Q From Dave Cook: Though English gastropubs are sprouting like toadstools in New York, last week was my first encounter with toad-in-the-hole. After seeing it for myself, the story of how it got the name — that the sausage ends, peering out of their pastry basket, resemble toads — seems a stretch. Can you offer a more plausible etymology?
A How this humble dish got its name regularly puzzles students of English traditional cookery. A word of explanation may be in order for readers who have not encountered what Mrs Beeton described as a “homely but savoury dish”. Toad-in-the-hole consists of sausages baked in a batter that is much the same as that for another classic English dish, Yorkshire pudding. It’s usually served with onion gravy and vegetables.
The tale you heard is the most common try these days at explaining where the name comes from. It fails not so much on etymology (which has nothing to say about the matter) but on culinary history. The fact is that sausages are a very recent ingredient. Until well into the twentieth century recipes mention meat of various kinds, but not sausages. It is not unknown today for the dish to be made with uncased meat and you may come across sausage toad as an unlovely way to distinguish that version from the older type.
The first reference to it by name is in Captain Francis Grose’s A Provincial Glossary of 1787, though under the older name of toad-in-a-hole; he defined it as “meat boiled in a crust”. (I wonder, was he correct, or just unversed in cookery? Nobody else mentions a crust, or boiling.) In a letter to a friend ten years later the novelist Fanny Burney quoted a conversation that she had had with Princess Augusta, who said she never saw the dish without feeling angry about “putting a noble sirloin of beef into a poor paltry batter-pudding”. In her Book of Household Management of 1861, Mrs Beeton includes beef and kidneys in one of her recipes, producing a result that’s close to a steak and kidney pudding, though in batter rather than suet. Another recipe of hers employs mutton in place of beef. In A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes, published the same year, Charles Elme Francatelli goes for “bits or pieces of any kind of meat”. It would seem the ingredients varied a great deal. But definitely no toads.
At least one other dish has been similarly prepared in a pudding of batter and given a related name — Hannah Glasse had a recipe for pigeons-in-a-hole in her Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy in 1747. In an issue of Notes & Queries for January 1900, a writer, identified only by the initials CCB, notes toad-in-the-hole “used to be a favourite dish in farmhouses in Nottinghamshire. It is, if I remember rightly, a batter-pudding with a hole in the middle containing meat, beef by preference.” This clue to the origin of the first part of the name is supported by the definition that James Halliwell-Phillipps gave in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words in 1840: “a piece of beef placed in the middle of a dish of batter, and then baked”.
The reference to toads sounds extremely uncomplimentary, since they have universally been regarded with mild disgust and have been the source of numerous legends, not least that they give people warts. On the other hand, the dish was tasty and used good materials, so the name could hardly have been an insult. The explanation must lie in a natural history observation. Toads hide during the day in damp places, especially in burrows in soft ground to which they will return time after time. They like to sit just inside the entrance, ready to pounce on any passing insect. The similarity of the form of the original dish — meat in the centre of a batter surround — to a toad in its hole must have been sufficiently striking more than two centuries ago for the name to have stuck.
Intriguingly, the name has been transferred in some countries, notably the US, South Africa and Australia, to refer to a rather different dish. It is made by cutting a hole in the centre of a slice of bread, putting an egg in it and frying the two together.