This name for a traditional dish of northern England and the Scottish borders was in the news early in 2009 because Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, contributed a recipe for it to a fundraising book in aid of Donaldson’s, a school for the deaf near Edinburgh. Mr Brown stated that it’s his favourite food, a claim that was widely derided as recession chic.
Rumbledethumps has often been described as Scottish bubble and squeak (whose name incidentally, comes from the noise it makes when cooking): a traditional dish, often to use up leftovers, whose key ingredients are potato and cabbage. It can be eaten on its own or as an accessory to meat. Though the food, and its name, seemed to be unfamiliar to the journalists who wrote about the PM’s recipe, it’s known to many in England because Sainsburys sell it as a ready meal in some of its bigger supermarkets. However, that includes swede (rutabaga), which rings more truly with the old Orkney recipe called clapshot. Modern recipes for rumbledethumps cover it with melted cheese or add other flavourings such as bacon, onion or leek.
The dish resembles not only bubble and squeak, but also the Irish colcannon, another dish based on potatoes and cabbage, pounded together in a mortar and then stewed with butter. Its name derives from cole, cabbage; the rest of the word is of uncertain origin, although the Oxford English Dictionary notes “it is said that vegetables such as spinach were formerly pounded with a cannon-ball”.
The name clapshot surely implies something similar, as does the related Irish dish called champ (meaning to crush and chew). It does seem that its name really is a combination of rumble and thump. The idea is supported by an old sense of rumbled: the OED points out that it was used to mean a foodstuff that has been scrambled or mashed (one citation refers to rumbled eggs, another to refer to what we would now call mashed potatoes).
An old description of making rumbledethumps suggests that it was indeed prepared in a physically demanding way:
Take a peck of purtatoes, and put them into a boyne — at them with a beetle — a dab of butter — the beetle again — anither dab — then cabbage — purtato — beetle and dab — saut meanwhile — and a shake o’ common black pepper — feenally, cabbage and purtato throughither — pree, and you’ll find ’em decent rumbledethumps.
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, October 1825, in one of a series of dialogues between wits under the general title Noctes Ambrosianae, this one written in a faux-dialectal style that needs interpretation: peck: a dry measure, two imperial gallons in volume; purtato: potato; boyne: a big, flat shallow tub or bowl; beetle: a very heavy mallet; anither: another; saut: salt; feenally: finally; throughither, mixed up; pree: prove or test by tasting.