Great British Cooking?

In this episode of On My Bookshelf I reach for a cookbook.

“How do you make Toad in the Hole?” asked my 8 year old grandson. “Well, first I send you boys into the woods to find some toads while I make the holes,” I replied. “Then you drop the toads into the holes and we’re done.” The 6 year old looked confused but 8 was on to me. “That’s not true!” he protested. So I explained that the English give weird names to their foods but basically Toad in the Hole is just sausages in Yorkshire Pudding. That drew blank stares so I revised it to a sausage pancake. They liked the sound of that and agreed to help me, though once the Yorkshire Pudding batter was mixed they lost interest. I have the recipe for this and more odd sounding foods in Great British Cooking by Jane Garmey. I bought the book when it was first published in 1981, a time when the title was indeed an oxymoron. This was before the age of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, before pubs turned into gastropubs, and before the Great British Bake Off came to America. British cooking really did have a terrible reputation, especially with Continental Europeans. 

Although my mother was from Belgium we grew up with the standard English fare of “meat and two veg” and bacon and egg fry-ups.. My mother never really learned her national cuisine because her teenage years coincided with the Nazi occupation of Belgium. Food was scarce. Instead of the delicious dishes I have come to love on my visits to Belgium, like Waterzooi and Balletjes, she learned how to make soup with potato peelings and how to stretch one egg to feed a family. This came in useful during her first years in England after the war when rationing was still in effect. My father was no encouragement for her to adventure much beyond the English basics. He considered macaroni and cheese a weird foreign food. His tastes were formed by his Irish mother who lived with us. Her cooking skills were limited to boiling potatoes and cabbage to death. But though her repertoire was limited, my mother was a very good cook. I loved such English standards as her cod and mashed potatoes with parsley sauce, roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding, and bacon and egg sandwiches. She was a very good baker, turning out Victoria sponges, rhubarb pies, and scones with aplomb. Meanwhile at school the lunchtime meals cooked by the nuns were plain English fare often including such stodgy desserts as Suet Pudding or Spotted Dick. 

With this background I initially found American food rather strange. Things you had to pick up in your hands rather than eat with a knife and fork, like hamburgers, hot dogs, and tacos. Weird! So Jane Garmey’s book was a nostalgic reminder of childhood favorites and also introduced recipes new to me that have become family favorites. She has the best recipe for carrots, glazed with a buttery clove-flavored syrup, and the best way of cooking cabbage, simmered in butter and milk. It completely eliminates that awful boiled cabbage smell so ubiquitous in my childhood. 

Right away Garmey admits the dreadful reputation of British cooking with a devastating quote from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

What passes for cookery in England is an abomination … it is putting cabbage in water. It is roasting meat till it is like leather. It is cutting off the delicious skins of vegetables … A whole French family could live on what an English cook throws away.

This is not wrong, says Garmey, but it is not the whole story. After centuries of French disdain for their cooking the English had become defensive. She set out to change that with an emphasis on the traditional dishes cooked in British homes.

Many of these dishes have become familiar to Americans, like Shepherd’s Pie, Cornish Pasties, and Trifle. But what I savor most about the book are the wonderfully strange names of the unfamiliar recipes. Curate’s Cheek anyone? That’s ham in mustard sauce. Or Singin’ Hinnies? Northumberland honey cakes, so called because they squeak on the griddle. Or Tiddy Oggies? A potato stuffed pastry.

Some of the names are regional in origin like the cookies known as Yorkshire Fat Rascals or Aberdeen Nips, mashed haddock sauce on toast. Some sound like Dickens characters – Punchnep and Gubbins. Not partners to Scrooge and Marley but potato and turnip puree and mustard sauce respectively. Some reference death – Soles in their Coffins, an elaborate concoction of sole stuffed baked potatoes, Welsh Funeral, a rich fruit cake, and Coffin Pies, medieval meat pies shaped just as the name suggests. Others reference the celestial realm. A particular favorite of mine is Angels on Horseback, oysters wrapped in bacon, or higher on the angelic scale, Archangels on Horseback made with scallops. I used to make this every Christmas until Trader Joe’s made it easier with a frozen version, but without the lovely name. I promise my oyster-loving husband that I’ll make Angels on Horseback from scratch next Christmas!

Many of the recipes are very old and their names reference historical events and characters. Bosworth Jumbles are named for the famous 1485 battle where Richard III was defeated by the first Tudor king, Henry VII. In addition to the other indignities he suffered that day Richard was reportedly upset that his cook had mislaid the recipe for his favorite biscuits. My kingdom for a cookie? Richmond Maids of Honor are almond custard tarts made for centuries by the same London family. Tradition says that Henry VIII bought them for Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I sent her ladies-in-waiting to Richmond to buy them. Perhaps she inherited a taste for this treat from her mother. Many popular desserts like this went out of favor during the Commonwealth era. Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans banned Mince Pies and Eccles Cakes because they were considered sinfully rich. One benefit of the Restoration was that it restored culinary indulgences along with other vices like plays and concerts. In this spirit Buttered Oranges are named for the notorious Nell Gwynn who was said to serve them to her lover Charles II. The Victorians invented many overly rich foods like Saxe-Coburg Soup, named in honor of Prince Albert. Not to be outdone Queen Victoria had a chicken soup dedicated to her. Both involve lots of heavy cream.

Flummery, Eton Mess, Gooseberry Fool, Sussex Pond, Poor Knights of Windsor, Star Gazey Pie, Apple Charlotte, Bakewell Tart, Syllabub, Madeira Cake. The lovely names roll off the tongue like an incantation. Others sound less appetizing – Cullen Skink, Deviled Kidneys, Cawl Mamgu, Collops, Skuets, and the dreaded Fish Paste. 

As for my Toad in the Hole, it turned out especially good because I made it with authentic English bangers, always available at my grocery store for St. Patrick’s Day, so strictly speaking Irish bangers. It was a big hit with my four grandsons. They actually fought over the leftovers. Next on their English culinary adventure perhaps Curate’s Cheek with a side of Vicarage Beets? I’d have to explain what a curate is. “First I send you boys into the woods to catch a curate…”

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