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

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

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

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

Top Experiments of 2020

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

Number 5: Doucetes

Egg custard. Saffron pastry. Indulgence: medieval style.

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

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

Number 4: Farts of Portingale

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

Number 3: Fish Banquet

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

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

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

Buy, beg or steal, you say?

Number 2: A Bengali Meal

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

Number 1: Anglo-Saxon Bread

Bread? Just…bread? At number one?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just bread”, you say?

Worst experiments of 2020

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

Number 5: Stuffed Goat

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

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

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

Either way, this was not a triumph.

Number 4: Stewed Rabbit

Just slightly worse than the goat was the rabbit.

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

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

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

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

Number 3: Turkey Twizzlers

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

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

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

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

Number 2: Nut Custard

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

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

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

Number 1: Egges in Moneshine

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

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

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

But then I ate egges in moneshine.

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

Thank you and Happy New Year

So that’s it! My first year done.

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

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

Ellie x

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

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

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

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

The day of judgement is almost upon us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That seems…excessive

Tis the season.

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

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

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

Galentyne: 1390.

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

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

Forme of Cury. Text and translation copyright Christopher Monk 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce: 1594.

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

The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, Thomas Dawson.

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

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

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

A sausage of bread sauce, sire?

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

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

Gallendine sauce for a Turkey: 1653

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

A True Gentlewomans Delight, Elizabeth GreyCountess of Kent

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

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

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

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

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

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

The verdict.

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

Three bowls of bread, none of them sauce.

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

Bread sauce for Roasted Partridge

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

The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse.

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

E x

War Widows and the Unknown Warrior: 11th November 1920

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

Laurence Binyon, The Times, September 1914

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

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

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

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

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

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

The price of victory?

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

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

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

The life of a war widow.

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

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

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

Charity…of a sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is the modern woman a hussy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

E x

Credit here.

Jollof Rice

October is Black History Month. For today’s recipe I wanted to learn about (and try to make) a dish I’ve never eaten before: Jollof Rice, a hugely popular and quintessentially West African food. I didn’t specifically set out to make Jollof rice when I began researching the history of West African food, but it was impossible to escape it – everywhere I turned, recipes for Jollof rice popped up, each proclaiming to be better than the last. It was too tempting to resist…

Firstly, let me start with a bit of a disclaimer by saying that I am not an expert in any way about the vast and various cuisines of West Africa. All I have done for this post is a bit of research, chatted to a few friends and colleagues who know how to cook Jollof Rice, and given it my best shot. If you want to find more African recipes or know more about the history of Jollof Rice (also here) then please do click on those links to see what people far more knowledgeable than me have to say.

I’ve written a bit about the cuisine of non-European food such as ancient Egypt and Persia, but it feels easier to write about this food when it’s framed in terms of ancient civilisations and the dishes either aren’t made anymore, or have changed significantly from the original.

This is one reason I tend to write mostly about the history of European food; it feels more familiar to me. Similarly, when I wrote about the history of my Indian grandad’s food it felt familiar because I was writing about my family first and foremost. It’s a totally daunting different feeling to be writing about the history of a food that is still loved by millions today. Jollof Rice is so treasured and fiercely defended that there are ongoing bitter online rivalries about which nation makes the best version. Seriously, the scrutiny on any recipe that claims to be for Jollof is fierce and the condemnation, if such a recipe is found lacking, is harsh.

Hence the disclaimer. I can’t pretend to fully understand the nuance and symbolism of Jollof Rice, I didn’t grow up eating it and I don’t have any stakes in the #jollofwars. Instead what I can do this Black History Month is to read, research and listen to others. I hope you’ll spend some time this October (and, to be honest, all year round!) doing the same.

What’s in a name?

When I naively typed ‘Jollof Rice recipe’ into Google I was immediately hit with over 3 million results. This was genuinely a bit terrifying to me; I enjoy variety up to a point, but after a quick look it seemed that each recipe on the first page was different from the last. The second page of hits yielded similarly overwhelming results too. People also had Strong Opinions on these recipes and the only thing I came away knowing for certain was that if I wanted authentic Jollof I should avoid Jamie Oliver’s recipe and Tesco’s ready-meal version at all possible costs.

At its most basic, Jollof Rice is a dish of rice that is cooked slowly in stock and a mixture of blended tomato, onion and pepper. Over time the rice absorbs the liquid and takes on a deep red hue. Many variations of Jollof Rice contain other things, such as peas, carrots, meat or fish – and it’s in these additions that disputes between what is ‘the best’ Jollof often focus their attention.

Sadly, there isn’t an original written Jollof recipe we can point to as the first version of this dish and as far as I could see there are literally hundreds of ways to prepare it. However, the consensus among many West Africans seems to be that Jollof Rice originated from the Wolof people, possibly some time during the Jolof (or Wolof) Empire – a collection of West African states including modern day Senegal and the Gambia, dating from 1350-1549.

Empires of West Africa. Credit here.

In Senegal today the Wolof people are the largest ethnic group, accounting for almost 40% of the country’s population and Wolof is the lingua franca of the country. The history of the Wolof people probably dates to around the 12th century when people migrated west following the collapse of the Empire of Ghana in c.1100, which was situated in present day Mali and Mauritania. In Wolof, Jollof Rice is called ‘benachin’, which translates as ‘one pot’ because everything is cooked in the same pot.

Yet despite the connection between names, Jollof Rice is the national dish of Nigeria, not Senegal. The national dish of Senegal is another rice dish, thiebou dieun. This dish contains more ingredients than the Jollof Rices of other countries and the main similarity seems to be that it is red and also contains rice and tomatoes.

So what are the ingredients of Jollof rice?

Well, rice. Duh. Also stock, onions, tomatoes and peppers. After that it gets…contentious.

Rice had been cultivated in Africa for around 3000 years and was an important part of West African cuisine long before the Jolof Empire existed. Judith A Carney writes that in the mid 15th century, an early Portuguese visitor described the cultivation of wetland rice on floodplains possibly near the Gambia: “They arrived sixty leagues beyond Cape Verde, where they met with a river which was of good width, and into it they entered with their caravels … they found much of the land sown, and many fields sown with rice…”

Onions were also a native crop, grown in North Africa from as far back as 5000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians held a special place for onions, with some arguing that the onions represented symbols of eternity because of the rings-within-rings. When Rameses IV died in c. 1160, onions were placed in his eye sockets. Don’t ask me why.

Detail from the tomb of Rameses IV. The hieroglyphs are actually a shopping list and read: “bread, cheese, onions and cat food.” Credit here.

However tomatoes and peppers, other key ingredients in Jollof Rice, weren’t introduced to Africa until the early 15th century when the Portuguese set up trading posts along the river Gambia. Therefore we can say with some confidence that if Jollof Rice (in its modern day form at least) was a creation of the Jolof Empire it wasn’t part of the cuisine until sometime around 1440, which is when Portuguese traders appear to have arrived in the Jolof Empire.

Initially the Portuguese trading posts were intended to develop trade links between Africa and Europe, though in reality they were more like garrisons and were designed to force West Africans to trade only with Portugal, rather than other European traders. In exchange for manufactured goods such as firearms and new foods, the Portuguese took items such as gold and terracotta. However, these actions later contributed to the beginnings of one of the most brutal and horrific atrocities in history: the transatlantic slave trade.

The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade refers to the enslavement and transport of millions of Africans from their homeland to the Americas during the 16th to 19th centuries by European traders – notably the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. To this day it is one of the worst periods of human history, involving suffering on an unimaginable and harrowing scale.

Map showing the Middle Passage and transatlantic slave trade. Credit here.

The effects of the slave trade echo through history into today’s societies and in his work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the late historian Walter Rodney argued there was a fundamental economic imbalance between some European and African countries as a result of Europe benefiting economically from enslaved human labour while Africa was bled of its citizens.

As well as people, Africa lost parts of its own food identity from the 16th to the 19th centuries as European colonisers took over land and systematically set about destroying the existing culture. According to the food historian Igor Cusack, it is near impossible to overestimate the colonial impact on African national cuisines. The West African dish groundnut stew, for example, came about partly because French colonisers destroyed many of the indigenous crops in Senegal and used almost all of the agricultural land there for groundnuts, which were then exported for profit. Likewise the use of broken rice in the aforementioned thiebou dieun is due to colonial rule where large quantities of poor quality rice were imported from French Indochina to Africa, with the best quality rice to going straight to France.

One more reason it’s challenging trying to gather early evidence of Jollof rice is because there aren’t many sources available. That’s not to say they don’t exist, just that either my research skills aren’t good enough, or that making pre-16th century African sources readily available to the general population of the UK hasn’t been prioritised by archives and libraries. Or it could be a combination of both (probably this one, to be honest.)

Much of West Africa’s history is also oral and told through stories and customs that are passed down through generations in the form of songs or folklore. Griots – akin to ancient Greek bards or epic poets – are one important way the history of West Africa was passed down.

A griot performing. Credit here.

Despite the issues I had with gathering reliable evidence about the history of pre-16th century African food, I did find this OpenEdition journals collection and this British Library article hugely helpful when researching the history of language, writing and food across the African continent.

Back to Jollof

What is clear is that in spite of the distorting influence of the slave trade and colonialism on the history of African food, Jollof Rice is a quintessentially West African dish. Its reach into numerous countries – both in Africa and across the world – under various names and versions, and the joy and love it generates by those who share its culture, is testament to that.

In lieu of a ‘first ever’ Jollof recipe, I settled for something arguably better: a Jollof recipe that had remained largely unchanged for a couple of generations, shared with me from an exceptionally generous colleague. Out of respect for him I am not publishing his family recipe, though I have included links to similar recipes that are already available online at the end of this post.

Full disclosure to anyone following the #jollofwars, though: it is a Nigerian version. This was actually perfect for me as my dad spent quite a bit of his childhood growing up in Lagos, so I felt like if I was going to make any type of Jollof recipe I’d have wanted to try a Nigerian one, just to see if it was similar to the ones he remembered.

Let’s make Jollof (finally.)

Cooking Jollof.

I actually made this Jollof twice because the first time I added an entire un-deseeded scotch bonnet to the tomato/pepper/onion purée and then spent the next 12 hours in the fetal position when I tried a teaspoon of it. I had though I wasn’t too bad with spice, but oh my god.

The second time I made it I avoided all the seeds in the scotch bonnet and added only the tiniest scraping of the flesh to the tomato mixture. This mixture was then added to a stock, which I made by hand following my colleague’s instructions, and then I added the rice.

Nigerian Jollof Rice is rinsed of all its starch, so I had to wash the rice I used multiple times until the water ran totally clear. Following the recipe, I then added the rice to the pot of stock and tomato purée and left it to cook, stirring it frequently to stop it sticking to the pan.

After a while it was done. The liquid had mostly been absorbed by the rice, which had turned a deep red colour. As per my colleague’s instructions, I served the Jollof alongside the chicken which had been used for the stock and which I had baked after removing it from the liquid.

Heaven on a plate.

This. Was. Incredible.

Spicy (but not too much this time) but surprisingly sweet, and with a deep savoury flavour in the background because of the stock used to cook the rice in. I think maaaaybe my Jollof was slightly wetter than it should have been (looking at other versions online they seem less sticky), but even if it was it didn’t seem to affect how good it tasted.

Before I made it I had tried to think of food I’d eaten before that might be similar, and had wondered if paella might fit the bill. After one bite I could see that though these two dishes shared common ingredients, they were clearly distinct from each other. Given that both West Africa and Spain have historical links to Portugal, it’s not surprising that comparisons are sometimes drawn between the two dishes, but the truth is there are clear differences. Paella has a more fishy and saffron-y flavour, whereas Jollof is peppery, more herby and meatier.

Ultimately I’d urge anyone who, like me, has never tried Jollof Rice before to give this a go. Set aside a few hours to really appreciate the process and you won’t be disappointed. Hold back on the scotch bonnet if you don’t enjoy breathing fire, though.

E x

Links

Jollof Rice/Thiebou Dieun Recipes:
Nigerian Jollof
Nigerian Jollof
Ghanaian Jollof
Ghanaian Jollof
Senegalese Thiebou Dieun

Winner winner chicken dinner: Tudor carving habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, 45 minutes later, it did.

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

Soon.

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

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

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

Wynkyn de Worde, The Boke of Keruynge 1508

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knives in Tudor England

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

But the carving knife was different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E x

The spread of Manichaeism: an ancient conspiracy theory?

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

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

I know, right? I’m excited too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mani-what-chaeism?

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

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

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

Got it? Good.

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

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

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

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

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

Hear me out, though.

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

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

Well, yes, actually. The Manichaens.

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

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

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

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

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

Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio

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

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

Mosaicarum et romanarum legum collatio

Ah. So…not prison then?

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

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

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

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

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

E x

You Should Get Vaccinated: The Leicester Method – 19th century

Let’s take a break from lockdown 2.0 and go on holiday. Not a proper holiday, obviously, but an imaginary one. Better yet, a holiday through time – about 150 years ago – to, er, Leicester.

Like many other towns during the second half of the Industrial Revolution, Leicester saw rapid population growth going from a population of just under 20,000 at the start of the century to about 167,000 by the end.

In fact it was such a vibrant, bustling metropolis that Oscar Wilde quoted: “I can resist everything except Leicester”* and Queen Victoria herself, after being asked if London was exciting enough for her, was overheard to complain: “We are not amused – if only we were in Leicester, where everything is better.”**

She is fuming because she agreed to meet a friend at 11:00 but didn’t realise she was waiting for her on the other side of the clock tower.

But was it actually better?

It would appear that for parts of the 19th century, much of Leicester was quarantined. As in stay indoors, close shops, don’t mix with others. Sound familiar?

The reason for this? Smallpox. It was one of the biggest killers of the 18th century, killing up to 30% of its victims. Those that survived were often left physically scarred and mentally traumatised by experience.

You would think that once a vaccine had been developed people would flock to book their jabs. After all, this newly invented method of preventing disease promised to stop the disease in its tracks, freeing millions from fear and heartache.

The things is, vaccination was just that: newly invented (in 1796, if you were wondering.) Many people didn’t trust it as a method of prevention. This included some doctors who argued it was dangerous, under-tested, and (as the government offered it free of charge) would take away a source of their income at a time when people paid for medical treatment.

But no group argued against vaccinations as loudly or passionately as the people of Leicester. Now don’t get me wrong, as a Leicestershire girl myself I have an obvious soft spot for my county town. But it’s fair to say that the people of the city during the 19th century were, well, pretty stubborn when it came to vaccination.

Let’s get this straight: to distract us from the current pandemic you’re telling us about an anti-vax town in the grip of its own pandemic?

Sort of?

In 1853 the government made vaccination against smallpox compulsory in the first three months of a child’s life. This law was known as the New Vaccination Act because the first Vaccination Act of 1840 had largely failed to take off; despite being free, vaccination was also voluntary and, still a relatively new invention, many were yet to be convinced by its safety.

The New Vaccination Act was followed in 1867 by a decree that stated all children below the age of 14 must receive their smallpox vaccine. For the people of Leicester, many of whom were working class with no workers rights which allowed them to take time off work to get their children vaccinated, being told to fall in line so rigidly by upper class politicians was a step too far. In 1869 the Leicester Anti-Vaccination League was founded.

Yeah, why would anyone want to vaccinate against smallpox?!

Anti-vaccination sentiment wasn’t just a negative response to being told what to do, however.

There were many reasons people in Victorian England opposed vaccination. Religion accounted for a large number of excuses as some felt the smallpox vaccine – which relied on matter from cowpox -mixed humans and animals together in an unholy way. Others suggested that smallpox was God’s punishment of sin and to attempt an eradication of it was to overturn his will.

A fear of side effects and a mistrust of doctors accounted for other reasons. In 1841 the UK census suggested almost 1/3 of doctors were untrained, and vaccines, new as they were back then, had not been tested safely which initially led to a number of deaths. Along with these reasons, a feeling that vaccination was being forced on the working classes by those in power (who had previously done precious little to improve the lives of ordinary folk) left a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths.

Back to Leicester.

In 1871, angry at being ignored, the government reiterated its position on the compulsory nature of vaccination and threatened fines on anyone who disobeyed. In Leicester the number of prosecutions for flouting the Act grew from 2 in 1869 to 1,154 in 1881 as parents refused to vaccinate their children, angry at what they perceived to be a curtailment to their rights. Furthermore, for the second half of 1883, only 707 out of 2,281 babies born in that half of the year were vaccinated.

Punishment for the people of Leicester was swift. In 1884, George Bamford was fined 10 shillings (half the average weekly wage) or told to spend a week in prison for refusing to vaccinate his fourth child. One of George’s other children had died not long after receiving their mandatory vaccination and George’s mistrust of vaccines was set in stone afterwards.

The Leicester Method vs. vaccination.

In 1877 a report by Dr W. Johnson, Assistant Medical Officer of Health, showed that though smallpox had appeared in Leicester, it only caused six deaths. Despite refusing vaccinations, the citizens of Leicester somehow seemed to have avoided mass infection.

Dr Johnson suggested that the low mortality rate was down to one main factor, which he termed ‘the Leicester Method’. This method relied on fast acting notification of smallpox to the local authorities and quarantine of those infected – as well anyone who lived with them – before the disease had a chance to spread. It really was the track and trace of the Victorian age, only with fewer glitchy apps. Dr Johnson urged parliament to grant Leicester a Local Act recognising the Leicester Method as an alternative to compulsory vaccination. In 1879, this Act was created in the Leicester Corporation Act.

Following the 1879 Act, Leicester became the only town to openly substitute the following measures for infant vaccination:

1. Prompt notification
2. The isolation and segregation of smallpox cases in hospital
3. Quarantine of all persons found to have been in contact with the patient
4. The vigilant inspection and supervision of all contacts during the incubation period of fourteen days
5. Cleansing and disinfection of clothes, bedding and dwellings
6. The burning of clothes, bedding, etc., when necessary

Despite the steps highlighted above, many authorities rightfully had concerns about the Leicester Method and continued to prosecute those who refused vaccinations. like today, the track and trace element of the rules, for example, only worked if people actually adhered to it.

In 1882, 2,274 summonses were issued for people withholding from vaccination and by 1885 tensions between the authorities and people of Leicester were at an all time high (yes – even higher than that year Leicester council faced strong criticism for how it decorated the city’s Christmas tree.)

On 23 March 1885, contemporaries estimated that 100,000 people (although historians suggest it was more like 20,000) gathered in protest in the streets of Leicester, carrying banners with succinct messages such as “The President of the Local Government Board cannot deny that children die under the operation of the Vaccination Acts in a wholesale way” and equally snappy placards of solidarity from other corners of Britain: “Cordial greeting and sympathy to the heroic martyrs of Leicester”, as was sent from St. Pancras.

Children are fed to the disease ridden cow creature, representing vaccination. Images like this one appeared on banners at the 1885 protest.

The demonstration was every official’s worst nightmare: well organised, popular and held on a surprisingly sunny day. More and more people joined the crowds, both as supporters and general onlookers. As well as protesters, there were movable stunt stalls to entertain the crowd. A particularly graphic one had a gallows and every 20 yards or so performed an execution of a dummy Edward Jenner – the man responsible for the smallpox vaccination. We love a bit of the macabre in Leicester.

The event ended with rousing speeches from guest speakers and promises to oppose vaccination in all its forms as much as any individual could. The following year at the next guardian elections (think local elections), most of the successful candidates were staunch opponents to compulsory vaccination.

The people of Leicester finally achieved some of what they wanted when the 1898 Vaccination Act was passed. This Act removed some of the penalties imposed for resisting vaccination and included a conscience clause, which allowed parents to get a certificate of exemption if they did not wish to vaccinate their children. Now anyone with a suspicion of vaccination could cite the Leicester Method as a government sanctioned alternative and, as long as they followed the rules rigorously, couldn’t be prosecuted.

So…what’s the problem with the Leicester Method?

Suspicion of vaccines is still rife among some communities today and there have been arguments for a modern day Leicester Method to be used like the one used to combat smallpox. With a “world beating” track and trace system, proponents of the Leicester Method argue, there’s no need for a vaccine.

I asked one of my oldest friends (who happens to be a doctor) why the Leicester Method isn’t a reasonable long term alternative to vaccination. In between rolling her eyes in exasperation and requesting that instead of “oldest”, she be referred to as my “most beautiful and intelligent” of friends, she told me that there are several reasons.

Firstly, there’s one key difference between smallpox and coronavirus: symptoms. There are no asymptomatic smallpox patients. In 100% of smallpox cases patients develop rashes and fevers. Putting aside whether or not the track and trace system we have in the UK could be accurately described as “world beating”, smallpox symptoms made it easy in the 19th century to identify who was infected and needed to quarantine. However, recent modelling suggested that in the best case scenario with an R rate of 2, 10% of patients with coronavirus could be asymptomatic, making it much harder to identify who needs to isolate.

Secondly, the method relies heavily on everyone doing it properly. Under the Leicester Method, staying indoors means exactly that – staying indoors. No going out for a vague amount of exercise, no trips to the shops for essential bread, milk and M&Ms. Medicine and provisions were left at your door and you did not come out until an approved amount of time had passed. Quarantine meant quarantine for everyone – school children and essential workers included. This was easier to do at a time when children didn’t attend school for as long as they do now and the overall population was lower (current estimates are that there are over half a million citizens of Leicester city, compared to well under 200,000 at the end of the 19th century.)

Thirdly, the Leicester Method doesn’t actually protect people from catching illness if they’re quarantined with an infected person. A bit of a brutal fact about quarantining an entire household with a sick member is that it’s sort of guaranteed it will spread within the house. Fine if your household is all generally fit and well, but for those living with a vulnerable person then the reality of being locked in an infected house for days on end is a lot grimmer and frightening.

And finally, my beautiful and intelligent friend pointed out that we are still learning about this virus. What role, for example, do children play in spreading the disease? How much is there we still don’t know about ‘long covid‘? We know the incubation period can be as long as ten days, and that people can be asymptomatic and spread it around like butter on a hot crumpet before realising they have it. Indefinite and repeated periods of lockdown following the Leicester Method won’t fix these issues, but are more likely to compound existing issues like mental health problems, poverty and unemployment.

Vaccination is the best method of prevention.

In short, the Leicester Method only worked 150 years ago because people seem to have adhered much more strictly to the rules enforced at the time. This is partly because it’s easier to control the spread of disease in smaller populations. It’s also worth pointing out that the method ended up being used alongside vaccination rather than just on its own. At the start of the 20th century, Charles Killick Millard, the Medical Officer of Health for Leicester, ordered the vaccination against smallpox of medical and nursing staff. The vaccination of key front line staff helped stop the disease spreading further and effectively created a bubble around the non-vaccinated citizens of Leicester.

Until the much hoped for vaccine arrives, a modern day version of the Leicester Method is all we’ve got. With a widely available, effective vaccine, though, it wouldn’t matter about asymptomatic patients or adhering to lockdown rules. It would mean we wouldn’t need to worry as much about track and trace, and your 85 year old great aunt could lick every outdoor railing or snog anyone who coughed within a mile of her, so long as she’d had her jab. You know, if she wanted to.

E x

*Not true.
** Also not true. Come on!

Entertainment: Tudor style

It would appear none of you listened to me last time when I told you to cease and desist emptying the shops of food and loo roll. I understand that some of you might have struggled to take Boris Johnson at his word when he asked people to stop panic buying and exercise more control in their social gatherings but what I find astounding is the number of you who ignored me. I’m very, very disappointed in you all. I want you to go away and think seriously about what you’ve done. You can tell your mum to expect a phone call later – on Mothers’ Day of all days! Do you think she’ll be proud of you?

Obviously, the implications of your actions are clear. Upset and broken by seeing yet more year 7’s arrive to school with apples and (and I can’t believe I’m having to write this), bananas in their lunchboxes instead of chocolate cake and doughnuts because the shelves continue to be emptied of these treats, schools this week have taken the very difficult decision to close. It’s for the best; the kids need time to recover the social humiliation of having no one willing to trade lunches with them, and teachers need therapy after finding cornucopia’s worth of rotting apple cores stuffed down the backs of radiators and mashed banana between the pages of textbooks. Hang your heads in shame, people.

A whole host of people are now going to be stuck indoors, possibly with small children (hopefully their own), for the foreseeable future. I may be one of them, because unfortunately my efforts to escape isolation with my family by hiding behind a big shelf of tinned tomatoes when we were out shopping was thwarted by the fact that people kept stockpiling the bloody things, so my husband and daughter found me pretty quickly.

So, here I am: in the house, awaiting emails from school to see if I’ll be called in to care for those who need support or whose parents are key workers heroes. So far, I’m not rota-d on for next week, which means I’m faced with the alarming prospect of having to do some Actual Mothering.

Fortunately, my child is too little to have a clue what’s going on so I’m spared the difficult conversations of explaining what’s happening or alleviating any fears or anxieties. All she knows is that we can only see grandma and grandpa over the computer and that if she smashes her fists into all the buttons on the keypad at the same time we can’t even do that anymore. Unfortunately, this means that she’s not of an age where she can entertain herself for any reasonable amount of time. Finding activities to fill the hours has therefore become something of a specialty.

The rainbow idea? Lovely! Heartwarming! A true show of community spirit in difficult times. Whose idea was it, and how do I contact them to pay for the dry cleaning to remove 7 different paints out of my carpet and off my walls? What about films? My daughter will snuggle up under a blanket and watch a movie as long as that movie is no longer than 7 minutes, contains only talking tractors and has a jingle she can shout at the top of her voice for several hours after it ends. She’ll clamour to watch it 3 times in row and will then have the mother of all tantrums when asked if she wants to watch it again. Nothing holds her attention apart from everything, immediately, and her skills at tidying up after herself leave much to be desired:

Scenes like this one have been achieved within in 10 minutes. Please, I am not joking: send help.

My husband and I have resorted to hiding under the stairs whenever we hear her coming. It’s the only place we can eat anything without having to share it. It’s not quite big enough to accommodate both of us and the Hoover and ironing board, so there’s always a bit of a Hunger Games tussle between us where one of us ends up sacrificed to the Insatiable and Ever Present Toddler, but today I managed to eat a half an Easter egg, a left over sausage and can of Diet Coke in blissful uninterruption, albeit in the pitch black (the light would give me away.) True, she was waiting for me when I emerged with an accusatory “chocolate?” but it was already gone.

I’m therefore having to temporarily change the focus of this blog. There will still be meals and snacks made of the historical kind however, with a tiny force of nature to care for more often than before, and with fewer and fewer ingredients on the shelves, it’s not possible to research, prepare and cook things that might not be able to be eaten by 1/3 of the household on a regular basis. With that in mind, therefore, I’m switching today’s focus on entertainment in Tudor England. What did people do to keep busy? Can I replicate any of it? Is there a precedent for sending my daughter off with a travelling theatre to tour Europe for several months so she can earn some money for us and ease our childcare woes (probably not, for multiple reasons.)

Before I began to transform all our free time into a plan of Tudor activities (a teacher without a timetable is a rudderless soul), I ran the idea past my husband, who has (mostly) suffered in silence while I’ve fed him dubious meals and cared for him according to pre-NHS standards. He was only too happy to share some of his misfortune with our daughter; “I don’t see why not – if she’s been spared most of what you’ve been up to so far it’s high time she experienced a little of it now”, was his response.

First up was dancing. This was a past time enjoyed by pretty much every strata of Tudor society, from formal choreographed dances enjoyed by the rich, to spontaneous drunken jigs danced by the poor. It seemed a good place to start the Timetable of Tudor “Fun”.

It’s a source of constant amusement to my family that my husband, who has two parents who were both professional dancers for much of their lives, has two left feet. For our first dance when we got married we employed the timeless cling-on-to-each-other-and-sway-aimlessly technique rather than risk choreographing what would just inevitably become an elaborate tumble into the wedding cake. Imagine my husband’s delight when I told him we were going to prepare a dance routine as our first activity.

I took my inspiration from this Key Stage 2 lesson which showed several people, all splendidly dressed up, very seriously glaring at each other as they hopped round in a circle and wagged their fingers to lute music. At one point they did a move that involved throwing their hands up (seemingly in despair), turning round and sort of skipping away a bit. Since this move was reminiscent to one I do whenever I try to reason with my daughter, I thought it would be perfect.

We stood in a circle, but since there was only three of us, it was more of a triangle, and held hands. My husband and I attempted to keep straight faces and my daughter wrestled with us as she sought to free her sweaty palms. At first, I had planned to just play the video on the TV so that we could copy the moves and use the music, but it became very clear that Tudor music wasn’t my daughter’s jam. We had to use Baby Shark instead.

There we were, holding hands, moving in a slow circle, stopping and clapping, while Baby Bloody Shark serenaded us. One of us couldn’t contain herself and broke rank to act out the moves to Baby Shark, whizzing round the room screeching ‘Mummy shark! Daddy shark!” as she did so. I tried to wag my finger at her, but I only ended up copying yet another of the ridiculous dance moves by accident so she didn’t take it seriously. Meanwhile, my husband had slightly twisted his ankle trying to replicate one of the twiddly jumps (or was he trying to run away?) and was demanding a break. It felt a bit silly to continue without her and with one of us injured (and besides, I think the neighbours across the road had spotted us through their window at his point) so we stopped.

Next up was hunting. This was a big thing for the rich in Tudor England, with larger animals such as deer being popular animals to hunt. For Henry VIII, hunting was a way to show his power and sporting prowess. In 1519, the Venetian ambassador commented that Henry VIII “never took that diversion without tiring eight or ten horses” and Henry considered hunting so important an past time to him that he ordered many hunting lodges to be built across England, including one in 1543 at Epping Forest, from which he could see the deer on the chase.

Obviously, hunting was something we couldn’t overlook if we were going to do this Tudor entertainment thing properly. However, we did have just a few teeny tiny ethical qualms – not least of which was the idea that rushing around our local town centre brandishing kitchen knives and catapults made of rubber bands might put the public in more danger than it already was, thus defeating the point of our social distancing. It was decided that a game of hide and seek would have to do instead, and my husband dutifully donned a pair of Rudolph antlers left over from Christmas to get into the mindset of a Tudor deer before going to hide upstairs, in the bed, under the duvet for half an hour.

Whilst rich people could hunt big game, poor people had to make do with fishing in certain areas (not everywhere, as the king still controlled many of the lakes and ponds in England, for which permission had to be sought to fish from.)

It’s a very special type of panic buying, semi-hysterical Tudor themed pet shopping is. The lady in the pet shop remained very calm when I told her I was looking for a goldfish “such as might have been kept in the ponds of Tudor England.” She implied quite heavily that it would be a pretty serious crime to use pet shop fish for fishing and that we couldn’t ‘just build’ a pond in our back garden by the end of the day. What we could have, however, was a starter tank with 6 little fish in and an aquatic plant, so we did that instead. I asked my daughter what they should be called and she just shouted “Bosh!” over and over again for a full minute, so we assumed that’s what she wanted them to be called. All of them. I have since learned that the 15th century artist Hieronymus Bosch, who painted at the time of Henry VII and Henry VIII, was famed for his scenes of doom and pestilence. How very fitting, and unnerving of my daughter.

Okay, so maybe the hunting and fishing was just an excuse to have a nap and go and buy some new pets. But that still left one more thing to try: dice.

Dice games were exceptionally popular in Tudor England. I suppose after a day of bashing your ankles together in dancing and getting gored by deer you’d want to do something that was primarily focused on sitting down. Between 1529 and 1532, Henry VIII lost £3,243 5s 10d because of gambling, showing how fond and popular gambling with dice was. By 1604, there were so many legal cases being brought that centred on the issues of loaded and false dice that legislation had to be brought in to prevent their manufacture and sale.

A dice game that could cost us thousands? That had the potential to lead to a law suit? What could go wrong? The High German game Glückhaus, known as Lucky Pig in England during Tudor times, was just the sort of game we needed. Once my daughter was in bed, we drew up the board and began to play.

A Lucky Pig board

We took it in turns to throw a pair of dice. If we threw a 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 or 11, we had to place a coin on the King Space, the empty one with a crown on it. We settled on £1 coins initially, because we didn’t use our maths skills to see that most of the time we’d be placing coins on the King Space, before downgrading the £1s to any old coins, since it was all coming out of our joint piggy bank anyway. We decided that the winner would get to pick the takeaway for the evening. If we threw a 7, the coin was placed on the 7 space. This space was known as the Wedding Space. If we threw a 2, the Pig Space, we got to take all the coins on the board apart from the ones on the Wedding Space. If we threw a 12 then we got to keep all the coins on the board, including the ones in the Wedding Space. So really, this game should have been called ‘Lucky Pig, Greedy King’, but you’d probably have lost your head.

By the end (10 minutes or so) I was the winner with £3.47 to my husband’s £1.15. I picked Chinese.

Times are a bit rough at the moment and I still don’t know how to entertain my daughter any more than I did at the start of the day. Tomorrow my Tudor diary’s suggesting falconry followed by bear baiting, but I’m fairly sure they’ll be cancelled as they always attract a crowd. Back to drawing on the walls and eating lunch under the stairs it is, then.

Stay safe.

E x

Continue reading “Entertainment: Tudor style”

Review: Fitzwilliam Museum’s ‘Feast and Fast’ Exhibition

A librarian, a linguist and an historian walk into a bar…

…which immediately empties as people try to escape the inevitable smug but still dull punchline.

In this case, though, the bar is actually a museum which was so totally the opposite of smug and dull that no one was trying to leave. Unfortunately the librarian, linguist and historian were real enough, but they mostly kept to themselves and only diminished the quality of the exhibition a little bit.

As a history lover (can I stop calling myself a historian now? There surely aren’t enough letters after my name to qualify), I have quite a particular set of criteria that I think need to be met in order for a museum or exhibition to be graded ‘awesome’. For those that are wondering – the grading scale goes ‘awesome’, ‘good for a rainy day’, ‘would pass through it to get to the loos’ and ‘would rather be on Friday after school detention duty’.

A museum should be three things to the visitors that go there: academic but also accessible, engaging, and a bit of an indulgence. I want to leave feeling like I’ve learnt something that even if not immediately pub quiz useful to know, still feels good to have learnt it.

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s Feast and Fast: the art of food in Europe 1500-1800 manages to fulfill all those criteria and more. Open over the feast and fast periods of Christmas and Lent (nice touch) its aim is to “present[s] novel approaches to understanding the history and culture of food and eating” which it achieves through a visual smorgasbord of recreated food from history, artefacts, original documents and the obligatory paintings of naked women lounging around bowls of semi peeled fruit.

If you’d like a more comprehensive and slightly less irreverent review of the exhibition then check out this review. If you just want to know what a swan tattoo is and ruminate on whether Adam really needed a fig leaf that reached down to his knees, read on.

The first thing you notice is the 4 foot pineapple installation outside the exhibition by Bompas & Parr, who describe themselves as experts in “multi-sensory experience design.” They sound super cool but I don’t really know what “multi-sensory experience design” means, though that’s probably OK because I doubt I’m the sort of target audience they’re going for. The three of us enjoyed the jarring nature of a giant modern pineapple squatting in the manicured grounds of the museum and did some very uncool selfies in-front of it, shattering all the pineapple’s street cred with each chin-heavy/grimacing shot we took.

The first wow factor hit as soon as we stepped into the main exhibition. A recreation of an early 1600s banquet greeted audiences square on and my first thought as I gazed at it was ‘well, thank God we didn’t bring my daughter’. I didn’t know this, but in 17th century England ‘banquet’ meant a formal dinner but could also mean a sweet course afterwards. The food historian Ivan Day made everything on the table out of sugar paste after the Renaissance custom whereby very, very, very rich (like, so unbelievably rich I could just keep writing the word very over and over again) would get their chefs to deceive guests by disguising food as something else. So on this table the food-stands, plates, walnuts, bacon and eggs and gloves were made out of sugar. This would have confused and delighted guests – the entertainment element of 17th century Come Dine With Me. We did wonder whether, when they were setting all this up, any of them were tempted to just lick a bit of it or eat one of the sugar almonds, and what the penalty might have been if they were caught. Had my daughter been with us no doubt we’d have found out.

Already confused and delighted, we moved on to the swan tattoos. Proper Historians would call them ‘swan registers’, but since there wasn’t a Proper Historian to be found, we continued making fun of a centuries old custom. In the later middle ages swans were bred as status symbols and by 1482 a law was passed that said all unmarked white swans found in common waters were automatically property of the king. Cue swan owners throughout England branding their birds in an effort to stop this very peculiar form of taxation. The bills of the swans were etched according to the symbol of their owners and registers of each symbol were kept track of. In 1570 the Order of Swannes decreed that anyone caught tampering with any of the tattoos, or adding their symbol onto an unmarked swan without permission would be thrown into prison for a year.

Speaking of swans, the second wow factor came in the form of a Baroque Feasting Table where I counted a swan, a pheasant, a peacock and a partridge (stuffed and with gilded eyes and beaks) decorating a table groaning under silverware, fruits and seafood. I can’t really think of anything funny to say about this bit – it was just a truly extraordinary display of decadence and gluttony. If it’s true that throughout history humans have had a very anxious relationship with food – with the poor always questioning ‘where’s the next meal coming from?’ and the wealthy thinking ‘this tastes revolting but shows I’m rich so should I serve it?’ (the answer was always yes) – then whoever prepared this banquet was clearly in the bathroom when humans were getting their food anxiety handed out. Even the tableware – the knives, glasses and tablecloths – screamed wealth. Break a mug at this dinner party and you’ll be repaying the hosts with your annual salary. The curators had lit the whole thing beautifully and it looked exactly like a painting, I found that my eyes couldn’t stay still and kept skipping from one shiny object to the next, which maybe says more about my ability to appreciate art than anything else.

By now it was time for some pictures. Now, I am not a huge fan of art. I firmly fall into the camp of if-I-can-do-it-it’s-not-art. Luckily, most arty things are beyond me, so fans of blobs of primary colour on canvases can rest easy that I won’t be picking a fight with you. At least, not until I’ve done the photo shoot for my own unmade bed. To make the pictures go a bit quicker we played a game of bingo, which if you’re ever stuck in a gallery with people who know about art (and want you to know that they know about art), is a great way to stop yourself from turning yourself inside out from boredom. On our bingo list was: man leering at buxom cook while she dithers, dead pheasant, fruit used as a modesty item, small child with plate of food balanced precariously on their head while adults cavort inappropriately behind them and people gazing at an apple. We also had a bonus round – in honour of the icon that is Mary Beard – called ‘Is it Art or Is It F***ing?’ which I won when I found a Cezanne.

Amazingly, we didn’t find much on the bingo list (apart from the previously mentioned massive fig leaves which indicated Adam needed a doctor, so Eve probably did him a favour getting them out of that garden.) What I did find, however, was a couple of images that fell within the cliched ‘women and food’ category but that really made me laugh. The first depicted an older woman who looked decidedly pissed off, fannying about with some fruit. When I looked closer I found that maybe the reason she looked so cross was that the artist, David Teniers (1610-1690) had entitled it ‘An Old Woman Peeling An Apple’. The second image, by Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), was of a young woman holding out a waffle and was imaginatively called ‘A lady holding a plate with a waffle’. It was apparently meant to be sensuous and seductive, but that was lost on me and it just made me feel hungry instead. I shared a fun moment with one of the exhibition attendants when I reached out to point at the weirdly modern looking waffle and he lunged forward to stop me, thinking I was going to smear my greasy not-a-proper-historian fingers all over it. I mean, it was fun for me, probably less so for him.

Another item of note included the 1510-11 inventory of Margaret Beaufort’s expenses for a feast for the winding up of her estate where over £1000 in today’s money was spent on meat – including our trusty friend the swan. I set a new life goal: get so famous that one day people would pore over my weekly Sainsbury’s receipt, encased in glass and softly lit from above while a little plaque solemnly informed people that in this week alone my household had consumed two boxes of Coco Pops and a crate of sausage rolls (you have to know who to ask…)

So, what did I gain from this visit? Well, firstly I got some brilliant ideas for future cooking experiments – if you need me over the weekend I’ll be waist deep in the river dressed as a swan going ‘quack quack’ in en effort to lure them into my net. As well as this I also got to try the sugariest coffee cake known to man in the museum cafe, it’s been two days and I’m still shaking as I write.

I also got a properly in depth understanding of where a lot of the foods we enjoy fit into history and our culture as well as an appreciation of why some foods have certain elevated statuses while others are seen as being lowly and modest. For example, once you understand that the medieval Catholic Church decreed that no meat was to be consumed on holy days, which accounted for about 40% of the year, you kind of get why banquets where hogs were paraded round with apples in their mouths were such entertainment and reserved for the rich, who wanted to celebrate the occasions where meat was permitted in a way that separated them from the poor.

This exhibition was not only academic and accessible, it was also incredibly entertaining and I definitely felt like I’d had a proper treat by the end of it. Even the librarian, who admitted museums weren’t really her thing, couldn’t stop herself from getting excited over Isaac Newton’s notebook showing a record of all the snacks he had bought while studying as a student at Cambridge. Every little detail was well thought out, from the moody lighting which made you feel quite alone and allowed you to focus despite being surrounded by people, to the exhibition-inspired kid’s paintings at the end (hey, it guaranteed those parents will visit at least!) There really was something for everyone, as long as ‘everyone’ doesn’t include toddlers. Maybe don’t bring them, unless you’re really good at repairing sugar paste castles.

Feast and Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800

26th November 2019 – 26th April 2020

Admission: Free

The Fitzwilliam Museum
Trumpington Street
Cambridge
CB2 1RB

Welcome!

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

I’ve never actually read The Go-Between but I assume that it exists, like all great novels, to provide a useful quote to showcase my fragile intellect and act as a punny title for my amateurish blog attempts.

This blog is very much a work in progress, born of a desire to do more of the things I’m passionate about (history and eating) whilst not really wanting to commit to any real or meaningful New Year’s resolutions that might actually benefit me. You know, like reading more history books or learning to cook a meal that could be accurately described as something more than just ‘brown’.

Amazingly, my husband did not consider these cakes a healthy alternative to fruit or “a good example to set for our daughter at breakfast time.”

So with that in mind welcome to The Past is a Foreign Pantry – a blog where I’ll be making meals, cakes, breads, snacks and other culinary curiosities from history. I’ll try to stick to as authentic ingredients as far as budget and reality will allow (looking at you, 1665 medicinal recipe for ‘Plague Water’ containing powdered unicorn horn), but won’t be worrying too much about authentic methods, because who has actually got time to hand mill grain when there’s season 2 of You to watch?

Other than that no time period or foodstuff is off limits and I’ll also try all the food myself, just to add in a bit of moderate peril to make it more exciting. Obviously I’ll share the recipes as well so that anyone who wants to can try them out for themselves.

So if you’re a history buff and foodie whose idea of a good time is boring impressing your friends with fancy-pants meals that may or may not give them food poisoning then you’re in the right place. Enjoy!

E x