I woke suddenly, already knowing the creature was in the room before I saw her. I kept my eyes closed, heart thumping, as the door squeaked open quietly and yet somehow with the impact of an orchestra of foghorns. The orange lamplight glow on my eyelids flickered as the beast crossed the window towards my bedside…
The stench about her was reminiscent of a city on a hot day. She stopped. I heard her paw the ground and imagined twisted claws as sharp as knives tearing through the carpet. The mattress bowed as she heaved her stinking form beside me which was when I finally mustered the courage to open one eye: Matted hair, eyes and skin and teeth glowing in the moonlight. She lunged towards me, mouth in a gaping open howl of an O and an ink-black throat that swallowed my own scream and mingled it with her wail:
“I need a pooooo!”
Okay, so it’s not going to win gothic of the year. But a terrifying midnight waking from a squitty child (mine, I should specify), a few nights ago did at least provide me with a decent opening into today’s creepy post, which comes courtesy of the creators of A Gothic Cookbook – a fully illustrated collection of recipes from some of the finest gothic stories in literature.
I was given the opportunity to try out a recipe and jumped at the chance with more excitement than Dracula at an open window. But before I reveal which recipe and book, here are a few words from Ella Buchan, one of the creatives of A Gothic Cookbook.
What is A Gothic Cookbook all about?
A Gothic Cookbook is, first and foremost, a celebration of food in Gothic literature. It’s about highlighting how authors in the genre, from the Romantic era to contemporary novelists, write evocatively about food. They use it, to varying degrees, to heighten tension, spotlight inequalities, highlight oppression, create a queasy unease, portend doom, reignite memories (warm or terrifying), or to warn of a greedy, gluttonous, dangerous nature.
So what can we expect to see?
Each of 13 chapters focuses on a Gothic tale, from Dracula and Frankenstein to Beloved and The Haunting of Hill House, and discusses how food manifests itself in that story before presenting the reader with recipes inspired by the text. From Rosemary’s Baby, for example, the mousse with the “chalky undertaste” becomes individual Chalk & Chocolate Mousses, with the dark dessert topped with peaks of white chocolate mousse and a walnut. We’ve recreated the Paprika Hendl that Jonathan Harker loved so much he jotted a note to “get recipe for Mina”, and our Rebecca chapter has chicken in aspic (from the ball) and the entire, lavish afternoon tea spread served each day (at half past four) in Manderley.
How do you decide what to include?
Each recipe is either based on a dish mentioned or described in the book, inspired by ingredients and themes that dominate in the story, or has a tale to tell about the author (such as a vermicelli dish galvanised with a lively herb sauce, in homage to Mary Shelley’s tale of being inspired by an experiment that saw a piece of pasta begin to move…)
The book will also include drinks and cocktails, from a breakfast-worthy hot chocolate (Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber) to a tangerine sour based on the “bitter” segments that tried so hard to warn the second Mrs de Winter not to become the second Mrs de Winter.
We’ve also created a beautiful cocktail booklet exclusively available via the crowdfunding campaign, with libations such as this “Cup of Stars” cocktail – a nod to the famous passage in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. We chose a clarified rum punch because it has an interesting history, dating back to at least the 18th century, because it’s milk-based (like the drink the little girl loved to sip from her cup of stars), and because it’s just really delicious.
Don’t do it, Eleanor told the little girl; insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it…
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
So there you go: today’s experiment is Clarified Milk Punch, or “Cup of Stars”, inspired by The Haunting of Hill House. This recipe comes from the cocktail booklet which accompanies A Gothic Cookbook. Thank you Ella for letting me loose on your creation!
Clarified Milk Punch or Cup of Stars
4-5 green or white tea bags 200g sugar Cinnamon stick and star anise (optional) 600ml just-boiled water 3 lemons, zest and juice 600ml rum 500ml whole milk
1. Add tea bags, sugar and spices (if using) to a medium mixing bowl or saucepan, pour over boiled water, stir, and steep for around 5-10 minutes. Fish out the tea bags and spices and add lemon zest and juice.
2. Add the rum and stir well.
3. Pour the milk into a separate, large bowl and pour the punch mixture into it, stirring well. It will curdle, as it should.
4. Leave for half an hour to 45 minutes and strain through a sieve lined with muslin cloth. This can take a while, so leave to one side and let it work its magic.
5. Strain again (through the same sieve) and repeat until beautifully clear. You can reserve the curd-like remnants for baking, mixing into cheesecake recipes, or spreading on crackers.
6. Pour into sterilised glass jars or bottles and seal tightly. The punch will keep well, unopened, in the fridge for around 2 months.
7. Serve over ice and garnished with a lemon twist, ideally in cups with stars at the bottom.
This recipe makes enough for about ten servings and suggests that it should keep refrigerated, in unopened sterilised bottles, for about two months. In all honesty my husband and I made it four days into the suggested two month shelf life before we’d finished it all, such was our greed.
I used dark rum which meant my Cup of Stars was slightly more golden than it would have been if I’d used white rum, though I think either type would work well. I’ll also admit that I was too impatient to continue straining the drink until it was “beautifully clear” – I made three cycles through a muslin cloth before my impatience got the better of me, forcing me to settle on “coquettishly murky” rather than gorgeous and translucent. No matter; it still looked and tasted fantastic and after a day in the fridge the remaining cocktail had cleared to a perfectly clear straw coloured liquid.
I’m not normally a liquor fan, but this cocktail might just convert me. It was light and sweet with a refreshing lemony twist, but the rum still caught the back of my throat with its spicy, molasses-tinged heat. Beware: this might look like an innocent drink (especially if you opt to serve it in a cup with stars at the bottom!) but it packs a punch (insert your own pun about ‘seeing stars’ here.)
For more gloriously gothic recipes you need to check out A Gothic Cookbook. At the moment the book is in production, but you can bag yourself a copy – with optional extra goodies – by supporting the crowdfunder on Unbound here. And if that wasn’t good enough you can use the code GOTHSTAILS10 for 10% off pledges up to £100. The code will run until midnight on 19th August.
Oh – and you can also follow the team at A Gothic Cookbook on Twitter here to get your fix of Frankensteinian food and Drac-tastic (not a word) drinks!
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; Some of the entrances are from the roof, on high wires. And some are through pyrotechnic flames and glitter.”
So said Shakespeare* in 1599. He was, of course, talking about Eurovision.
Now listen up, Americans, because this may be new to you (although perhaps not after Will Ferrell’s film Fire Saga.) You may have the Super Bowl “world” championships, (in which the only country that enter is the USA) but us Europeans have Eurovision.
What is Eurovision?
There’s no real way to answer that. Imagine a stage lit up with a million bulbs, all flashing with enough intensity to induce some sort of fit, even in people with no pre-existing conditions. A crew of performers wearing either matching neon fancy dress, national costume, or almost nothing at all dances with varying degrees of ease. Someone is singing with extraordinary passion about a loved one, or freedom, or ‘finding themselves’ or the battle of Waterloo. Half of the song will be in English, half of it (the most passionate half) will be in another language). Australia might or might not be there too.
At some point the performer might raise their arms up to reveal an enormous set of fully-feathered wings attached to the back of their dress. If not, there’s a good chance they’ll have a full costume change by the end of the song instead. For no discernable reason, someone will be in a human sized hamster wheel (Will Ferrell was right about that, at least).
Half way through the song the key will change. Thirty seconds later it will change again. If the singer is a woman the key will continue to rise until she is sure to break every pane of glass in the stadium. Someone will be playing the piano or saxophone, despite the fact they clearly can’t. Impossibly muscle-y men will writhe onto the stage, covered in oil, and the singer will awkwardly stroke one of them, like a pet owner stroking a puppy.
A naked man in full body paint might run across the stage with a political message daubed onto his chest but in his exuberance he’ll have run too fast and no one will be able to work out what his message was. At this point, everyone will stop watching the show and will turn to Twitter. Then a glitter cannon explodes, signalling the end of the song and covering the frenzied audience in a billion gold dust particles before the whole thing starts again with a new set of performers.
Now imagine all of that crammed into 3 minutes. And the stage is on fire/rotating/projecting lasers (pick at least two.)
I need a lie down
It’s the greatest night of the year. Almost 200 million people from across Europe tune in to give the UK nil points and make pseudo-intellectual comments about political voting (oh, look – Cyprus gave Greece 12 points? Would never have seen that coming!) This year, post-Brexit, promises to be super successful for us in the UK.
But is this crazy, bright, brilliant night a 20th century invention, or are its roots much older?
Well, they’re older, obviously – or else what would be the point of this post?
Today I’m taking a quick tour of singing contests of Europe’s history to see how well Eurovision would have fitted in with events of the past.
The Pythian Games: Ancient Greece
Let’s start with a familiar one, shall we.
Greece has been a member of Eurovision since 1974. But before that, it had a festival of arts and entertainment all for itself.
The Pythian games were held predominately at Delphi in honour of the god Apollo. They were ranked second in importance next to the Olympics – so you could say they were a Big Deal.
Pausanias, the second century traveller and writer, gives a detailed account of what the games entailed:
The oldest contest and the one for which they first offered prizes was… the singing of a hymn to the god.
… But they say that Orpheus, a proud man and conceited about his mysteries… refused to submit to the competition in musical skill.
They say too that Eleuther won a Pythian victory for his loud and sweet voice, for the song he sang was not of his own composition. The story is that Hesiod too was debarred from competing because he had not learned to accompany his own singing on the harp.
… At the second Pythian Festival they no longer offered prizes for events, adn hereafter gave a crown for victory. On this occasion they no longer included singing to the flute… for the tunes of the flute were most dismal…
Pausanias’ account of the Pythian games shows a surprising number of parallels with Eurovision.
Firstly, the idea that some people are ‘too good’ for the competition. Pausanias had Orpheus, a legendary Greek poet and musician who clearly felt the Pythian games were beneath him. In 2009 the UK had Rita Ora – a then relatively unknown singer who was selected to represent the country at the competition but pulled out, later saying “Imagine! If I’d stayed, it would probably have been all over for me. At best, I’d be a contestant on that diving show…?’ Splash!?”
Of course Orpheus and Ora might be right – singing competitions can be a bit naff and Eurovision especially has a reputation for humiliating acts that take themselves too seriously.
Still, ABBA did OK out of it…
Secondly, Pausanias alludes to certain rules – that contestants were supposed to compose their own songs and perform them with accompaniments.
Technically a performer can enter Eurovision without any instruments other than their voice, but they wouldn’t stand a chance. As for the song itself, yet again there are parallels between the games and the modern day competition; the rules of Eurovision state that a song cannot be publicly released before a certain date (usually around a month or so before the main event) – meaning that it must be a new song and not a cover or performance by an established band of their own already released material.
And finally – the flutes, of which Pausanias was clearly not a fan. But neither, it seems, are the judges at Eurovision who have never, not once in the history of the competition, allowed purely instrumental performances.
Sängerkrieg and Eisteddfod
Sounds like the name of a Eurovision group.
According to German literature, the Sängerkrieg was a 13th century singing contest between 6 minstrels in order to find who was best placed to sing the praises of princes. The judges were to be the Count and Countess of Thuringia. The story contains trickery, peril and wizards, so not too far off the standard Eurovision fare.
In the end a minstrel called Wolfram won the contest by singing such beautiful music about God that the devil (who had been summoned by the wizard to defeat the minstrel – do keep up) fell down, exhausted.
Whether the Sängerkrieg actually happened is murky, but what isn’t is the Eisteddfod.
The Eisteddfod is an ancient Welsh tradition of musical and literary competition where bards and performers would gather to sing it out for the privilege of being judged by the royal kings of the time.
The first documented Eisteddfod was hosted by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1176 but it’s likely the tradition stretches back further than this. In 1523 an Eisteddfod was held in Flintshire where a statute was drawn up detailing what the bards who were due to compete could and could not do. The statute stated that bards could not drink, womanize or gamble.
Now I’ve never been to a backstage Eurovision party but judging by the performances I think it’s safe to assume that each one of these rules is soundly broken every year. In fact, gambling on who the winner will be though sweepstakes and bingo cards is pretty much compulsory where I am. This year, with coronavirus restrictions in place, will therefore perhaps be the first time all of the rules are adhered to.
As well as stating what the behaviour of the performers should be like, the statue also decreed that no bard worthy of his salt would perform “satirical” songs. Often political in nature, satirical songs would poke fun at the ruling classes and restrictions placed on the working people.
Clearly the powers that be were concerned with unpleasant tensions and controversial messages being spread through the performances, and the overseers of Eurovision must have similar concerns, because today every singer must operate under restrictions that prohibit songs and performances that are political or commercial.
Not that that rule is always stuck to, of course. In 2009, following conflict between Russia and Georgia, Georgia’s entry was criticised for being too anti-Putin (to make things more awkward, Russia was the host of the competition that year). When the Georgian delegates refused to change the lyrics, they were told to withdraw from the competition. In a similar way, in the sixteenth century a bard called Richard Gyyn was caught singing without a license he was accused of refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and for criticising the practices of the protestant church including “certain rhymes of his own making against married priests and ministers”.
Unfortunately for Richard it seemed Elizabeth (who feared the Welsh were plotting against her and the Church of England) wanted to make an example of his satirical songs. He was hung, drawn and quartered on 15 October 1584.
And so we arrive in Britain in the 19th century, where a new form of entertainment – full of drama, divas and divine dresses – was taking hold: opera.
If the costumes of Eurovision are extravagant then the costumes of 19th century divas were out of this world lavish. Adelina Patti, a darling of the opera scene at this time, once required a police escort at her Covent Garden performance of Verdi’s La Traviata after she had her jewellery taken apart and sewn onto the bodice of her costume – all £200,000 worth of it.
But an emphasis on the aesthetics could sometimes come at a cost to the performance itself. The French composer Berlioz commented at the time that the “music of the Italians is a sensual pleasure and nothing more… They want a score that, like a plate of macaroni, can be assimilated immediately without having to think about it.” Berlioz was famously anti-Italian in his musical choices, but his criticism of how unchallenging and vanilla opera was is echoed today by some Eurovision enthusiasts.
Now I’m not saying Eurovision attracts the same standard of critic, but every year there are murmurings online that the songs are becoming more and more ‘radio-ready’ and the performances less unique as singers use the show to launch their careers. A few years ago we had performers like Conchita Wurst and Verka Serduchka who didn’t give a damn about what they were ‘supposed’ to look and sound like – now we have mostly very conventionally beautiful people wearing very beautiful gowns singing very beautifully about the struggles of the beautiful. Close your eyes today and you might find it hard to tell where one song ends and another begins.
Of course this isn’t completely true – one or two truly wow acts stand out every year. There’s always the performer who croons a little too much to the camera, or the one whose dress design looks like she’s sucked up a muddy puddle, or the singer who reaches notes only heard by dogs.
In 1821 Giuditta Pasta played the role of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello. Not only was her voice well received, but her showmanship held her audience absolutely captive. Her career continued after this part, with composers falling over themselves to write roles specifically for her. Even when she was too old to perform confidently, she continued to give performances with the singer Pauline Viardot commenting that Pasta was like the da Vinci painting The Last Supper: “a wreck of a picture, but it is the greatest picture in the world.”
Which brings us to the most famous Eurovision performance – one that won acclaim during the show itself but also spawned a successful career. Of course, I’m talking about ABBA.
Eurovision winners in 1974, ABBA went on to sell at least 200 million records worldwide. They are – to this day – the best selling Swedish band of all time. With eight UK number one albums and a Wikipedia page just for their awards and nominations, ABBA stands as the goal for all Eurovision entrants, proving once and for all that if you can embrace campness and novelty, Eurovision can be a career making event.
Have a happy Eurovision everyone!
So to any Americans watching for the first time – welcome. You won’t understand it all – nobody does – but if you can make it through the strobe lights, gyrating and 100 hour long voting system, you’re guaranteed to have a fantastic night. Happy Eurovision!
This past week was British Sandwich Week, so in honour of this most auspicious of occasions I thought I’d try out something a little different. After all, as the saying goes: “once you tire of sandwiches, you tire of life.”
The sandwich is one of my personal favourite foods; sweet, savoury, hot or cold – there is a sandwich out there for everyone. Perhaps you’re adventurous and won’t touch anything unless it contains whopping slices of 2-day marinated meat, at least three types of mayo and some sort of “slaw”. Maybe you prefer to keep it simple with a couple of slices of cheese and, if you’re feeling particularly daring, a smear of chutney.
If you’re the kind of person who enjoys a chip butty, good news: they count too! We don’t discriminate in the sandwich circle. There genuinely is no bad sandwich (apart from Tesco’s no-butter, no-mayo, wafer-thin ham. Dear God, why?)
Until recently, I thought that my marriage was built on the standard values of matrimony: love, respect and a mutual adoration of picnic food. Just this morning, however, my husband confessed to me that after working from home for so long he’s come to view sandwiches as – and I quote – “a bit of a ballache to make” and has switched his lunchtime allegiance to pot noodles.
So once again I find myself in the market for a new husband. Potential suitors please apply via my contact page.
The history of sandwiches.
We know the story, right? During a game of cards, John Montagu – 4th Earl of Sandwich – was so engrossed that he asked his servants to bring him a slice of meat between bread, rather than step away from the gambling table for his dinner. Thus the humble sandwich was born.
Take, for example, his comments on trade between England and France which, were it not for the flowery language, could be straight from the pages of a post-Brexit trade agreement today:
…Whilst England draws articles of importance from France, such as wines, silks, etc., she supplies the French in return with nothing but trifles of little or no value.”
A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants.
The origin of the sandwich itself is treated in fairly understated terms, considering how popular it would become. Grosely seemed more concerned with the fact it was being used as a means to allow “destructive” habits to continue:
The English, who are profound thinkers, violent in their desires, and who carry all their passions to excess, are altogether extravagant in the article of gaming: several rich noblemen are said to have ruined themselves by it… A minister of state passed four and twenty hours at a public gaming-table, so absorbed in play, that, during the whole time, he had no subsistence but a bit of beef, between two slices of toasted bread, without ever quitting the game.”
A Tour to London; Or New Observations on England and its Inhabitants.
Of course this quote does rather beg the question: did he use the toilet at all in that 24 hours?
Grosley’s story could of course be completely true, but it could also be a dig at the slovenly ways of the English: too addicted to gambling to rise from their card games and too vulgar to appreciate anything more sophisticated than hunks of meat in bread.
The second problem with Grosley’s story is that it appears 8 years after the first literary reference to sandwiches. In the 1762 Journal of Edward Gibbon, he mentions men at a club dining on sandwiches:
“I dined at the Cocoa Tree. That respectable body, of which I have the honour of being a member, affords every evening a sight truly English. Twenty or thirty, perhaps, of the first men in the kingdom, in point of fashion and fortune, supping at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee-room, upon a bit of cold meat, or a sandwich, and drinking a glass of punch.”
Journal of Edward Gibbon.
So either Grosley got his dates wrong and was recounting an earlier story, or he wasn’t witness to the creation of the very first sandwich after all.
So no sandwiches before the 18th century?
Though the term ‘sandwich’ might be an 18th century invention, putting meat, or cheese, or veg into bread isn’t. In fact, it’s not even an English invention.
Every culture has its own version of the sandwich, and the origins of using bread to hold a filling is probably as old as bread itself – in which case we’re talking neolithic, some some 12,000 years ago.
Ancient Babylonian cylinders also show depictions of flatbreads with meat on top of them in what Cathy Kaufman suggests may have been forerunners of souvlaki sandwiches. Historians A.W. Lassen, E. Frahm and K. Wagensonner highlight a humorous cuneiform text known as “The Infernal Kitchen” which contains an allusion to bread with a filling:
Month of Šabaṭu, what is your food? – You shall eat still hot bread with the buttock of a donkey stallion stuffed with dog excrement and the excrement of dust flies.
A literal shit sandwich.*
As the authors point out, this ‘recipe’ is not a real one, but one that combines authentic elements with ridiculous ones to create a semi-satirical commentary on food preparation and reliance on seasonal ingredients.
Please don’t make that.
You just can’t get hold of donkey buttock anymore.
Anyway, in honour of British Sandwich Week I decided to make three sandwiches that you don’t see on cafe menus anymore.
For ease and clarity I’ve decided to use only recipes that refer to sandwiches – rather than meat on flatbread or cheese stuffed rolls or the like.
TAKE anchovies, Cheshire cheese, and butter, in equal proportions; made mustard to the palate; pound well in a marble mortar, and with this composition spread thin slices of bread, and cover with thin slices of any kind of cold meat, and again with bread, & cut into shapes.
The London Art of Cookery
This actually didn’t sound too bad at all. In fact, it sounded like something I would choose to eat already – and had. A week ago or so I attempted a WW1 version of this (almost identical except for the meat), and it was very pleasant. Salty and very savoury, this was a sandwich I was looking forward to.
I chose beef as my cold meat in honour of the Earl of Sandwich but honestly I think I would have preferred it without. The beef just added another flavour to what was already a pretty bold palate and I’m not 100% sure it all worked together. 6/10.
The next sammie was from the trustiest Victorian stalwart of all: Mrs Beeton.
A few years ago I went out to lunch with a friend who ordered a hash brown sandwich with bread sauce on the side. At the time I made fun of her carbohydrate obsession. But it turns out her love of carbs may have had a Victorian precedent:
Place a very thin piece of cold toast between 2 slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt.
I mean, Beeton had given up by that point in the book, hadn’t she? I imagined her writing this recipe out as a dare, chuckling to herself as she wondered which idiot – which unsophisticated, dullen palated dunce – would bother making a bread sandwich?
Anyway, I popped a slice of bread into the toaster and then tried to forget about it until it had gone cold – an easy feat as I’m a mum to a toddler; I can’t remember the last time I got to eat something straight away.
This was not terrible, but definitely not what I’d call a sandwich. It was just three slices of salty bread – one of them slightly crunchier than the other – with butter. Decent, but not delicious. 4/10.
Thin slices of nicely buttered white bread, with just a speck of Worcester sauce spread on them, sprinkled thickly with finely chopped young dandelion leaves, and covered with a thin slice of brown bread and butter.
Good Things in England
Finally – an excuse not to cut the lawn! Dandelion leaves get bitter as they age so choosing young leaves was important here. I managed to grab a soggy handful from the garden that seemed small and fresh and onto a Worcester sauce specked slice of bread they went.
This was an odd one. It wasn’t unpleasant but butter was the main taste, with a very green, quite bitter herbal aftertaste at the back of my throat. Perhaps my leaves weren’t as young as I’d thought. 5/10.
No such thing as a bad sandwich?
I still stand by this – sandwiches are the greatest invention of all time and unless you hate sandwiches and only like boring, butterless, plastic cheese on plastic bread type things you really can’t go wrong.
Were these sandwiches ‘perfect’? No, not even close. No sooner had I finished my dandelion lead concoction I made a peanut butter and golden syrup sandwich for pudding and to get the slightly bitter taste out of my mouth. And as I munched on that delicious bready treat I realised that maybe not every sandwich was meant to be perfect; maybe some are there to remind us of the really great sandwiches of our past, and encourage us to keep searching for the truly remarkable sandwiches of our futures.
*I also toyed with a joke about “ass ass”.
Dandelion and Worcester Sauce Sandwich
A handful of young dandelion leaves A slice of brown bread and a slice of white bread Worcester sauce Butter
Butter a slice of white bread and shake a few drops of Worcester sauce on top.
Wash and finely chop your dandelion leaves and strew them over the buttered bread.
Butter a slice of brown bread and place on top.
3 slices of bread Butter Salt and Pepper
Toast one slice of bread
While waiting, butter the other slices of bread.
Once the bread has toasted, let it cool and then roll it out thinly with a rolling pin.
Sprinkle the toast with salt and pepper, and lay in between the slices of buttered bread.
3 anchovies A handful of grated cheshire cheese A tablespoon of butter A slice of meat Mustard powder Bread
Pound the anchovies into a paste in a pestle and mortar.
Add the mustard, cheese and butter and then mix to combine and form a smooth paste.
Spread this on a slice of bread and then top with a slice of meat.
Here’s a funny joke: writer’s block when you’re not a writer.
I know I write but as I don’t do it for a living I really thought I’d get only the fun and none of the pain with this hobby.
For a week or so I’ve been wracking my brains: could I write about the history of spoons? Seasonal vegetables? Dare I attempt another goat recipe? Nothing captured my attention and the more I tried to sit down and get something – anything – down, the more I found myself sinking miserably into season 6 of Schitt’s Creek instead.
So in true writer’s cliche style I’m attempting to break my writer’s block by writing about writer’s block and its relationship to food. Feel free to switch off now because I’m pretty sure this will be painful to write and even more painful to read.
Have you tried going for a long walk?
Yep. It didn’t work.
In fact I walked all the way back to ancient Greece, figuring that the culture which developed Western philosophies and art could surely shed some light on my congested creativity.
Ancient philosophers weren’t only writing to be read, they were writing to be heard, too. Plato wasn’t standing on his soapbox spontaneously spouting out his beliefs about mankind and nature; rhetoricians constructed their arguments beforehand so as to be most convincing and engaging before they gave their speeches.
This made for a polished speech, but it meant that ancient writers didn’t grapple with the notion of writer’s block in the way we do today. Firstly, as Irene Clark points out, speakers would be addressing current events or topics with a view to ‘solving’ issues and were therefore imbued with a sense of purpose beyond really wanting people to know about the history of spoons.
Secondly, and in terms of creative writing rather than speechwriting, how people viewed ideas and inspiration was different to how we do today. For many, inspiration was a gift from the muses – you were either worthy enough of this gift or you weren’t. Great creative writing was therefore divinely ordained and nothing to do with a mortal’s ability to imagine new ideas and convert those ideas into writing.
If we were back in Ancient Greece my malaise – or its symptoms – would probably be classed as ‘melancholy’ – a humoral diagnosis that school textbooks will tell you meant depression but also covered more general lethargy, wistfulness and restlessness too. This term was coined by the 5th century BC physician Hippocrates who noted that bouts of melancholia were more likely in springtime, along with “epileptic disorders, bloody flux, quinsy, coryza, hoarseness, cough[s] [and] leprosy…” …Yay.
Though Hippocrates had no cure for writer’s block per se, he did recommend a cure for “anxiety, yawning [and] rigor” which was to drink a glass of wine mixed with an equal amount of water. However, I decided that my case was so great that I could probably forgo the water.
Winebottle in hand, I sat down to see if there was any other ancient wisdom that could help me.
“Here comes…a thousand waverings of the unsteadfast mind, which is held in suspense by unfulfilled hopes, and saddened by disappointed ones: hence comes the state of mind of those who loathe their idleness [and] complain that they have nothing to do.”
While I’m not sure I could describe an unwritten blog post on the history of spoons as an “unfulfilled hope held in suspense”, the sentiment was there – my mind was idle. So what was Seneca’s remedy?
“Occupy oneself with business, with the management of affairs and the duties of a citizen… to benefit individual men and mankind alike, both with intellect, voice and advice.”
I’d never thought of my blog benefitting the whole of mankind before, but I had to admit my chest puffed up a bit when I read Seneca’s words. The whole of mankind, eh? Well, when you put it like that…
Nice to see your ego hasn’t been affected by this block
Shut up, inner voice.
Trouble was, Seneca was a Stoic who believed that food was just a vehicle to stop hunger. He advocated for a very simple diet and turned his nose up at over indulgent or rich foods. Even more, he suggested that luxurious eating could cause certain illnesses and argued that to seek out expensive and lavish food rather then eat what was cheap, simple and readily available was the real sign of mental imbalance: “A hankering after delicacies is a sign of self-indulgence; by the same token, avoidance of those comforts that are quite ordinary and easy to obtain is an indication of insanity”.
The trend of linking food and melancholy continued through the ages. By the 15th century, scholars such as Marsilio Ficino ruled out certain foods which were believed to bring on bouts of melancholy, such as “burned food” and “old cheese”. No hardship to avoid these, but instructions to abstain from fried food, rich food and wine might be slightly harder to stick to.
And then, in the 17th century, something quite remarkable happened – the first full length look at melancholy as a subject in its own right.
In 1621, English writer Robert Burton published a book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Or to give it its full title: The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. Which would have intrigued me, had I not been suffering from melancholy and lost the will to read on half way through the first title-sentence.
Luckily for me, Jonathan Sadowsky (a medical historian at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio) has read and dissected Burton’s work, which was so popular that it was republished multiple times over the first few decades of its existence. Like me, Burton wrote about melancholy “by being busy to avoid melancholy”.
Burton thought of melancholy as something more than an imbalance and viewed it as a deeply complex range of emotions, including “…heaviness or vexation of spirit…and lumpish[ness]” Again, there was no reference to writer’s block specifically but after a quick glance in the mirror I had to admit that after a week of consolatory biscuits my ‘lumpishness’ could not be denied. Perhaps his book was what I needed after all.
“Member II” of the book contained a list of foods to avoid if trying to get over a bout of melancholy/lumpishness. A long list. A very long list. If you have time you can read the full list here but the headlines include beef, pork, goat (thank God), venison, rabbit, milk, chicken, fish, cucumber, cabbage, melon, ALL FRUIT, ALL PULSES, honey, ginger, pepper, sugar, bread made of anything but wheat, wine and beer.
T’would appear Burton’s remedy for lumpishness was starvation.
Getting off topic…
By the 18th and 19th centuries, writers were back on the idea that inspiration could be given or blocked by unknown forces.
In 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously wrote “So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month – O Sorrow and Shame… I have done nothing!”
English Romantics like Coleridge were pretty aware of the effects of writer’s block but had no definitive way to cure it, other than sighing despondently and looking out of rainy windows. I’ve tried both, neither works.
But writing just after the time of the English Romantics, the British doctor George Blandford may have had some idea of how to cure the poets’ ailments:
“Before getting out of bed in the morning, [nervous or depressed patients should drink] rum and milk, or egg and sherry; breakfast of meat, eggs, and café au lait, or cocoa; beef tea, with a glass of port, at eleven o’clock; and a good dinner or lunch at two, with a couple of glasses of sherry; at four, some more beef-tea, or an equivalent; at seven, dinner or supper, with stout and port wine; and at bed-time, stout or ale, with the chloral or morphia.”
I’ve actually tried beef tea before and let me tell you: never again. Nevertheless I felt it was at least worth exploring the medical properties of Blandford’s multi-course regime of alcohol and meaty dinners.
Sadly for pre 20th century writers, it wasn’t until 1947 that writer’s block even had a name. Coined by Austrian psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, the idea of suffering from lack of inspiration or motivation became less about airy fairy ideas of tortured artists denied by gods, and more about science.
Amazingly, Bergler also believed that writer’s block was inherently linked to food – of a kind. A huge Freudian theorist, Bergler argued that writer’s block was caused by mothers who refused or were unable to breastfeed their babies. Trapped by rage towards their mothers, people who grew up to suffer writer’s block were – in Bergler’s mind – experiencing a physical representation of the emotional starvation they had experienced as children.
“I have never seen a ‘normal’ writer” Bergler declared. All writers were, to him, megalomaniacs “entirely surrounded by neuroticism in private life.” Moreover, he wrote that “every writer, without exception, is a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an ‘injustice collector’ and a depressed person constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity.”
So are you still blocked?
Who knows. Maybe that spoons post will see the light of day, maybe not. At the end of this all I know is three things:
Writer’s block, or the associated emotions, are not new.
Despite the literally thousands of years people have had to figure it out, no one has come up with a watertight solution to it.
I probably shouldn’t mention this post to my mum without deleting Bergler’s comments first.
Do you know what’s one subject you don’t want to take at GCSE if you’re not very good at it?
Unfortunately for 15 year old me, all my friends wanted to do art and I wasn’t very good at the alternative option either (Design Technology – I think the exam had something to do with birdhouses, or ashtrays, or ashtrays for birdhouses?) so art it was.
Big mistake. In French I could mumble my way through the verbs I’d spent my weekend not revising. I could play with enough enthusiasm during music lessons that my teachers didn’t mind that most of the notes were wrong. But art? Each week I’d have to pin my feeble attempts at fruit bowls on my easel for all to see. And worse still, everyone else’s attempts (which were also pinned up at the end of each lesson) were always so much better.
“You have a very medieval way of drawing people”, my teacher told me once.
“Is that good?” I asked hopefully.
“It’s certainly… distinctive.”
I dropped art as soon as I could, but my teacher’s comments stayed with me and a couple of years later I applied to study medieval history at university, citing the moment I realised I had a “medieval” style of drawing as the moment I realised I was interested in medieval history.
What has this got to do with Easter?
Today’s post is basically just a way for me to prove my art teacher wrong by making my shoddy drawings the star of the show. But I’ve cunningly disguised that fact by pretending it’s all about the festive topic of the Easter bunny.
The Easter bunny’s origins are a bit vague. A commonly held belief is that as abundantly fertile animals, rabbits represent new life which ties in nicely with the religious message of Easter, but it’s really not as simple as that.
Our modern bunny is a commercial creature with his soft floppy ears and non-threatening, chocolate-loving persona. This creation is, unsurprisingly, thanks to America. When German Lutherans arrived in America during the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought the tradition of the “Osterhase” with them. This tradition stated that children would be judged every Eastertime by a hare. If they had been good, they would be rewarded with a treat. Over time the tradition grew and developed until it became the sugar-fuelled, garden-destroying day we all know now.
Some people argue that the Easter bunny’s origins date back even further to the pagan festival Ēostre which used the hare as a symbol of renewed life. However, this might be wishful thinking; A Dictionary of English Folklore states there’s little evidence of any links between Ēostre and hares – and even if there were, these links would have been unlikely to have survived the subsequent centuries of invasion and Christianisation of Britain.
Despite the ambiguity, it’s likely that hares originally had more to do with Easter than rabbits. In Leicestershire there was an annual hare hunt held every Easter Monday, the first recording of which was in 1668. The 1620Calendar of State Papersrecorded that “…huntsmen say that those who have not had a hare against Easter must eat a red herring.” And in Warwickshire the parson supposedly offered a groat, a calf’s head and one hundred eggs to the man who presented him with a hare before 10:00am on Easter Monday.
A many-anused beast…
But people were interested in hares long before the 17th century.
“Hares are seldom tamed…”, wrote Pliny the Elder in The Natural History. “In the hare, the number of cavernous receptacles in the body for the excrements always equals that of its years.” Basically, hares were not pets you’d want to keep indoors without protecting your soft furnishings from their many “cavernous receptacles for excrement.”
By the middle ages, hares and rabbits were relatively luxurious commodities. Manorial lords would have an automatic “right to warren” on land they owned and would often grant tenants leases to maintain their warrens for them.
Sometimes the lords would complain about the abundance of rabbits or hares outside their warrens, as in the case at Freckenham in 1551 when rabbits were condemned for “increasing and multiplying on the common land” and the lessee of the warren was ordered to block up all the rabbit holes on the common land.
Hare was also a popular dish for the rich; as far as I can see there are two separate recipes for hare in the 14th century English cookbook Forme of Cury and about seven or eight from the contemporaneous French text Le Menagier de Paris.
In addition to food, rabbits and hares were seen as good gifts and in 1345, the Prior of Ely sent sixty rabbits to Edward III – an enormous display of wealth. In fact, by the 14th century rabbits were seen as such a status symbol that during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the rebels explicitly demanded that all men should have the right to take game and to hunt “hares in the field.”
Despite this, hares and rabbits were seen negatively in some circles. In medieval art and literature hares were sometimes seen as symbols of promiscuity. Even more concerningly, some thought hares were linked to the occult; the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th century German text on witchcraft, commented that witches had the ability to transform themselves into hares.
Later, when the witch-crazes swept Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, a Scottish woman called Isobel Gowdie confessed to turning herself into a hare by chanting: I shall go into a hare, With sorrow and sych and meickle care; And I shall go in the Devil’s name, Ay while I come home again.
Having confessed to the crime of witchcraft, the law stated that she be executed, but there’s no firm evidence whether this happened to Isobel or whether she was acquitted. Perhaps she really did turn herself into a hare and hopped away?
Whether witches in disguise or the real deal, you messed with hares at your peril.
The Smithfield Decretals, a mid 14th century manuscript, details some scenes where hares enact their revenge on the humans who blocked up their warrens, skinned them and ate them.
In this highly decorated manuscript there are numerous drolleries – fanciful drawings meant to titillate and amuse the reader.
Often these images depict imaginary mash-ups of animals; snails with human torsos or birds with elephant heads. As well as the more usual ones, the ones in the Smithfield Decretals also depict what can only be described as killer hares enacting revenge on the humans who would destroy them.
In one image two hares flay a bound man alive, starting at his feet. Rather than watching the unfortunate victim, the hares’ unfeeling, bulbous eyes are askew – an artist’s comment on nature’s detachment from human suffering or, (like my own arty shortcomings) an inability to draw perspective? You be the judge.
In another, a hare carries a trussed up man on a stick while another triumphantly blasts a tune on a hunting horn. In yet another, a hare is seen with a ridiculously long sword, beheading a man. It’s probably worth noting that medieval people didn’t do realism in their art (in case you’d not worked it out.) This included realistic facial expressions – so rather than screaming in agony, the man being beheaded is just frowning sadly, as if the whole thing is slightly inconvenient (take a look at the images at the end to see what I mean.)
Rather than being a crafty design to get people to go vegetarian by forcing them to confront the reality of their hare-hunting ways, these images represented the idea of the world turned upside down; the hunted becomes the hunter. Just think on that while you’re searching for your eggs on Easter Sunday.
Who wants a biscuit?
I could have written a post about hot cross buns or tried making another Simnel Cake. But I didn’t fancy any of that. Instead, I wanted to draw some art and I wanted art that celebrated the mighty Easter bunny in all its glory. And I wanted it to be delicious.
So this Easter, in addition to my foil wrapped egg(s), I’ll also be tucking into some very special Easter biscuits depicting the more unusual aspects of the human/Easter bunny relationship. The images are taken from a variety of texts so even though the recipe isn’t medieval the artwork, according to my teacher at least, sure is.
When you have a baby everyone gives you advice. Some of this is excellent (to this day the best thing I’ve ever been told in regards to child rearing is “lower your standards. If things are still hard, you didn’t lower them enough” – as a result my carpets rarely get hoovered and we pretend not to see the ‘best before end’ date on food, but my sanity has remained intact.)
Much of the advice is well meaning, but hopeless: “sleep when the baby sleeps” is a lovely phrase but what should I do if she doesn’t – ever?
Most of it, though, is tripe: “enjoy every second”, “don’t complain, it all goes by so fast.”
I just couldn’t understand those who spouted out the tripey advice; what was it I was supposed to enjoy, exactly? My daughter, like all other newborns, was distinctly useless at first and completely unable to help me out in any way. At bathtime I ended up bent over the tub like Quasimodo, one arm frantically scooping water onto her chest and one arm doing the job her neck should have been doing, which was holding up her gigantic, lolling head. I had similar problems getting her into the car, getting her dressed, changing her nappy: limbs flailing madly, none of them in the right direction, and most of them, somehow, covered in poo.
As time went on my daughter’s neck started pulling its weight and I didn’t rely on hours of physio after every bath time so I started to enjoy motherhood. But no sooner had we worked out how this small dictator child worked, then the advice changed again.
“Don’t wean her too soon or she’ll end up with underformed bowels.” “Don’t let her sleep in your room or she’ll never move out.” “Don’t wean her too late or she’ll be a fussy eater.” “Limit TV to only 30 minutes a week and even then only allow her to watch bilingual educational videos.” “Let her sleep in your room until she’s an adult woman – insist that she raise her own children there too.”
It got me thinking about motherhood advice through history. Were there medieval pamphlets on the pros and cons of cloth nappies? Tudor ‘yummy mummies’ on Instagram showing us how to whip up vegan, organic, zero-waste baby-friendly smoothies? Not quite, but almost.
Getting pregnant (AKA the fun bit)
So you’ve decided you don’t need to sleep or shit alone again for the rest of your life.
The 2nd century Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus believed he’d come up with a good indication of female virility so that prospective partners could make the best decisions when picking a mate. According to this highly learned doctor, women “from the ages of fifteen to forty” who were “not mannish, compact, oversturdy or too flabby” had been endowed with a natural virility.
If finding such a woman by physical appearance alone was problematic, Soranus had a solution: an alternative way to check a woman’s fertility was to inspect her uterus. To conceive a child a woman’s uterus should be “neither very moist or dry, not too lax or constricted.” I don’t know how one was supposed to check out a woman’s uterus before committing to her (though I imagine it made for a pretty awkward date night activity) but it clearly struck a chord with those in the medical profession; Soranus’ writings set the precedent in gynaecology and obstetrics for almost 1,500 years.
In contrast, women with small heads and eyes were more likely to struggle to conceive. Likewise, women with protruding foreheads were best avoided if one was hoping to start a family (Rouselle 1988, p. 22).
If Soranus’ ideas haven’t put you off relying on ancient science to conceive then you might also want to consider the work of the Greek physicians Hippocrates (c. 460-c.370 BC) and Galen (129-c.210 CE).
Though centuries apart, these two men together shaped much of the medical knowledge found in medical textbooks and universities up to the 16th century. Hippocrates – whose influence on medicine remains so great that the now defunct Hippocratic oath was named after (but not attributed to) him – is chiefly known for developing humoral theory. This was the belief that the human body was made up of four key fluids (blood, black bile, phlegm and yellow bile) which, when disrupted or imbalanced, caused mood changes and even illness. This theory would crop up in most Western medical teachings for the next two thousand years or so.
Hippocrates was also preoccupied with female fertility. Out of 1500 or so recipes for medicine in Hippocrates’ work, 80% of them relate to gynaecology (Totelin 2009).
Unfortunately, Hippocrates’ teachings tended to place the burden of conception squarely on the shoulders of women; male infertility was not something he considered a likely issue in problems with conception. Among others, Hippocrates wrote that some of the problems women faced when trying to conceive included:
A too narrow passage between the vagina and cervix which may also have become blocked by the retention of “old” coagulated menstrual blood and thus prevented sperm reaching the uterus.
An “inability” of the uterus to retain the sperm due to its failure to “close” shut once the sperm had entered.
A humoral imbalance in the woman which led to conditions that were too hot or cold in the uterus, thus “overcooking” or “[drying] out” the sperm (Verskin 2020, 138).
‘For God’s sake, ladies, control your vagina’ was basically Hippocrates’ attitude.
Hippocrates also advocated for a “two seed” theory; that in order to make a baby, ‘male seed’ and ‘female seed’ were necessary. In both cases, the seed could only be produced during arousal. This led physicians who followed the ‘two seed’ theory down some pretty ropey conception theories: husbands were encouraged to ensure their wives enjoyed sex, so as to ensure a fruitful production of ‘female seed’ and therefore increase the chances of making a baby. So far, so sex-positive. The negative aspect to this theory was of course the issue of conception arising from non-consensual sex. Though rape was condemned in most ancient societies, the ‘two seed’ theory allowed some to argue that pregnancy was evidence of a woman’s enjoyment of sex and, therefore, evidence of her willing participation, even if she hadn’t consented.
Writing some five or six hundred years after Hippocrates, Galen sought to add weight to the ‘two seed’ theory by attaching to it the ‘one sex’ theory (stay with me now, I’m almost done.)
The ‘one sex’ theory promoted the belief that women’s reproductive organs were an interior version of a man’s, but that due to an absence of necessary heat while the woman was in her mother’s womb, they failed to turn outside, rendering women a sort of inferior version of men (Schleiner 2000).
It made sense to Galen, then, that women produced semen in much the same way as men did, though the semen was produced inside their bodies which, because of the aforementioned defectiveness of female organs, could lead to problems. Galen believed that menstrual blood was a both a consequence of female defectiveness and also a necessary element of conception as it provided the uterus with texture, without which the “male seed” would slip out before it could mingle with the ‘female seed’. A woman who therefore suffered irregular periods or had gone through menopause, Galen argued, was far less likely to conceive than a woman who “enjoyed” regular periods. Galen was playing quite fast and loose with the word ‘enjoy’ there, I think, but we’ll move on.
But what if both partners enjoyed sex and a baby wasn’t made? Well, for those diagnosed with infertility Hippocrates had a variety of solutions. The most common ones included pessaries of herbs, fumigation or probing of the vagina to remove “blockages” and changing one’s diet. In his empathetically entitled treatise On Barrenness, Hippocrates also advocated eating boiled puppies and/or fumigating one’s vagina with smoke from their burned carcasses. The argument was that puppies supposedly had a laxative effect, which would dislodge any coagulated menstrual blood and allow the passage between the cervix and vagina to open (Verskin 2020, 139). You’re welcome to try it, but the maximum penalty for animal cruelty in Britain is five years; you’ll miss the cute chubby toddler years and be landed with a stroppy school kid by the time you get out.
Pregnancy and childbirth
So let’s assume all your puppy-eating has paid off and you’re with child. Congratulations.
But no sooner does that little red line appear on the pregnancy test then a whole host of other questions and problems come to the fore: what food can I eat or not eat? How much exercise should I do? Was that a twinge of labour or do I just need a big fart (it’s always a big fart – even when you’re actually in labour, it will still be a big fart.)
The Trotula, a 12th century compendium of the medical conditions of women, states that when a woman is just starting out her 9 month journey it’s vitally important that no one mention in front of her the long list of things she is not allowed to eat (Green 2002, 77).
Trotula argued this was to prevent pregnant women from becoming fixated on out-of-bounds food, not just for their own health, but the sake of their unborn child, which was apparently as risk of miscarriage if they ruminated on smoked salmon or soft cheese for too long.
On the subject of farting, Trotula had a remedy. Taking celery, mint and cowbane and mixing it with a combination of mastic, cloves, watercress, sugar, honey and wine (as well as other herbs) could apparently cure even the guffiest mother.
To reduce the swelling that often accompanies pregnancy, the 15th century manuscript Sloane 2463 recommended making a paste of bean-meal flour, vinegar and oil and anointing it on the areas that were swollen (Rowlands 1981, 153). Some lucky women might have got away with only needing to apply it to their fingers or ankles; for me I’d have needed a full body cast.
The last trimester of pregnancy is often one of the hardest, and women have resorted to all kinds of tricks to induce labour and kick their ever expanding lodger out.
For women in their final month eager to meet their screaming bundles of joy and light, taking a bath with herbs could apparently help speed labour along, especially if the woman drank an ounce of balsam sap in wine afterwards. If she couldn’t afford balsam sap then she could make do with a cocktail of bull’s gall and wine instead, or “the water from a man’s skin after he has washed his hands”. If bull’s gall and bathwater wasn’t her thing she could try a combination of hyssop juice and mercury which would “cast out the child alive or dead”. Well, quite.
Assuming that these drinks worked, what was one supposed to do when the birthday arrived? By the 15th century there were plenty of European manuscripts detailing the medical problems of women, but relatively few that dealt in detail with childbirth itself (Rowlands 1981, 22).
This was probably down to the fact that midwifery was usually the domain of women, and the writers were usually men who either didn’t know how to help women give birth or, more possibly, didn’t care.
Women’s health wasn’t always counted as ‘proper’ medicine worthy of book writing – and in 1421 a petition was put forward to the English parliament banning women from practising as physicians (Green 1989), so chances for women to elevate the status of midwifery remained slim.
In fact, so limited was the information on how to help women give birth that one 14th century treatise recommended that women should be encouraged to sneeze the child out. Similarly, the 15th century work Inventarium also recommended labouring women sniff pepper, which would induce sneezing. It hardly goes without saying that both authors were male. Guy de Chauliac commented “because the matter [of childbirth] requires the attention of women, there is no point in giving much consideration to it.” I bet he wasn’t brave enough to say that to a labouring woman, though.
Anyway, Sloane 2463 does cover what to do when giving birth. Chapter 10, “sickness that women have in childbearing”, covers a great deal of potential problems which it divides into two types: ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’.
With a natural birth the child should “come out in twenty pangs…head first.” So far, so simple. If the child was a stubborn bugger, however, and refused to come out within twenty “pangs” (bless) or headfirst, this was termed an ‘unnatural’ birth. There were apparently 16 ways a child could be born ‘unnaturally’ and, in diagrams that were simultaneously helpful and hilarious, the writer had provided sketches highlighting the ‘unnatural’ ways. The three here are my favourites.
Raising the buggers
Assuming you’ve survived childbirth (research is ongoing but it’s estimated that among the lower classes in England during the 14th – 16th centuries, between 1 in 3 and 1 in 2 women died either giving birth or from complications afterwards), how should you go about raising them to be decent humans?
For this section I’m jumping forward several centuries to the trustiest of Victorian cooks, Mrs Beeton. Her book Household Management wasn’t just a collection of bland restrained recipes, it also contained practical advice on the rearing of children.
Almost immediately I began to suspect that Mrs Beeton’s experience of motherhood was slightly divergent to my own.
“The mistress [of the house]” she began, quoting Proverbs XXXI “eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed…” (Project Gutenberg 2003)
I thought back to this morning when my child had arisen at 5:30 and waddled into my room, calling for the iPad instead.
One piece of advice that might raise a few eyebrows today was the instruction to breastfeeding mothers to drink large quantities of malt liquor. Mrs Beeton believed that the strength of this alcohol had certain reinvigorating qualities which would aid production of milk and help stave off maternal exhaustion. “To the lady accustomed to her Madeira and sherry, [malt liquors] may appear a very vulgar potation for a delicate young mother to take…”
In fact, Mrs Beeton spent rather a lot of time discussing alcohol and motherhood. As any mother will tell you, this isn’t that surprising.
According to Mrs B, brandy was less beneficial than wine for nursing mothers, though would do if there was nothing else in. Be careful of port, though, as that could affect the baby’s bowl movements as it passed through the milk.
But the very best alcoholic beverage a breastfeeding mother could drink was stout, of which mothers were instructed to drink no less than half a pint, three to four times a day.
Her advice on drinking and breastfeeding might have been a bit out of touch with today’s standards, but there were moments where her tips were surprisingly modern. She gave pretty thorough and sympathetic advice to mothers who were bottle feeding their child (“hand rearing”, as she called it) and, as someone who bottle fed her own child, I found much of what she said was less judgemental than 21st century advice: “A child can be brought up as well on a spoon dietary as the best example to be found on those reared on the breast; having more strength, indeed, from the more nutritious food on which it lives.”
As the child grew, Mrs Beeton’s advice changed. She recommended a fairly bland, milk heavy diet for young children. This was common for the time, the belief being that children’s stomachs could only deal with uncomplex flavours and nothing too heavy. One of the few times Beeton strays from the advice to give children milk, however, was when serving a drink called Negus which involved mixing pints of port, sherry or white wine with water and sugar and serving at children’s parties.
Another Victorian book, How I managed my children from infancy to marriage by Eliza Warren stressed the importance of teaching children to obey from a young age. “A babe of three months, when I held up my finger and put on a grave look, knew that such was the language of reproof…” (Warren 1865, 27.) (I have tried this on my child – it does not work.)
The way to achieve this level of obedience was through repetition – Ms Warren stated that children must learn that crying was “useless” and that if they wanted something they should wait patiently, or do without.
But perhaps the most amusing thing from How I managed my children was the account of mealtimes with young children. Like Mrs Beeton, Ms Warren followed a milk heavy, reasonably bland diet for her children, apart from one day of the week when the meal that was served was “always hailed with delight, and always looked forward to.” What was this magical, awe inspiring dinner? Boiled onions.
As if that wasn’t a treat enough, Ms Warren recounted gleefully that the children were also allowed chives on their bread and butter with this meal too. The whole meal combined, she said, was an excellent cure for worms. Nice.
If you’re thinking that there’s really nothing here useful to new parents and that people throughout history have just been muddling along in the dark when it came to childrearing, you’d be right. But before I finish, I’ll leave you with this one final piece of advice from Ms Warren that I know I’ll struggle to accept as my daughter gets older and her world gets bigger, but that I must: “…if we[love] our children we must give up our own selfish feeling of desiring to have them always with us and so place them in positions that we should be enabled to feel life again renewed in their happiness.” (Warren 1865, 57.)
Happy birthday, G.
Bibliography (yes, I actually did one this time but no, it’s not in alphabetical order because if I have to spend any longer on these bloody citations I will actually die of boredom.)
Rousselle, A. 1988. Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity. New York: Basil Blackwell Ltd.
Totelin, L. 2009. Oral and Written Transmission of Pharmacological Knowledge in Fifth and Fourth Century Greece. Boston: Brill.
Verskin, S. 2020. Barren Women: Religion and Medicine in the Medieval Middle East. De Gruyter: Berlin.
Schleiner, W., (2000) Early Modern Controversies about the One-Sex Model. Renaissance Quarterly [online]. 53 (1), 180–191. [12.06.2020]. Available from: https://doi.org/10.2307/2901536
Green, M. 2002. The Trotula. Pennslyvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Rowlands, B. 1981. Medieval Women’s Guide to Health: The First English Gynecological Handbook Ohio: Kent State University Press.
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.
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 TheHistories. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…”
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 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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…
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.
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?”
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.