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Of messes in pots

Old-time cookery could at its best be as sophisticated in its own way as ours is today, but for ordinary people it often consisted of variations on the theme of putting ingredients in a pot of water and boiling them. The name of one such ancient dish appears in a moderately well-known expression:

Ford was certain of only one thing: he did not intend to ... sell humanity’s birthright for a mess of pottage.

Methuselah’s Children, by Robert Heinlein, 1963.

Those who know the Bible will recognise the allusion to the story of Jacob and Esau in Chapter 25 of Genesis. The expression sell one's birthright for a mess of pottage isn’t itself in the 1611 King James Bible, but is in the 1560 Geneva Bible. It’s now an idiom that means a thing of little value (sometimes spoonerised into pot of message), though most people who use it would be hard pressed to define either pottage or mess. The latter is an obsolete term for a serving of food (it’s from Latin missum, something put on the table), from which the military mess gets its name. Pottage comes from French potage, a word that may still be found on the menus of posh English restaurants; it originally meant something cooked in a pot, hence a stew, though in modern French it refers to soup. Jacob actually gave Esau a serving of a stew made from lentils.

Pottages were important in medieval cookery — bread, ale and pottage were the staples for much of the population. For ordinary people pottages were often no more than oatmeal, stewed roots or boiled vegetables, as in the pease pottage that some of us remember from the children’s rhyme:

Pease pottage hot,
Pease pottage cold,
Pease pottage in a pot,
Nine days old.

Pease, from Old English pise, peas, is the original form, usually plural, that led to pea being mistakenly created as the singular.

So totally has pottage gone out of use that in this rhyme and in other references to the dish it has been turned into either pease pudding or pease porridge.

Blancmange and gravy were two pottages with names we can still recognise. The latter wasn’t then the juices of meat — it didn’t take on that meaning until Elizabethan times — but a more ornate sweet and spicy sauce of ground almonds and broth, seasoned with sugar and ginger, into which were placed small pieces of oysters, eels, rabbit, or chicken. Its name is probably a misreading by scribes of Old French grané, a grain of spice. Blancmange (originally blancmanger, from Old French blanc mangier, white food) wasn’t then a dessert but a mild meat dish without any strong spices in it, containing chicken, rice, almonds, sugar, eggs, and cream. Leave out the meat and you’re halfway to our modern version, which became a sweet jelly in the eighteenth century.

The names of most ancient pottages are now unfamiliar, such as porray. Strictly speaking, this should have been made from leeks, because the name is from the Latin porrum, meaning that vegetable, but the word got confused with the French purée and so became a general word for all sorts of thick broths. White porry was mainly leeks, but green porray (also called joute, from the Old French word for a pot-herb or vegetable) was a varied and variable confection of green leaves according to season or that could be harvested from the fields or hedgerows, such as beet leaves (a favourite) or coleworts. This was a general name for any sort of brassica, which weren’t as differentiated as they are now; cole is Old English, from Latin caulis, cabbage, the origin of our modern kale; wort was a general name for a useful plant. Other less familiar native English plants might be included, such as docks, borage, or bugloss, possibly with parsley, thyme, mint or sorrel added to flavour it.

Frumenty (Old French frumentee from Latin frumentum, corn) was often a dish for poor people, being hulled wheat boiled in milk, perhaps with egg yolks beaten in to thicken and colour it (rye or barley were sometimes substituted for wheat). Better-off households might add almonds, cream, currants, and sugar to enhance the flavour and might serve it with venison; by the 1700s it had become a sweet dish served as dessert. In the Wessex dialect spelling furmity, it has its place in literature:

Furmity, as the woman had said, was nourishing, and as proper a food as could be obtained within the four seas; though, to those not accustomed to it, the grains of wheat swollen as large as lemon-pips, which floated on its surface, might have a deterrent effect at first.

The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy, 1886. Frumenty laced with rum shortly afterwards caused Michael Henchard to sell his wife and child at the village fair.

Grand houses, with better resources and skilled cooks, could ring the changes on a lot of different pottages. They used a variety of sauces that supplied most of the flavour, as well as many of their names, which had usually been brought over from French. Mortrews or mortress (Old French morterel or morteruel, a kind of milk soup) was based on milk and bread, with various pounded-up meats added to it, such as chicken or pork. Blanc dessore (from Old French; corrupted later to the meaningless English blank desire) was similar, sometimes served side by side with mawmenny or malmeny, essentially chicken with almonds and wine (the origins of these names is obscure). Egerdouce was a sweet and sour pottage that included a sauce of raisins, currants, and honey for the sweet flavour and vinegar for the sour (the name is from French aigre-doux, sour-sweet, but was Anglicized in various ways, including eager-dulce and even egg-douce, though it had no eggs in it).

Charlet (from an Old French name for a type of pot) was usually boiled shredded pork mixed with eggs, milk and saffron seasoning, not so different from jussell or jusshell (Old French jussel, a juice or broth), which was a broth of various meats with eggs, breadcrumbs and saffron. Yet another pottage was bukkenade; the first English cookery book, The Forme of Cury (cury then meant cookery, from Old French queurie), compiled by Richard II’s master cooks about 1390, said this was made from chicken, rabbit, veal or other meat, stewed with almonds, currants, sugar, onions and salt, thickened if necessary with flour and again coloured with saffron.

Many later recipes confirm that the type of meat in these recipes wasn’t important, since the sauce created the flavour. The key feature of civey was onions (its name isn’t French, but Old English, from cipe, a type of onion, from which we get chive, so it's unconnected with modern French civet, a stew of rabbit or hare). Cullis (ultimately from Latin colare, to strain or sieve) is recorded from the fifteenth century. It was often made with chicken, though other meats or fish could replace it; it was boiled and strained to make a thick broth that was considered to be good for invalids. In the eighteenth century one variety became known as beef tea.

In the sixteenth century the term hasty pudding begin to be applied to a dish of flour boiled in water to a thick consistency, with milk or beer afterwards added; the name comes from the speed with which it could be prepared, not quite up to today’s instant mixes, but quick enough. This was as much a porridge as a pottage, and indeed the word porridge evolved from pottage, though the first porridges often contained vegetables, herbs, or meat and the word was applied specifically to a salted or sweetened oatmeal dish only in the 1640s. Another name for the dish in Scotland and Northern England was crowdie, a word of unknown origin that seems not to be connected with the much more recent term for a type of Scottish cottage cheese often served with cream.

A similar dish was flummery (from Welsh llymru; perhaps related to llymrig, soft or slippery), first mentioned by Gervase Markham in his English Housewife of 1623. He called it “an excellent dish” of “wholesomeness and rare goodness”; it was made by steeping wheatmeal or oatmeal in water, then straining and boiling it until it was “a thick and stiff jelly”; it was served with honey, wine, beer, or milk. Later that century it became a light, sweet dish made with eggs and flour. Its name was borrowed in the next century to describe empty compliments or nonsense:

This word flummery, you must know, Sir, means at London, flattery, and compliment; and is the present reigning word among the beaux and belles. Pardon my telling you what your dictionary would not have told you.

Letter by Lady Luxborough to William Shenstone, 29 Nov. 1749.

As the centuries passed, pottages went out of favour and their components were separately developed, with the meat element being served instead as fricassées, hashes, ragouts and similar dishes, and the sauces becoming distinct culinary items. All three words are French: fricassée from fricasser, to cut up and cook in sauce; hash comes via hacher, to cut up, from hache, a hatchet; and ragout from ragoûter, to revive the taste of a dish.

The thin broth derived from stewing meat also began to be served as a separate course, for which another French word, soupe, was borrowed; in French this was broth poured on slices of bread, a thing commonly done in earlier centuries with pottages, and for which the closely related English sop was used. Soup, in that sense and spelling, came into the English language only in the middle of the seventeenth century. One of its earliest users recorded it thus:

W. Hewer and I did walk to the Cocke, at the end of Suffolke Streete, where I never was, a great ordinary, mightily cried up, and there bespoke a pullett; which, while dressing, he and I walked into St. James's Park, and thence back, and dined very handsome, with a good soup, and a pullet, for 4s. 6d. the whole.

Diary, by Samuel Pepys, 15 Mar. 1668. An ordinary was a set meal in an eating-house or tavern; in a transferred sense, it came to mean the eating-house itself, which is the way that Pepys is using it. The term comes from a thing that is ordained — established by custom or rule.

Pepys was very fond of his food. Some of the meals described in his diary might cause indigestion today just from reading about them:.

We had a fricasee of rabbits and chickens, a leg of mutton boiled, three carps in a dish, a great dish of a side of lamb, a dish of roasted pigeons, a dish of four lobsters, three tarts, a lamprey pie (a most rare pie), a dish of anchovies, good wine of several sorts, and all things mighty noble and to my great content.

Diary, 4 Apr. 1663.

Lampreys (from Latin lambere, to lick, plus petra, stone, because the lamprey attaches itself to stones by its mouth) are a native freshwater fish, notorious for supposedly having caused the death of Henry I (though the Dictionary of National Biography says firmly “The legend that Henry died of ‘a surfeit of lampreys’ has no basis in the historical record. It was not that he ate too many lampreys, but that his physician had advised him not to eat any at all”); in lamprey pie they were baked in butter, drained, and then sealed under more butter so they would keep; Pepys’s pie almost certainly came up from Gloucester and contained the famous Severn lampreys. Pepys also mentions hog’s pudding, an early type of sausage that today is regarded as a traditional dish of Cornwall and Devon; in his time the entrails of a hog were stuffed with a mixture either of oatmeal, suet, and tripe, or of flour, currants, and spices, making a sort of West Country haggis.

In July 1663 Pepys recorded eating umbles:

Mrs. Turner came in, and did bring us an umble pie hot out of her oven, extraordinary good.

Umbles were originally numbles (that first letter was especially variable, since the original was Latin lumbulus, the diminutive of lumbus, loin), which were the innards of the deer — the liver, heart, entrails and other third-class bits. It was common practice in medieval times after a hunt to serve umble pie made from these parts of the animal to the servants who had taken part. In the nineteenth century, in the phrase eating humble pie, and with a nod to its lowly origins, it was created as a punning term for the state of being deeply apologetic. In Pepys’s day, umble pie clearly had a higher status, since he records serving it to his eminent colleague Sir William Batten, Surveyor of the Navy; Pepys is often rude about Batten in his diary, but would hardly feed him low-class rubbish.

Pepys doesn’t record salmagundi because the name is first recorded shortly after he stopped writing his diary for fear of his eyesight failing. It has been known by many names, including salladmagundy and Solomon Gundy (it can be traced back to the French salmigondis, but there the etymological trail goes cold, though theories abound). Like its name it was a rather variable dish. Elizabeth Moxon, in her English Housewife in 1764, describes it as a Lenten dish and instructs the cook to take “herrings, a quarter of a pound of anchovies, a large apple, a little onion ... or shalot, and a little lemon-peel” and shred them all together. Other recipes suggested eggs, chicken, almonds, grapes, and raisins as ingredients. This highly variable mix led salmagundi later to take on the sense of a mixture or miscellany. Solomon Gundy was also sometimes known as Solomon Grundy, which may explain the nursery rhyme about “Solomon Grundy, born on a Monday ...” and the name of Mrs Grundy, the personification of social conformity and disapproval, whose name first appears in Thomas Morton’s play Speed the Plough in 1798.

Other terms for confused concoctions also come from cookery. A hotchpotch or hodgepodge was in the fifteenth century term a meat broth or pottage that contained a lot of ingredients (its first form was hotchpot, from the French word that contained the verb hocher to shake, suggesting ingredients mixed up in a pot; later versions are popular misunderstandings that turned the term into a rhyming couplet). Another, from the next century, is gallimaufry (French galimafrée, a word of medieval origin that may derive from old French galer, to have fun, plus the Picardy dialect mafrer, meaning to eat a lot), a hash made up of odds and ends of leftovers. In the seventeenth century, balderdash, now meaning nonsense, was an unappetising mixture of incompatible drinks, such as beer and milk or beer and wine; despite lots of theories, nobody knows where this one comes from.

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