since November. Until quite recently there was still a dedicated ‘US election’ tab on the BBC website for anyone looking for a quick and cheap way to dramatically increase their blood pressure.

On this historic day I wanted to look back on another one-term Republican president: Herbert Hoover. He was president from 1929 to 1933 and is remembered mainly as the president during the Great Depression.

Guided by a belief that federal government should not have a direct role in bolstering the economy (but rather it was down to local authorities to support local businesses), Hoover ended up reacting to the early days of the Depression by downplaying it somewhat, believing it would be a short-lived economic blip.

Unfortunately it wasn’t a blip. Over the next few years, millions of people lost their livelihoods and homes. Tens of thousands of these people ended up living in shanty towns made of cardboard and whatever else could be scavenged, begging for food and work and queuing outside free soup kitchens for hours each day. Out of damning criticism of Hoover’s perceived incompetence, these places were nicknamed ‘Hoovervilles’.

By the time of the next election in 1932, Hoover’s popularity was at an all time low – there were even assassination attempts made against him. Unsurprisingly, he lost both the popular and electoral vote by a landslide. This paved the way for Franklin D. Roosevelt to become the first Democratic president since Woodrow Wilson’s term ended in 1921.

None of this has got anything to do with food…

Well, no. And yes.

When Roosevelt took over in March 1933, his wife Eleanor was reportedly horrified to find cockroaches in the White House kitchen. Later her housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt wrote:

I can’t work up any charm for cockroaches. No matter how you scrub it, old wood isn’t clean. This was the ‘first kitchen in America,’ and it wasn’t even sanitary. Mrs. Roosevelt and I poked around, opening doors and expecting hinges to fall off and things to fly out. It was that sort of place. Dark-looking cupboards, a huge old-fashioned gas range, sinks with time-worn wooden drains, one rusty wooden dumb waiter. The refrigerator was wood inside and bad-smelling. Even the electric wiring was old and dangerous. I was afraid to switch things on.

The White House Diary, Henrietta Nesbitt


Yet despite the supposed state of the kitchen, Hoover apparently liked his food. He would eat pretty much anything, wolfing down plates of pie, baked hams and soups with such speed that his kitchen staff used to keep bets on how quickly he would finish a meal. His own cook, Mary Rattley commented that “Mr. Hoover is the easiest man in the world to please.”

Easy or not, Hoover had a particular fondness for sweets, which is where today’s experiment comes in. Taken from The Presidents’ Own Whitehouse Cookbook, Herbert Hoover’s sweet potato (emphasis on the word ‘sweet’) seemed a timely recipe.

The recipe.

The instructions read like simple mashed sweet potato at first. I dutifully peeled and boiled two large potatoes before mashing them with butter, nutmeg and cream. The next step was to add some ground walnuts, which seemed more unusual but quite promising. Then things got…strange.

“Dot the top with marshmallows” the recipe instructed, “and brown as if for a meringue.”

Marshmallows – was this a savoury dish or a sweet one? A quick Google informed me that sweet potato with marshmallows is a fairly common dish in America (not so much in the UK), so maybe I was about to have all my culinary preconceptions challenged by this.

I covered the still-hot mashed sweet potato with mini marshmallows and baked it for a few minutes until they were just starting to brown.

I do not think this is the official Presidential design.

The verdict.

It looked and smelled fairly appetising, I have to say.

I like marshmallows and I love sweet potato, so there was nothing inherently dreadful to me about the recipe, but I still found the concept a bit unnerving. With the marshmallows oozing small pools of melted sugar over the potato, I dolloped a spoon into my bowl and dug in.

My first thought was that the combination was a little jarring. The sweet potato tasted exactly as I’d expected – with a slightly nuttier aftertaste because of the walnuts – but it was a pretty earthy, naturally sweet flavour. In comparison, the marshmallows tasted quite synthetic and I found the mix a but off putting in all honesty.

It wasn’t as sweet as I’d expected, though. Being baked had leant a toastiness to the marshmallows which I think tempered some of their sugariness. The walnuts – which I’d ground to a coarse dust – gave the sweet potato additional texture and worked really well with the creaminess of it all.

Family friendly version.

Would I make it again? Perhaps, with fewer marshmallows. I really liked the walnut addition to the sweet potato, so would definitely incorporate that into future cooking.

Ultimately this was a very American dish which made it perfect for today of all days, and as the USA enters a new era and administration of hope and unity I wish all my American readers the best.

E x

Herbert Hoover’s Sweet Potatoes

2 large sweet potatoes
60 ml (or 1/4 cup) cream
60g (or 1/4 cup) ground walnuts
1 table spoon butter
Mini marshmallows

  1. Peel and boil the sweet potato until soft.
  2. Mash the sweet potato with the cream, butter, salt and nutmeg until completely smooth.
  3. Stir in the ground walnuts.
  4. Dot the top with mini marshmallows and heat in the oven at 190 degrees C (375 F) for a couple of minutes until the marshmallows are golden brown.

The ‘food masquerading as other things’ spectrum: A Dyschefull of Snowe, 16th century

Every day the weather app promises me snow. And every day, without fail: no snow. I’d almost given up hope until last Friday when I woke to see the long-awaited drifts and the less long-awaited sight of next door’s cat, pissing in them.

Either I overestimated how much snow there was, or Stanley’s urine contains antifreeze, because by lunchtime it had all melted away. All of it. Gone.

Needless to say I was pretty disappointed; I’d hoped for sugar dusted foliage and undulating mounds of the stuff to spend the day messing around in. A pile of yellow slush does not a snowman make, no matter how many times you get your toddler to hold it in place.

For today’s experiment, then, I needed something that would cheer me up and bring back the wintry weather I’d hoped for. Written half way through the 16th century in A Proper Newe Boke of Cokerye, ‘A Dyschefull of Snowe‘ seemed perfect.

To make a dyschefull of Snowe. Take a pottell of swete thycke creame and the whytes of eyghte egges, and beate them altogether wyth a spone, then putte them in youre creame and a saucerfull of Rosewater, and a dyshe full of Suger wyth all, then take a stycke and make it cleane, and than cutte it in the ende foure square, and therwith beate all the aforesayde thynges together, and ever as it ryseth take it of and put it into a Collaunder, this done take one apple and set it in the myddes of it, and a thicke bushe of Rosemary, and set it in the myddes of the platter, then cast your Snowe uppon the Rosemarye and fyll your platter therwith. And yf you have wafers caste some in wyth all and thus serve them forthe.

A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye

A dishful of what now?

Basically this experiment is a plate of whipped cream, reinforced with beaten egg whites. It sounds as if it should be a topping on a cake rather than a dessert, but it would have been served as a dish in its own right during the 16th century.

Remember that dishes were served all together rather than one after the other at banquets, so a plate of whipped cream wouldn’t have been too odd when served alongside plates of chopped fruit and nuts.

What makes A Dyschefull of Snowe unusual isn’t the ingredients, but the presentation. Essentially this dish was intended to be decorative as well as edible and fits somewhere on the ‘food masquerading as other things’ spectrum the Tudors loved so much (see my post ‘marchpane‘ for another example.) Once completed, this dish should look like a tree (an apple with rosemary in it) surrounded by thick drifts of new fallen snow.

A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye wasn’t the only cookbook with recipes for snow. I found at least three other almost identical versions; a French one from 1604 that omitted the apple but included “a branch of rosemary”, a 16th century German version “to make Snow” and another English recipe from 1591 that seemed to be an exact copy.

A 500 year old Proper Newe Booke

The easiest recipe ever?

When I read this, the thing that struck me most was how simple it was. One reason for this may be the intended audience. A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye was one of the first cookbooks to be aimed at a general reader, rather than just professionals. Previously, most cookbooks were aimed at cooks within royal – or at least rich – households and were designed to showcase wealth and skill.

A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye straddled these two types of book. One the one hand, recipes for peacock harked back to the old ways of cooking. But the inclusion of instructions for when to serve each dish and what are essentially menu suggestions also points to a newer, more inexperienced audience. This is where ‘Snowe’ fits in – a dish that was accomplishable and straightforward while still retaining some of the old style ‘wow’ factor of cookery.

The method.

So I suppose it’s time to address the elephant in the room. With a recipe as simple as this, did I cut corners and use a food processor to beat the egg whites or did I attempt the 16th century way: cutting the end of a twig into four and using it as a whisk?

Look, I tried, I really tried. I didn’t go so far as to cut my own twig, but did attempt to use a manual whisk. I gave it a really good go for a full 30 seconds before thinking “sod this”, and plugging my electric one in. Life’s too short, people!

Once the egg whites had risen to form peaks, I slowly added my cream, sugar and rosewater (beating all the time) and continued to whisk until the whole mass held its shape.

I selected my fanciest glass plate to compensate for the simplicity of the recipe and placed an apple in the centre. The rosemary fit nicely into the hole around the stalk and I began to pile my snow in heaps around it.

Is this not the most convincing thing you’ve ever seen?

The verdict.

This was one of the oddest looking things I’d made. The apple with tufts of rosemary sticking out of it looked, well, exactly like an apple with tufts of rosemary sticking out of it. I couldn’t really see the resemblance to a tree that others had suggested, but I don’t know – maybe 16th century trees just looked different to modern ones?! One though I had afterwards was that I was supposed to bury the apple under the snow so that only the rosemary was visible, but it was too late by that point.

The snow itself was very pleasant. It wasn’t too sweet because I hadn’t added a huge amount of sugar. Because of the addition of egg whites this was a little lighter than standard whipped cream – and in fact it took longer to whip up – but there wasn’t much difference beyond that that I could tell. Really the only thing that made me think this was something historical was the perfumed flavour of rosewater. It wasn’t overpowering (I’d learnt my lesson from last time), but just added a subtle fragrance to the cream.

The original recipe seemed to suggest eating this on wafers, but I hadn’t made any. We ate ours on pancakes instead, and it worked just as well.

In the end this wasn’t the kind of snow you could pelt at anyone. You couldn’t make a snowman out of it and there wasn’t enough for a snow angel either. But as I looked resentfully at my damp and drizzly cat-piss drenched garden, I thought that maybe, just maybe, this type was a bit better anyway.

E x

A Dyschefull of Snowe

2 egg whites
200ml (or 6.5 fl oz) double cream (or heavy cream if you can’t get double cream)
1 teaspoon rosewater
50g caster sugar

  1. Whip the egg whites up until they form stiff peaks.
  2. Add the sugar and rose water to the cream and stir to dissolve.
  3. While still beating the egg whites, add the cream slowly and continue to whip until the mixture stiffens. It will take several minutes.
  4. Once the mixture has formed soft peaks, stop beating. Set it to one side.
  5. Take an apple and stick as many stalks of rosemary in the top of it as will fit. Place the apple on a plate.
  6. Spoon the beaten cream around the apple, spreading some of the cream on the rosemary tufts to make it look like they are covered in snow.

“Get under the table you ignorant child!” Fry Blaunched, 1390

It is January.

If you’ve come here for upbeat positivity about how we can all make some decent resolutions and start new health kicks then I’ve got news for you: you’ve stumbled onto the wrong site.

For the rest of you who, like me, have no intention of starting a juice cleanse nor any plans to give up chocolate or alcohol this month (why would you?!), read on.

My family has a tradition of getting together on the evening of 5th January and having a Twelfth Night dinner. It’s nothing too fancy – just a stew and some spuds – but it’s a great way to draw a line under the festive period and gives us all something to look forward to during the first working week after the break.

What is Twelfth Night?

Put simply, it’s the evening of the final 12 days after Christmas. Put less simply (and depending on who you ask), Twelfth Night is either the 5th January or the 6th January – it basically comes down to whether or not you count Christmas Day as being the 1st of the 12 days.

The 6th January is the Epiphany – the day the 3 Magi supposedly reached the infant Jesus to bestow their very child friendly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh on him. Traditionally it’s Epiphany that was the big party of the festive season and not Christmas, which was reserved for contemplation and prayer.

In medieval England, 6th January marked the beginning of eight days of celebrations called the Feast of Epiphany. This feast began on the 6th and lasted until 13th January and it was during this celebratory week-and-a-day that gifts were given and general merriment made.

Twelfth Night Cake

One of the merriments to be made was Twelfth Night cake. These were rich fruit cakes which eventually developed into our modern Christmas cake. They were often drenched in alcohol and, in subsequent years, were decorated with a thick layer of royal icing.

Twelfth Night cakes could be as highly decorated or as simple as the baker could afford. By the Georgian period, they’d become extremely elaborate affairs and were decorated with feathers, gold, and sugar paste models of increasing intricacy.

“The Regency Twelfth Cake Not Cut Up” by James Sayers, 1789. The man on the right looks sad because he’s just started his January diet. Credit here.

But the thing that seperated twelfth night cakes from your bog standard fruit cake was the bean inside it. And this is where all the fun came from.

A bean? In a cake?

The tradition goes like this: a dried bean would be placed inside the cake mixture before baking. When the cake was cut and shared out, whoever found the bean would be crowned king for the day and everyone else would have to do as they said.

There are hundreds of variants to the game: in 1676 Henry Teong, a British naval captain, described a slightly NSFW version:

We had a great cake made, in which was put a bean for the king, a pea for the queen, a clove for the knave, a forked stick for the cuckold and a rag for the slut… which caused much laughter to see our Lieutenant prove the cuckold, and more to see us tumble over the other in the cabin, by reason of the rough weather.

The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson

“By reason of the rough weather” – nothing at all to do with the drinking and booze in the cake, then?

The French version of the game, according to 16th century writer Étienne Pasquier, included forcing the youngest child in the house to sit under the table and, as the master of the house cut the cake, shout out the names of the recipient of each slice. The idea was that the child (ignorant of the rank or age of the assembled diners and – importantly – unable to see which piece the bean was in) would call out the names of the guests in whichever order took their fancy. The result of this was that it was completely random who received the lucky slice.

The idea of putting a bean or counter into a cake in order to crown a ‘king’ seems to have been one that was shared across many European countries – not just Britain and France. It’s a tradition that maybe had roots in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a December-time feast in honour of the Roman god Saturn and as part of the celebrations a ‘ruler’ would be appointed by lot from each household to be the master for the day.

As with anything like this, it’s impossible to say for sure that the Twelfth Night game developed from the games played during Saturnalia, but its popularity across multiple European countries and the vagueness of its origins suggests there may be some links.

Whatever the origins may be, my family prefers the French version to the ‘sluts and cuckolds’ version. This is partly because it’s a lot less awkward to see your dad crowned a ‘king’ than a ‘slut’, but also because it allows us to (lovingly) berate my younger sister and shout at her to “get under the table and stay there, you ignorant child!”

She is 26 years old.

Galette des Rois or Fry Blaunched?

There’s another reason my family prefers the French version of Twelfth Night cake to the English one. We’re usually too full of Christmas pudding and Christmas cake by Twelfth Night to feel excited about another fruitcake, but the French version – called a Galette des Rois – is nothing like that. Traditional Galette des Rois are puff pastry discs filled with frangipane. They are quick, simple and utterly delicious.

The trouble was I couldn’t find an original recipe for Galette des Rois. They must exist, but my modern French is bad enough, and my Middle French is non-existent.

What I did find was something that I though might capture an essence of them. It was in Forme of Cury, a 14th century cookbook compiled by the master cooks of Richard II. Many English recipes at this time took inspiration from French recipes and in fact quite a few recipes in F.o.C. share similarities with recipes in a contemporaneous French work, Le Viandier de Taillevent. Just to be clear, though, I’m not at all saying the experiment I tried today was a precursor to modern Galette des Rois.

Fry Blaunched
Take Almandes blaunched and grynde hem al to doust, do þise in a thynne foile. close it þerinnne fast. and fry it in Oile. clarifie hony with Wyne. & bake it þerwith

Take blanched almonds and grind them to powder and place them on a [thin sheet of pastry]. Close it therein and fry it in oil. Add clarified honey and wine and bake it therewith.

Forme of Cury. (Attempted) translation my own.

A word on pastry.

It seemed I was dealing with a fried, almond ravioli thing. Not quite the same as light puff pastry with a frangipane filling, but I was willing to try it.

Like all good medieval recipes (and if you’ve read any other of my medieval posts you can join in with this bit): there were no instructions. No details on how to make the pastry, or what ingredients to use, or even just a hint at any measurements.

Medieval pastry contained no fat. They didn’t use butter, suet or lard like we might today – most pastries were a simple mix of water and flour.

There were some additions, though. Egg was sometimes used instead of water to form a richer pastry and spices like saffron might be used to give a deeper colour. Because we were, after all, celebrating Twelfth Night I decided to really splash out and used a flour, egg and saffron mixture. I know, I know; such decadence so soon after Christmas!

The Method.

I rolled the dough out as thinly as I could; the word “foile” in the recipe actually meant as thin as a sheet of paper. Then I blitzed blanched almonds in a blender (you could use a mortar and pestle for a true medieval experience if you want but honestly, who has the time?) and cut the dough into neat ribbons.

I calculated I could fit a small teaspoon of filling into each pastry parcel without it spilling out the edges during the cooking. Once my ravioli-esque Frys were complete, I fried them in hot oil for a couple of minutes on both sides.

In the oil they puffed up nicely and looked like mini Galette des Rois, which I was really pleased about. I had to push a couple of them down with the back of a spoon as the sheets of pastry kept separating, threatening to spill the crushed almonds into the pan.

Once they were nice and crisp – but not brown – I laid them in a baking dish and poured over a mixture of honey and white wine that I’d warmed together in my very authentically medieval microwave, before cooked them in the oven for 15 minutes.

Not a Galette des Rois, but still delicious.

The Verdict.

They smelled lovely – of warm honey and fruit (because of the wine). They looked pretty appetising too; the blast in the oven had transformed them into golden brown crisps, shining in their sweet glaze.

And, truth be told, they still looked fairly similar to Galette des Rois. It was true they were smaller, but because the pastry was so thin to start with and because the frying process had caused it to puff up, it actually wasn’t too far off looking like puff pastry.

I was excited to try one and I wasn’t disappointed. The pastry was pretty pleasant: crisp, fairly rich and because it had been sitting in the pool of honey and wine during baking, also quite sweet.

Unlike Galette des Rois, the insides of Fry Blaunched didn’t taste of frangipane. They were pretty dry and a bit plain – just almond, really – without any sweetness. But that didn’t make the overall dish unpleasant. In fact, when an open pastry was dipped in the sticky honey and wine sauce, the almond mixture soaked it up which made for a sweet and nutty flavour.

Galette des Rois they might not have been (and they sure as hell weren’t Twelfth Night cakes) but as there won’t be any proper Twelfth Night celebrations this year (my family will have to shout at my sister via Zoom instead), perhaps they’ll be a good alternative.

Happy New Year!

E x

Fry Blaunched

50g or 2 ounces blanched almonds
1 medium egg
85g or 3 ounces plain white flour
20ml or 2 tablespoons runny honey
20ml or 2 tablespoons white wine
Oil for frying (any will do; I used olive)

  1. Set the oven to 180 degrees C, 350 degrees F.
  2. Blitz your almonds until they are completely ground.
  3. Combine the egg and flour in a bowl and knead into a dough.
  4. Roll the dough out onto a floured surface to as thin as you can. It should be no thicker than 2mm.
  5. Cut the dough into strips, and then cut into squares – about 6cmx6cm.
  6. Put a small teaspoon of the ground almonds onto half of the pastry squares.
  7. Place the other half of the pastry squares over the squares with almonds on. Seal the sides shut – you will need to push them very tightly together or they will pop open during frying!
  8. Heat a shallow frying pan with oil and wait until a small piece of dough bubbles at the edges when dropped in.
  9. Fry no more than 2 at a time, turning over with a slotted spoon after a couple of minutes to cook on both sides. The pastry should puff up and go hard.
  10. When all your pastries are fried, lay them in a roasting tin or lipped baking tray.
  11. Heat the honey and wine together in a microwave or a pan until the honey has dissolved.
  12. Pour the honey and wine mixture over the pastries and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the pastries are a golden brown all over.

“The perineum of the year”: A round up of 2020

I didn’t come up with the phrase but it’s one I’ve embraced, much to my husband’s disgust. The perineum of the year: that bit in between Christmas and New Year when you can’t remember the last time you showered (let alone got dressed), when you’re left with only Strawberry Creams in the Quality Street tin, and when the entirety of your fridge/house/body smells of stuffing.

Someone in the household will, at some point in the next day or so, suggest going for a jog to start their January health regime early. Encourage them; you can crack into the Toblerone in peace while they’re gone.

And while you’re dribbling chocolate you might enjoy a round up of my top five best and worst experiments this year…

Top Experiments of 2020

Fanfares at the ready: three, two, one – go!

Number 5: Doucetes

Egg custard. Saffron pastry. Indulgence: medieval style.

These wobbly little gems were from the fifteenth century and were the first thing I’d made that felt like they could compete with modern sweets. They were buttery, creamy and rich and I’ve actually made a couple of batches of them since.

Don’t be alarmed by the appearance: they may look a little cellulite-heavy, but once you eat them they will banish all thoughts of cellulite until you next look in the mirror.

Number 4: Farts of Portingale

Do I really need to explain why this one’s on the list?

Number 3: Fish Banquet

I had no idea fish could taste so good. Someone who did, however, was Athenaeus: a 3rd century rhetorician who loved it so much he advised resorting to any method possible – buying, begging or stealing – to get a taste of premium quality seafood.

This was one of the few meals – and they have been few and far between, believe me – which made my husband actually appreciate this blog. The simplicity of the dish was its secret, but so too was the delightfully Mediterranean cooking method.

I enjoyed wrapping the prawns in fig leaves and burying them in hot coals to roast slowly. I enjoyed slicing the side dish of radishes so thinly they looked like little discs of stained glass in the sunlight. What I enjoyed slightly less was the horror I felt when the lady on the fish counter at Sainsburys told me the price of the tuna steaks she’d just cut for me and social awkwardness made me say “yes, that’s fine” instead of “sorry, are you mad? How much?”

Buy, beg or steal, you say?

Number 2: A Bengali Meal

The most self indulgent thing I’ve written all year, but the one that seems to have resonated with quite a few people. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it made me feel a little bit more connected to my family’s history and was also a great excuse to eat my body weight in ghee.

Number 1: Anglo-Saxon Bread

Bread? Just…bread? At number one?

This was one of the first things I made and it’s probably the thing I’ve made the most since. It never, ever ceases to amaze me how simple and ingenious it is: bread, water and a pinch of salt (if you want to be fancy.) And ta-da! A warm, filling, palm sized disc of bread that tastes good with literally everything I’ve tried so far.

This bread has helped a leftover stew for one stretch to two people as a midweek meal, when we couldn’t be bothered to wait for pasta or rice to cook. I have made cheese sandwiches out of this bread for my daughter’s lunch in the height of lockdown when we’d run out of Hovis but I felt too anxious to go outside and buy more. We’ve eaten this bread smothered in salty butter and dipped in jam at breakfast (admittedly that time it backfired because my daughter thought I was cooking pancakes and was very disappointed when she realised I was not.)

More than anything else, bread is the thing that I think connects us most to our past. Egg tarts are tastier but required more money, time, skill. Fish banquets are more beautiful, but not everyone had access to fresh fish. Farts sound funnier but… actually, I don’t have a comeback to that one.

But bread was eaten by everyone. The only real difference was whether you ate fine white bread made from wheat or some form of ‘lower class’ bread made with barley flour or worse.

The act of making bread – kneading – also hasn’t changed despite centuries of developments. Sure, you can use a bread maker or mixer if you like but you won’t get as good results (and it won’t be as fun) compared to just using your hands and feeling when it’s ready – when the tension in the dough’s just right, when the flour’s been completely combined…

Of course the beauty of this recipe is that it doesn’t require much kneading at all – if any. It was intended to be a quick meal to fuel a tired army, it could act as a reliable form of rent, or just as an easy lunch with a hunk of cheese for a hungry child. Whatever its use, bread was one of the few things that could unify people from across the social classes and it’s the thing that brought me closest to understanding people from the past.

“Just bread”, you say?

Worst experiments of 2020

Because this year has been a disaster in more ways than one…

Number 5: Stuffed Goat

Goat is a widely eaten and much loved meat for millions of people around the world. My own dad counts himself as someone who enjoyed a good goat curry when he was growing up. For this reason I thought I was ready to try it myself: I was not.

This was a top 5 worst experiment not so much because of the recipe itself but because it highlighted how far I still have to go until my cooking skills are anything higher than “mostly haphazard, occasionally decent” (genuine quote, by the way.)

Was it the fact I forgot the tin foil tent and didn’t baste the meat, thus rendering it tougher than leather, that ruined this experiment? Maybe. Perhaps it was the fact that half way through cooking this I decided now would be the perfect time to quickly attempt some minor DIY and remove the cot sides from my toddler’s bed – a task that was ended up being neither minor or quick, but which did mean I missed the timer when it went off.

Either way, this was not a triumph.

Number 4: Stewed Rabbit

Just slightly worse than the goat was the rabbit.

Again, my cooking skills probably didn’t help with the terrible outcome of this but the difference here is that I think the recipe was also, well, terrible.

When I started this blog I knew very little about historical cooking. Like many others, I was mistaken in thinking food of the past was either dishes of bland gruel or over-spiced rotting meat. Also like many others, I was mistaken in thinking that Mrs Beeton was some sort of Victorian culinary goddess, come to pull us out of our uninspired ways and bless us with the knowledge of flavour.

Well let me tell you: Mrs Beeton was the patron saint of bland and uninspired.

Harsh? Perhaps. But this rabbit dish managed to be one of the few that I ended up not serving to my husband out of a genuine fear he would divorce me if I tried.

Number 3: Turkey Twizzlers

Nothing has ever encapsulated the meaning of ‘rose tinted spectacles’ quite like turkey twizzlers.

I’m really loathe to stick this post in my top worst experiments because it’s actually one of my best pieces of writing (I think.) And yet the outcome of that day of cooking was so hideously disgusting, and my kitchen was so covered in fat and grease, that I can’t deny its place on this list.

These are also on the ‘worst of 2020’ list because the day I made these my mother-in-law had popped over for a socially distanced catch up in our garden. I panicked that she – elegant and sophisticated woman she is – would despair at her son’s choice of partner when she saw me making these, so I’m posting them here so she knows that I know they’re dreadful. Okay?

(A week or so after I published the original post, though, Bernard Matthews announced turkey twizzlers were making a come back. Coincidence? I think not…)

Number 2: Nut Custard

Oh God. Just thinking about this makes me want to be sick.

This was my first foray into the ancient desserts of Apicius and I was ill prepared. Nut custard looked like some sort of rotting alien body part. It had eggs in it, it had nuts, it had honey. It also had… fish sauce. The fish sauce was the thing that got me – even once it was baked I still thought I could smell and taste it at the back of my throat.

The editors of the recipe said that Apicius rarely gave measurements or quantities, which meant that “in the hands of an inexperienced operator [the recipe] would result in failure.” At the time I had scoffed and had carried on to failure – just as predicted. Despite being slightly less inexperienced than I was back in February, I have yet to reattempt this one.

Number 1: Egges in Moneshine

When I was seven I ate a spider web by accident. There’s not an interesting backstory, you’re just going to have to accept that it happened and it was an accident. I have no idea if the spider was part of my unexpected snack, but at the time it was the worst thing I’d ever eaten.

When I was at uni I was given a plate of deep fried chicken wings that were still raw and bloody inside. That was then the worst thing I’d ever eaten.

When I was 27 I ate stuffed goat, stewed rabbit, turkey twizzlers and nut custard and all of them were the worst thing I’d ever eaten.

But then I ate egges in moneshine.

And I would eat a thousand spider webs – spiders included – and a thousand raw chicken wings and a thousand nut custards to never, not ever, have to put egges in moneshine in my mouth again. If 2020 was a food, it would be egges in moneshine and God only knows how much we’ve all hated this year.

Thank you and Happy New Year

So that’s it! My first year done.

Thank you very much to everyone who has read, shared, commented and supported me on this blog. It started as an overeager New Year’s resolution and I never thought it would pick up any interest beyond my mum (and to be honest I think both she and I thought one of us would lose interest around February) but it seems a few people quite like it, so thank you.

I hope you have a very happy, warm, healthy New Year and I’ll see you in 2021 for lots more historical triumphs and disasters.

Ellie x

Reading lists (I’m a teacher, what did you expect?)

Below is a list of some of the best food history sites and blogs. No arguments – in fact, why are you still hanging around here?

  • British Food: A History – Dr Neil Buttery’s long running and exceptionally well researched and detailed blog on the the history of British food.
  • Foods of England – Fabulous site of the history of the forgotten foods of England, with recipes.
  • Food timeline – An incredible index of food by late food history librarian Lynne Olver.
  • Medieval Cookery – A huge database of recipes from the medieval period across Europe.
  • Monk’s Modern Medieval Cuisine – Written by Dr Christopher Monk who has an expert knowledge of the recipes in Forme of Cury, and also the etymology of modern and medieval food.
  • Pass the Flamingo – Excellent site on the recipes and history of ancient dishes.
  • Project Gutenberg – immense database of free texts including Apicius, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and Forme of Cury.
  • Silk Road Gourmet by Laura Kelley – a fantastic blog by author Laura Kelley, delving into the ancient texts and recipes of Mesopotamia and other ancient Asian countries and empires.
  • Tasting History – Something for YouTube fans! Brilliant channel bringing history and food to life.
  • Tavola Mediterranea – if there’s anything Farrell Monaco doesn’t know about Roman cuisine it’s not worth knowing – great website with recipes and history-inspired culinary tools to buy.
  • The Regency Cook – Paul Couchman, cook at the Regency Townhouse in Hove, runs a blog with recipes and brilliant cookery courses based on 1830’s techniques and recipes.

“All I want for Christmas is bread sauce”: A brief history.

The day of judgement is almost upon us.

Soon we will be called forth to follow the Christmas commandments of our lord and saviour Delia (or Nigella, whichever you prefer) and begin the rituals: the chopping, the stirring, the basting. We will sing the hymns of Wizzard and share communion of a bucks fizz (or two) well before 9am.

Whether you’re a ‘presents first thing in the morning’ kind of person or a masochist who waits until after lunch, there’s one thing you should know: the day is made or broken by the quality of the bread sauce.

It’s an opinion I haven’t seen too much online and yet it’s one my whole family shared when I was growing up. In fact, so seriously do my family take bread sauce that no one except mum was allowed to make it and the first year I took over my sister insisted mum make a ‘back up’ vat too.

‘Vat’ might seem an odd way to measure bread sauce – after all, it’s a once a year accompaniment, right? Just another sauce to go with the cranberry jelly and the gravy. Surely ‘jug’ would be better?

You might think so, but you’d be wrong; growing up our family of four tripled the recipe. The recipe that, as standard, served 8 people. For us, ‘vat’ is an entirely appropriate measurement – nay, the only appropriate measurement – when it comes to bread sauce.

Someone corrected my mother’s annotation that 3x the recipe was too much. Luckily, 2018 saw the return of my appetite and thus the return of triple portions.

That seems…excessive

Tis the season.

Anyway, I’d done an obligatory mince pie post to celebrate the festivities, but what I was really excited about was delving into the history of my very own reason for the season.

For the uninitiated, proper bread sauce contains nothing but bread, butter, milk and cream, an onion and some spices. It should look a little like porridge and taste creamy and mild and ever so slightly fragrant. Its flavours are best approximately 8-12 hours after lunch when it’s eaten cold from the fridge in gelatinous mounds off a silver spoon, or between two slices of cheap white bread which have been buttered and dotted with leftover stuffing bits. In short, if anything was going to prove the existence of God to me at this time of year, it’d be a perfect bowl of Delia’s bread sauce, not a nativity scene.

Using bread to thicken sauces was an ancient technique, but I was interested to see if there were any old recipes which made bread the central part of the sauce itself and what those recipes tasted like. Were any of them even remotely similar to modern bread sauce? Were they served alongside turkey? Was there any historical precedent for cooking up entire vats of the stuff, or was it just a bonkers tradition unique to my family?

Galentyne: 1390.

Take crustes of brede & grynde hem smale; do þerto poudour of galyngale, of canel, of gynger, and salt it; temper hyt with vyneger & drawe it vp þorow a straynour & messe hit forth.

Take crusts of bread and finely grind them; to this add powder of galangal, cinnamon and ginger, and salt it; temper it with vinegar, and blend it through a strainer, and serve it forth.

Forme of Cury. Text and translation copyright Christopher Monk 2020

Galentyne was the earliest English precursor to bread sauce I could find. Forme of Cury, where this recipe comes from, was compiled around 1390 and was the cook book for Richard II’s master cooks. Being a 14th century recipe, galentyne wasn’t intended to be eaten with turkey, but it also didn’t give any indication what it was an accompaniment to. Knowing how the rich ate in the 14th century it could have been anything: pork, beef, porpoise, swan, seal…

Dr. Christopher Monk, who has written a post about the various galentynes of Forme of Cury, points out that the word ‘galentyne’ is pretty hard to pin down. In some recipes it appears as a sauce, in others a jelly. It can be served hot, or cold. Some versions use vinegar, others use only wine, some both.

The first thing I noticed was a lack of quantities. This was totally standard for the 14th century and just as totally unhelpful as it sounds, especially given the only liquid in this recipe was vinegar.

I blitzed a handful of white bread crusts with the ground spices and added tablespoon after tablespoon of white wine vinegar until I ended up with a fairly thick paste, which I pushed through a sieve before trying.

Perhaps I tried too much at first, because the first taste was like eating a tablespoon of acid. My lips tried to eat themselves as they curled back from the sourness and my eyes began to prickle but once the initial assault was over I began to appreciate the tartness and the aftertaste, which wasn’t too bad: slightly spicy and salty.

I even went back for more, this time a small smear on a bit of ham and it was actually delicious. It reminded me a bit of a pickle, the sort of thing you’d serve with chutneys and mustards and piccalilli; I reckon I’d make this to serve alongside a Christmas ham in future years.

You do not need to triple the recipe for this one.

Was it a good approximation of modern bread sauce, though? No, not even close. It had vaguely the right consistency and colour, but that’s where the similarities ended. I moved onto the next recipe.

Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce: 1594.

Fine Sauce for a roasted Rabbet: used to king Henrie the eight. TAKE a handfull of washed Parcelie, minced small, boil it with butter and vergious upon a chafingdish, season it with Sugar, and a litle pepper grose beaten: when it is readie, put in a few crums of white bread amongst the others let it boile againe til it be thick: then lay it in a platter, like the bredth of three fingers, lay of each side one rosted Cony or more so serue them.

The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, Thomas Dawson.

This seemed more like it; no mention of vinegar and plenty of butter. There was still a worrying lack of cream or milk to give the sauce a decent thick creaminess, but it was moving in the right direction and, as the recipe suggested it had been served to Henry VIII himself, it seemed promising that it’d be rich and filling at least.

I placed the chopped parsley, butter and verjuice in a pan and let it boil together for a minute or two. Verjuice is just the juice of unripe grapes. You can make it yourself, but it’s easier to buy a bottle “just to have in for historical experiments.” Once bought, the bottle will take up cupboard space in your kitchen and your husband will moan that it just adds to the clutter and never gets used.

As soon as the butter had melted I added sugar, pepper and a handful of breadcrumbs and…panicked. The recipe definitely said ‘sauce’, but the breadcrumbs soaked the liquid up like a sponge. It didn’t resemble a sauce at all, no matter how much more verjuice or butter I added, it just stayed a dense mass. I re-read the recipe; it suggested the ‘sauce’ be served “the breadth of three fingers” which suggested some sort of solidity but I was still a bit taken aback, especially as it was easier to cut with a knife rather than spoon onto a plate and looked alarmingly like pork stuffing.

A sausage of bread sauce, sire?

In terms of flavour, however, this was by far the most pleasant. It was rich and buttery, like a good bread sauce should be. Modern bread sauce has a slight sweetness to it, but this was far sweeter than I was used to because of the verjuice and added sugar.

The main flavour was parsley, which unfortunately wasn’t like a good bread sauce at all. Good bread sauce should be stodgy and carbohydrate heavy, with nary a hint of anything as healthy as a green herb in sight. Henry VIII’s nailed the stodginess (perhaps a little too well…) but the overeager abundance of parsley in this one meant it still wasn’t right. I moved on.

Gallendine sauce for a Turkey: 1653

Take some Claret Wine, and some grated Bread, and a sprig of Rosemary, a little beaten Cloves, a little beaten Cinnamon, and some Sugar.

A True Gentlewomans Delight, Elizabeth GreyCountess of Kent

Did I really want to make another version of galentyne again? No, of course not, and besides I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough vinegar left. But what intrigued me about this recipe was that it specified serving it with turkey, just like modern bread sauce.

The first thing that struck me in this recipe was the addition of claret wine. True bread sauce should be white. I began to feel very nervous as I poured wine over my heap of breadcrumbs and watched them turn white to deepest red.

There was no cooking to be done here, so once the herbs and spices had been added I assumed it was done.

Bread would be a good tool for mopping up a murder scene, I think.

This was the most unpleasant of the lot, which surprised me. I think I’d assumed because it was the latest of the three it would somehow be the best – as if time would afford the creator of the recipe some additional skill or appreciation for good bread sauce. Of the three, however, this was the only one we ended up not being able to finish.

Consistency wise it was the closest to modern bread sauce, but appearance wise it was about as far away as you could get: bold and bright and covered in twigs. The taste was also nothing like bread sauce: it was just wine with soggy lumps of bread and the occasional sprig of rosemary poking you in the gums. No, thank you.

The verdict.

The closest taste to modern bread sauce was probably Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce. The addition of butter made it by far the creamiest of the lot but the appearance was more like a log of sausage meat than a sauce. None of them were very good matches – either too acidic, too solid or too alcoholic, which just goes to show that having bread as an ingredient does not a bread sauce make.

Three bowls of bread, none of them sauce.

By this point I was beginning to suspect that Delia had invented the perfect recipe for bread sauce through divine intervention rather than historical evolution… and then I found Hannah Glasse’s 1747 recipe:

Bread sauce for Roasted Partridge

Bread sauce…made thus: Take about a handful or two of crumbs of bread, put in a pint of milk or more, a small whole onion, a little whole white pepper, a little salt, and a bit of butter, boil it all well up; then take the onion out and beat it with a spoon.

The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse.

Given Delia’s militarily precise and inflexible timings for Christmas day lunch, I don’t know how much she’d approve of Hannah’s somewhat lackadaisical approach to the quantities and measurements here, but I couldn’t fault the foundations of the recipe. Bread? Check. Milk? Check. Butter? Check. Wine, vinegar, verjuice? No, no, no – thank God.

So, were any of the three I made worthy of triple portions? No. But, more importantly, did any of them make the cut for this year’s Christmas Day table? Also no – it’s meant to be a day of unbridled joy and pleasure for God’s sake.

For the day itself I’ll stick to Delia’s bread sauce recipe, but maybe now I’ll pause before dunking my head into the bowl and remind my husband and daughter of the rich history of the stuff – much to their delight, I’m sure. And if there’s one positive to the Christmas lockdown, it’s that my mum – who texted to tell me I had “better not let her down” with this post – wasn’t around to see some of the unfortunate origins of her beloved side dish.

Merry Christmas!

E x

“The principal season for the killing of hogs”: Christmas-Pyes 1728

We had a Christmas tradition when I was growing up. Perhaps tradition is the wrong word; superstition might be better. Mum would bring the mince pies out around the first week of December and they’d sit on the plate patiently while we all ignored them and ate biscuits and chocolate instead.

Eventually the yule log and gingerbread men would be gone and we had no option but to acknowledge the pies’ existence. The superstition went like this: you could eat as many as you liked, but you couldn’t speak a word until the last crumb had been licked from your lips. Each pie you ate silently bought a month of good luck for the coming year.

And…as I type that I realise it may have been a superstition invented by my mother to buy herself some peace and quiet during the school holidays. Regardless, mince pies seemed an obvious choice for my first ever Christmas post!

The secret is to use real Englishmen.

Why ‘mince’ pies?

The earliest recipes for mince pies (or pies that us modern folk would call mince pies) contained minced or shredded meat, as well as fruit and spices. Meatless mince pies are a relatively modern concept and began around the start of the 19th century, although suet was still a popular ingredient. Traditionally these pies would have been all kinds of shapes and sizes, often quite intricate but have today become boringly round.

Today’s mince pie experiments are of the meat-and-fruit variety and appear as ‘Christmas Pyes’ in Richard Bradley’s The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director. This was intended to be a useful manual for farmers and their families and contained not only recipes but practical farming advice and jobs to be done in each month. December, if you’re interested, is “the principal season for the killing hogs” – perfect for when you’ve run out of board games and need a festive family activity.

Killing hogs in December was all well and good and no one seemed to have a problem with this. The thing that seemed to really divide people, that seemed to get them properly foaming at the mouth, was the name of the pastries: Christmas pies.

Christmas pies – cute name or sign of the devil?

It all depended on who you asked.

Check any history textbook and it’ll show: the Puritans banned Christmas. It’s probably the only thing most of us remember from year 8 history lessons. Unfortunately, like most historical facts, it’s false. Or hugely exaggerated, at least. As Foods of England shows, nothing was outright or nationally banned at all; at some local levels certain individuals attempted to ensure 25th December was business as usual but these miserable souls were, for the most part, roundly ignored.

In 1650 – three years before before Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector – the writer Robert Fletcher made fun of Puritans and their supposed hatred of Christmas – and fear of Catholic conspiracies – by writing an imaginary dialogue between two Puritanical “zealots” on the topic of Christmas and, yes, Christmas pies:

Christ-mass? Give me my beads: the name implies
A plot by its ingredients beef and pyes.
A feast Apocryphal,
A popish rite, kneaded in dough in the night…
An annual dark-lanthorn Jubile:
Catesby and Vaulx baked in conspiracie [sic]…”

Robert Fletcher, ‘Christmas Day; Or the Shutle of an inspired Weaver bolted against the Order of the Church for its Solemnity’

In 1720, just to really cement the idea that Christmas pies were to Puritans what bulbs of garlic are to vampires, Thomas Lewis wrote that fanatical Puritans in the civil war had decried Christmas pies as “abomination[s]”.

Then, in December 1733, The Gentlemen’s Magazine published an essay on Christmas pies by the curiously named Philo-Clericus. Despite proclaiming a “love” of them, he suggested Christmas pies were only “in vogue” during winter “owing to the barrenness of the season and the scarcity of fruit and milk to make tarts, custards and other desserts…” And as someone who would rather lick the crumbs from the yule log plate before eating a whole mince pie, I can kind of see his point.

Philo-Clericus goes on to describe how it wasn’t just Puritans, but Quakers too, who hated these festive treats. According to Phil, Quakers viewed Christmas pies as “an invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon, an hodge-podge of superstition, popery, the devil and all his works.”

I mean, how could I resist?

The recipe.

Take an Ox-Heart, and parboil it, or a Neat’s-Tongue, boil’d without drying or salting, or the Inside of a Surloin of Beef; chop this small, and put to each Pound two Pounds of clean Beef-Suet, cleaned of the Skins and Blood, and chop that as small as the former; then pare, and take the Cores out of eight large Apples, and chop them small, grate then a Two-penny-Loaf; and then add two or three Nutmegs grated, half an Ounce of fresh Cloves, as much Mace, a little Pepper and Salt, and a Pound and a half of Sugar; then grate in some Lemon and Orange-Peel, and squeeze the Juice of six Oranges, and two Lemons, with half a Pint of Sack, and pour this into the Mixture.

Take care to put in two Pounds of Currans to every Pound of Meat, and mix it well; then try a little of it over the Fire, in a Sauce-pan, and as it tastes, so add what you think proper to it: put this in an earthen glaz’d Pan, and press it down, and you may keep it till Candlemas, if you make it at Christmas.

Memorandum: When you put this into your Pyes, press it down, and it will be like a Paste.When you take these Pyes out of the Oven, put in a Glass of Brandy, or a Glass of Sack or White Wine, into them, and stir it in them.

Richard Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director.

The method.

Ox heart and ox tongue were quite hard to come by. I don’t know how easy it is to get hold of them usually but for some weird reason, on the week of the 14th December, the shops and butchers were all more preoccupied with selling turkeys, ham or big joints of beef instead, so I used the inside of a sirloin steak for the meaty part of these.

I added beef suet, chopped apple, breadcrumbs, spices, lemon and orange peel and a good glug of brandy to the chopped sirloin and then left the mixture overnight to mingle.

It looked a bit worrying, but it smelled amazing.

The second half of the recipe made it sound as though these pies were meant to be open to accommodate the addition of more alcohol after baking, but I chose to bake mine with a crust on top because, as I’ve stated numerous times before, I don’t believe a pie is a pie unless it has a full crust (top and bottom). The additional alcohol, I decided, would just have to be drunk as an accompaniment.

The recipe wasn’t clear which type of pastry should be used. By the 18th century, pastry had moved on a bit from just a basic flour and water mixture and, given the richness of the filling, I thought I needed something special.

Luckily, Richard Bradley had included a pastry section in his recipe book, and I selected the one I thought would go best – “sweet paste”.

If you would have a sweet Paste; then take half a pound of butter, and rub it into about a pound of flour, with two or three ounces of double-refined sugar powder’d, and make it a Paste, with cold milk, some sack and brandy. This is a very good one.

Richard Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director.

A very good one it was indeed, with its sugar and double helping of yet more alcohol. As the smells of brandy and mincemeat and, er, minced meat mixed and wafted round the air as the pies were baking, I began to feel very merry. Perhaps it was the festive atmosphere or the several glugs of sherry I’d drunk to check it was okay to serve alongside the pies (always best to double check, I think), but I suddenly felt more Christmassy than I had done all December. By the time the buzzer went off I was practically ready to open the presents and carve the turkey.

The verdict.

My husband, lured downstairs by the smell of festive baking, couldn’t wait to get started.

“Don’t tell me what’s in them, I don’t want to know,” he said as he took a bite. “They smell better than anything else you’ve made so far and I don’t want you to ruin it for me.”

They didn’t just smell great, they tasted great too. Like, unbelievably good: buttery, spicy, fruity. The meat was more of an aftertaste rather than a flavour on its own, and the pastry was glorious – flaky and rich as Christmas pastry should be.

The abundance of spices and sugar and meat probably made these a treat to be enjoyed only by the rich at this time of year and, frankly, the alarming amount of butter and suet used which melted and bubbled up out of the pan as they cooked meant that modern day folk probably wouldn’t want to eat these all year round, either.

I made about 14 and even though I’m not a mince pie fan, they were all gone 48 hours later. I’m not 100% sure what the meat added, other than a slightly more savoury element than usual, but the addition of sirloin certainly didn’t detract from the pies either.

Even the little skater on the plate’s dancing with joy at how well these turned out.

Merry Christmas (in more ways than one…)

It’s unclear exactly when mince pie recipe writers dropped the meat element. Recipes in Mrs Beeton’s 1861 version still contained meat although it appears meaty mince pies were on the decline by this point as subsequent editions only printed versions for her meatless mince pies.

If like me you’re struggling to get properly ‘into’ Christmas this year – if you’ve had plans cancelled at the last minute, or the year’s been, frankly, a bit shit and you just want it all over with – but you want to give the Christmas spirit one last kick up the bum to try and get it going again, you could do a lot worse than giving these mince pies a go. And if they don’t manage to bring back the festive feeling they will at least get you a little too tipsy to mind! Merry Christmas!

E x

Christmas Pyes

For the mincemeat:
500g currants
200g shredded beef suet
160g sugar
2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
Zest of 1 lemon and its juice
Zest of 2 oranges and their juice
1 sirloin steak
1 small cob, grated into breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper
4 or 5 cloves, crushed
5 or 6 tablespoons of brandy or sherry

For the pastry:
150g plain flour
75g butter
28g sugar
Milk or brandy or sherry

  1. Chop the sirloin steak up as small as you can.
  2. Add the steak to a bowl with the other mincemeat ingredients and mix. Leave to stand in a fridge overnight.
  3. For the pastry, rub flour, butter and sugar together.
  4. Add as much milk, brandy or sherry as you like to form to a sticky but still pliable dough.
  5. Roll the dough out on a floured surface to as thin as you can.
  6. Butter a mince pie tin or a standard muffin tin and cut out circles of dough to fit into the holes.
  7. Place a few spoons of mincemeat in each pastry case.
  8. Cut out slightly smaller circles to fit on top of the mince pies and place them on, pushing down at the edges to seal them.
  9. Brush with egg wash, slash a hole in the top of each pie with a knife and bake at 180 degrees for 25-30 minutes until golden brown.

War Widows and the Unknown Warrior: 11th November 1920

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon, The Times, September 1914

No recipe today I’m afraid. Instead let’s talk about a tomb in Westminster Abbey that holds the body of a man with no known identity. Carved on the grave are the words:

“Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land…”

Tomb to the Unknown Warrior – a fallen WW1 soldier – was the idea of Rev. David Railton. Whilst serving as Army Chaplain on the Western Front, he noticed a grave marked with a rough cross on which a pencilled note “An Unknown Soldier of the Black Watch” was written. Using this experience, and taking inspiration from a similar idea that had been proposed in France in late 1916, he suggested that in order to commemorate the thousands who died across the British Empire, an unidentified deceased British soldier should be picked from a battlefield and buried “amongst the kings”. His idea was strongly supported by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and preparations took place.

On 11th November 1920, the casket containing the body of the soldier – picked at random from a selection of 4 possible men from a range of battlefields – was placed on a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery and made its way through vast and silent crowds lining the streets of Westminster.

At this time of year, every year, I think back to what it must have been like to stand inside Westminster Abbey 100 years ago and watch the grave finally being capped with its black marble stone. I wonder what it must have been like for the servicemen who stood guard – most of whom had also fought in the war that claimed the life of the Unknown Warrior only a few years ago. I wonder what it was like for children who were too young to remember World War One and yet still had their entire childhoods shaped by the collective memory and trauma of it.

But mostly I wonder what it was like for the women. Specifically the wives and mothers who were left behind by a war that took everything from them and – it must have seemed by the end – gave precious little back.

The price of victory?

Sure, talk of triumph, freedom and liberty was all well and good for politicians and historians with distance from the fighting, but for the real people who had to experience the horror of reading the words ‘Regret To Inform You…’, of telling children their fathers wouldn’t be returning home, of folding and putting away clothes that would never be worn again…? Well, I can’t stop thinking about those people.

Perhaps it’s because it’s 100 years to the day that the Unknown Warrior was interred in his tomb, or maybe I’m just getting softer as I get older, but the thought of all those lives shattered into pieces – physically and emotionally – seems especially poignant this year. Because as well as the king and politicians and sombre crowd, the casket was also flanked by approximately 100 guests of honour: women who had suffered the heartbreaking experience of losing their husbands and all their sons in the war – “every woman so bereft, who applied for a place got it“. What must have been going through their heads as they watched the final journey of this casket, which represented so much to so many?

It’s important to note that it’s easy to get overly sentimental here. Interviews with widows, children and mothers, diary extracts and articles all show a deep sense of loss and desperation, but the grief of these women is not my grief; their loss was not my loss. We can’t imagine what emotions they felt at the time, nor imagine that they all experienced the same ones. All we can do is look at the records that history has left us and try to piece together what the short term reality for some may have been.

The life of a war widow.

Most women of the early 20th century, including many among the 100 at the interment of the Unknown Warrior, relied on their husbands to provide an income for the family. When the men went to war, many women began work in the factories and fields to fill the workplace spaces left behind. The number of women in the Civil Service rose from 33,000 in 1911, to 102,000 by 1921, though women’s wages were, on average, half those of their male counterparts.

When the war ended and the men returned back to work many women had to return home to a life of domesticity again. This was fine (except not really) if you had a returning husband who could pull in his pre-war wages, but if you’d lost your main earner and the job you’d been doing for the past 4 years was given back to a man, what were you supposed to do? Many widows had to continue to work, but for some – especially women with young children – that was impossible.

Fights broke out among employed women – some of whom were widowed – over who should be allowed to keep the jobs that were left. In October 1919, Isobel M Pazzey wrote in the Daily Herald: “No decent man would allow his wife to work, and no decent woman would do it if she knew the harm she was doing to the widows and single girls who are looking for work… Put the married women out, send them home to clean their houses and look after the man they married and give a mother’s care to their children. Give the single women and widows the work.” I imagine she wasn’t someone you’d spend too much time chatting with at the water cooler.

Charity…of a sort.

In 1916, Kitty Eckersley‘s husband Percy was killed in the Battle of the Somme. She was seven months pregnant at the time. “I felt I didn’t want to live. I had no wish to live at all because the world had come to an end for me. I had lost all that I loved.”

Women like Kitty were entitled to a state-funded pension and a dependents’ allowance, which helped support children under the age of 16. Charities like the British Legion also helped with further support for families that were really struggling following the wartime death of the man of the house. Pensions for widows were a relatively new concept, first used during the Boer War of 1881, and their use was ramped up during WW1.

There were caveats to the pensions, though. Women who married ex-soldiers who had been discharged and then died afterwards from wounds weren’t entitled to anything. In around 1920, Ellen Bambrough wrote to the government asking for support following her husband’s death the year before. Her husband had served in the war and had left her with two children to raise. The government, however, initially responded that his death was “not attributable” to the war – he had been struck down by the influenza epidemic of 1919 – and that therefore Ellen was not entitled to any financial support.

Similarly, women could have their pension withdrawn if it was felt they weren’t living morally – for example if they were regularly drunk, had an illegitimate child or dared to live out of wedlock with another man following the death of their husband. Neighbours could report widows to local authorities who had to the power to turn up, unannounced, at a woman’s house to investigate accusations of immorality.

In 1915, 25 year old Mabel Beadsworth‘s husband was killed in action, leaving her with two children under 5. Following the birth of an illegitimate child in 1916, her pension was stopped. After her boyfriend left her destitute in 1930, Mabel ended up in a workhouse. Desperate, she petitioned the government to reinstate her pension and her case was reopened (unsuccessfully), with much probing of her private life and public discussion of her “immorality” and “misconduct.” Reports from witnesses described her as a “disgrace to the name of woman” (that particular witness was her charming mother-in-law, by the way.)

The examples above highlight that post war widowhood wasn’t just a box to be ticked on official forms. In echoes of the Victorian notion of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’, the status ‘widow’ was a tool by which the government could monitor and control women who were no longer under the control of men.

“Is the modern woman a hussy?”

In 1917 Rosamund Essex’s teacher told her female students: “I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is not a guess of mine. It is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men who might have married you have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can. The war has made more openings for women than there were before. But there will still be a lot of prejudice. You will have to fight. You will have to struggle.

Rosamund’s teacher might have been exaggerating a bit, but her point still stood. Fewer men meant fewer marriages and fewer marriages meant that more women would have to fend for themselves in later life. For some this was a good thing, a chance for women to take control of their own lives. For others it signalled the end of society.

By the end of the war there was, if anything, a preoccupation among some conservative thinkers that some women might be moving on a little too fast. The word “flapper” began to be used to describe young women of the 1920’s who drank, danced and generally had fun with or without a husband.

In fact, some people at the time were worried that women were enjoying life without men so much so that in 1919 the Illustrated Sunday Herald ran the headline “Is the Modern Woman a Hussy?”

“Yes!” came the response from Dr. R. Murray-Leslie. Or at least it probably did, going by a lecture he delivered in 1920 criticising “the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily-clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations.” I don’t know about you but it sounds to me like he’d just been stood up and was feeling pretty bitter about it all.

Admittedly, most of the accusations of frivolity and “loose morals” were aimed at younger women – though widows of any age who didn’t conform to social mourning expectations of the time were also accused of getting over their husbands a little too quickly. There was a real fear among conservative thinkers of the time that the huge numbers of men who had died in WW1 meant that young women, who previously would have married and had children, would now be allowed to run wild.

Final thoughts.

It’s obvious that only thinking about women who experienced the loss of their husbands in WW1 through a lens of permanent bereavement is dangerous, even if it does fit neatly into a patriotic package of remembrance. For many women who had experienced it, widowhood was a defining feature of their post-war lives and many never fully recovered from the trauma of their earlier loss. However, failing to think of the lives of widows beyond their widowhood threatens to romanticise women’s grief and labels them entirely in relation to the men they lost, even if they then went on to remarry. As seen, the process of applying for a widow’s pension was anything but romantic and women had to fight hard to acquire what was legally theirs.

WW1 heralded the start (and end) of many things. As more women moved into the workforce and women gradually became more and more enfranchised throughout the first half of the 20th century, traditional expectations very slowly ebbed away. Widow’s pensions were blunt instruments that were, in some senses, designed to embrace both changes.

On the one hand, there was a genuine intention behind the pensions issued to widows of WW1 to provide relief and support. This was born of an awareness of the scale of suffering and a sense of duty; as their husbands had died fighting for their country, the least their country could do was take care of the widows.

On the other hand, the pensions were still rooted in old Victorian ideals of morality and social order. At a time when many were worrying about the rise of the flapper, there was limited empathy among traditionalists for people who were seen to fall short of the old standards, and little to no understanding of how some socio-economic factors would impact on certain individuals’ ability to maintain a ‘moral’ lifestyle.

The widows of WW1 deserve to be remembered just as the soldiers do. Their stories are often cut short at the moment of their husband’s death, and yet their own lives didn’t end; they couldn’t end. Not when there was work to be found, children to be fed, letters and petitions to be written. The lives of these women continued for years afterwards and so, as I think about the Unknown Warrior and all he represents, I also think about the 100 women who accompanied him to his tomb, and I wonder what became of them afterwards.

E x

Credit here.