Spotted dick and other matters

I have often wondered why traditional English cookery is so fond of mock this and mock that (heart masquerading as goose, for example, or onion and potato as sole, or walnuts and breadcrumbs as chicken cutlets). Does it, I wonder, have anything to do with the 19th-century – as opposed to the 17th-century – Puritan ethic? If it is ‘sinful’ to enjoy goose, sole or chicken, making do with a poor substitute might be thought to have a salutary mortifying effect. (By the way, ‘English’ English has recently seen a rather perverse shift away from Puritanism in one of the meanings of ‘sinful’, which is defined by The Free Dictionary as ‘extremely pleasing to the senses’; compare the similarly recent positive usage of ‘awesome’ by Americans.)

Such substitutions occur for various reasons. The new appellation may reflect the taste of the original. Mock crab, for instance, which consists of grated cheese, butter, mustard, vinegar and anchovy paste, is very slightly reminiscent of the taste of the real crustacean, as well as echoing its colour. Other ‘misnomers’ are the result of a corruption of the original term. Bombay duck, for instance, is not in fact a bird, but a tropical fish of the lizardfish family found off the coast of India. It is usually consumed after being dried in the sun, after which it gives off a very powerful fishy smell. The ‘duck’ is thought to be a corruption of the Hindi word, daak, meaning ‘post’ or ‘mail’. This allegedly came about as a result of the fish being transported on postal trains, which subsequently stank . That smell is graphically described in an 1815 poem describing the agony of getting overheated in the sun by C. Lark, Paddy Hew: A Poem: from the brain of Timothy Tarpaulin:

My carcase there did hourly waste,

Like Bombay duck and quite as fast,

When native strings him up by gills

And reeking fat runs down in rills,

Until it be reduc’d by sun

To shrivelled muscle, skin and bone.

But as Wikipedia points out, this etymology is unlikely, as the term Bombay duck is first recorded well before the arrival of the railways in India in 1852. By the way, like stockfish (q.v.), the desiccated lizardfish transmogrifies into a tasty delicacy once combined with its other ingredients (turmeric, ginger, chilli, garlic and lemon juice).

But in most cases startling new sobriquets result from a flight of surrealist fancy by whoever coined them. Most of these have neutral or pleasant connotations, often with a touch of humour provided by an oxymoron. They include Alaska strawberries (a facetious 19th-century euphemism for dried haricot beans), baked Alaska (a circle of cake topped with a dome of ice cream and covered in meringue) and its French equivalent omelette norvégienne, and a prairie oyster (a celebrated antidote to a hangover, consisting of an unbroken raw egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, Tabasco, and ground black pepper; as we shall see below, the term does however also have a second, less attractive meaning).

Hot savouries redolent of London’s club-land include angels on horseback, which are raw oysters enveloped in bacon and grilled, and devils on horseback, where the oysters are replaced by prunes or dates soaked in tea. Pigs in a blanket are little sausages wrapped in a crescent roll, while the German equivalent of the same savoury enjoys the more evocative name of Würstchen im Schlafrock (‘little sausages in a dressing gown’).

Angels On Horseback
Angels on horseback. Photo: Lana, via Wikimedia Commons

Such terms are often much older than might be expected. The food historian and culinary sleuth, Janet Clarkson, points out that, although the Oxford English Dictionary claims angels on horseback are first mentioned in the 1880 edition of Mrs Beeton (i.e. 15 years after her death), the term dates in fact from the Aberdeen Weekly Journal of December 11, 1800. Although the earliest written record of a dish called pigs in a blanket is alleged to be in Betty Crocker’s Cooking for Kids (1957), the recipe features in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle of January 8, 1887 (

Another recipe, whose appellation is perhaps an ironic Kiwi swipe at the British, is colonial goose: New Zealanders at the turn of the 20th century got so fed up with eating lamb at every possible occasion that they devised a boned leg of lamb trussed to look like a goose (which was not widely available) and packed with a delicious stuffing of garlic, lemon, allspice, celery, egg, breadcrumbs and currants.

But not all quirkily named dishes invite you to partake of them. Some are quite frankly off-putting. No one has yet satisfactorily explained why toad in the hole came to designate sausages in batter or bubble and squeak a fry-up of cabbage and meat leftovers (first mentioned in 1808 by Maria Eliza Rundell, a forthright and formidable woman who made the publisher John Murray his fortune with her various best-selling cookbooks). On the Scottish borders, bubble and squeak goes by the name of Rumbledethumps (origin obscure).

As for the second meaning of prairie oysters, they are bulls’ or calves’ testicles, a delicacy of the western and mid-western grasslands of North America (everywhere that cattle are bought and sold). They are good when battered and deep-fried in butter and garlic.

Spotted dick seems a trifle alarming at first sight. But you can take comfort from the fact that it is simply a steamed suet pudding dotted with currants – the spotted bit – and served with custard. It was first mentioned by the Victorian celebrity chef Alexis Soyer in his 1854 book A Shilling Cookery for the People, according to Regula Ysewijn in her comprehensive history of the British pudding, Pride and Pudding. At that time, dick was a dialectal variant of dough, whereas the first use of dick as a slang word for penis is found only in the late 19th century – as well as in most recent American films. In the 1930s, however, a dick was a detective, as in the W.C. Fields classic movie, The Bank Dick (1940).

Eton mess is another oddball of a dish that consists of whipped cream and strawberries that is commonly believed to originate from Eton College and is served at the annual cricket match against the pupils of Harrow School held each year in early July. Its first mention in print dates from 1893. In its later versions, broken pieces of meringue are included, possibly at the suggestion of Old Etonian Michael Smith, author of Fine English Cookery. A popular myth (though believed to be untrue) is that Eton mess was first created when a meringue dessert was accidentally crushed by a Labrador while travelling to a picnic at Eton College, but that it was salvaged and served as a crushed meringue with strawberries and cream.

A word en passant about meringues in general: avoid the ‘industrial’ version like the plague. Whereas home-made meringues are crisp yet friable on their surface, have a subtle egg-white flavour and contain a slightly chewy centre, the bought product is usually rock hard and tastes of nothing but sugar.

Unlike the English, the French have no puritan hang-ups about disguising something ‘sinfully’ delicious in a quirky or off-putting name. The two exceptions I can think of are ‘en chemise’ and ‘en surprise’. Ail en chemise consists of whole cloves of garlic which are baked unpeeled, usually as an accompaniment to a roast. Edouard de Pomiane gives a delightful description of poulet canaille in Radio Cuisine, the collection of recipes he broadcast from 1923 to 1929 on Radio Paris. He requires the cook to arrange 30 unpeeled cloves of garlic around a roast chicken, and then cook them until they are golden brown. The witty Pomiane then goes on: ‘The guests each receive their share of chicken and six cloves of garlic. I eat my chicken...I convey a clove of garlic to my mouth. I nibble it, it empties its contents. It is exquisite..., I discreetly eject the hardened husk on to my fork and park it on my plate. I repeat the operation six times...’

En surprise’ is self-explanatory. One of the most congenial Paris restaurants I knew in the 1970s was run by a Savoyard man in a vest, who officiated in his tiny sweltering kitchen in the front window of the establishment. His waitress daughter strongly recommended we order his escalopes savoyardes. While waiting for the escalopes, we sampled the magnum of unlabelled but excellent red wine she had plonked on the table. She duly brought us what looked like a straightforward potato cheese gratin. We wondered whether the chef had forgotten the escalopes. No, he hadn’t – they were there, invisibly buried in the gratin, their location marked by several little handmade metal skewers sticking up out of the dish. When the time came to pay the bill, the waitress used her well-trained eye to size up the amount of wine we had drunk and charged accordingly. The meal was a perfect example of eating à la bonne franquette, an untranslatable French phrase implying a combination of ‘informally’ and ‘without any pretensions’. And, in this particular case, including an element of surprise.

Finally, I realise I have omitted to discuss ‘humble pie’ or ‘sour grapes’. But these are metaphors, not actual dishes, so they will have to wait for a subsequent post.

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