Some culinary answers

And here, gentle reader, along with my best wishes for a Civil New Year, are answers to each question in yesterday’s Quiz. Not, I imagine, the only possible answers, but nonetheless, answers that will have to do:


1. Alaska Strawberries? … A facetious American expression for dried beans. I am unable to discover any special way of eating them in Alaska, though it was an Alaskan orphan named Peter Todd who taught me (at a very early age) this didactic jingle:

Beans, beans, the musical fruit;
The more you eat, the more you toot;
The more you toot, the better you feel —
So eat beans at every meal!

2. Angels on Horseback? … Grilled oysters, hooded in bacon rashers, riding on slices of toast. Replace the oysters with prunes and you have Devils on Horseback. In the test kitchen of the High Doganate today, I replace the oysters with largish snails from an oriental tin, to create yet another hors-d’oeuvre which I call, Refugees on Horseback.

3. Beef Olive? … Slices of beef wrapped round breadcrumbs, onions, and herbs, then braised, with no olives. They look like little headless birds, which the French used to serve as allouettes sans tête. The old French for “lark” was alou, which the old English transcribed as “aloes.” So when the English made roll-ups of any sort, they called them aloes of this or that. From aloes to “olives” is a short trip of the tongue. By 1615 we have Gervase Markham giving a receipt for olives of veal, as a variation on olives of mutton. (His book, The English Housewife, is a must-have on any kitchen shelf.)

4. Bombay Duck? … It does not look like, quack like, nor walk like a duck; it does not taste like a duck; but it does skim the water surface something like a duck, though on the under-side. And so we might think of it as an inverted duck; or as a reflection of a duck, but with the duck missing. It is in fact a sand-eel, called bombila in the Marathi tongue, spoken in the hinterland of Bombay (or Mumbai, or whatever they now call it). It is sometimes called bumalo in English — spelt “bummelo” in your Hobson-Jobson, and sometimes bombloe, but always Harpodon nehereus in Latin (following the Bengali, nehare). From which I propose the new misnomer, “Nehru’s harp.” The fish is often dried, cured, and salted, to make a relish for meat, and can be bought in powdered form in an Indian grocery, but fresh it might better be grilled, fried, or curried. Roasted and verily, smoked, to a rich orange over charcoal, then filleted and splayed on a bamboo splint, it may be had from the Gujarati fish-wallah on Chowpati Beach — or could be, the last time I was there. But only when dried is it, strictly speaking, Bombay Duck. My principal authority on questions of Indian cookery, the late beloved Mrs Balbir Singh, gave no recipe for Bummelo in any of its forms, and over the years this has been a source of anxiety. One hardly knows how to proceed without her wise and kindly counsel.

5. Bullock’s Heart? … Also known as the custard apple, a tropical fruit from a little tree of the genus Annona, it comes to Kensington Market most likely from Brazil or the West Indies, but grows bigger and juicier across south and east Asia. William Dampier described it in his Voyage Around the World (1699): “Full of a white soft Pulp, sweet and very pleasant, and most resembling a Custard of any thing.” Evoked in Tom Cringle’s Log as, “russet bags of cold pudding.” The fruit will be available for inspection at any Jamaican costermonger’s, I should think. The Jamaicans may call it anona, but the Malays, nona, which is also their slang for “a desirable unmarried European lady.” From Pepys’s Diary we learn to crush the pulp into heated and spiced beer, to make a concoction called, Lamb’s Wool.

6. Financière? … French haute cuisine; i.e. chicken quenelles, cock’s combs, and mushrooms, to be located in a Madeira and truffle sauce. A weapon on the field of intimidation, a reason to consult the Larousse Gastronomique, and a fun thing to watch slide into the pin-striped lap of a Bay Street strutter.

7. Fragrant Meat? … The Chinese are alleged to be behind the longest-running “man bites dog” story, and the Cantonese (as any Pékinoise will tell you), have been partial to canine flesh for centuries. You can hardly take Fido into a restaurant in Hong Kong (I was once told) without inviting a terrible misunderstanding. Do not ask the waiters to feed him in the kitchen. That the Cantonese themselves become self-conscious, at mention of this culinary bias, may be surmised from their euphemistic phrase, “fragrant meat.”

8. Golden Buck? … Put a poached egg on your Welsh Rabbit, and voila, Golden Buck, or Buck Rabbit. The Welsh Rabbit, or Rarebit for the shy, is cheese melted over buttered toast. Whether this usage was meant to be insulting, to the Taffies, no one will say. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which in older editions was a fruitful source of racial epithets, goes unaccountably easy on the Welsh, not even bothering to explain “to welch on someone.” They gave “Welsh main” as a term for a cockfight, and “Welsh mortgage” as a pledge of land with no fixed day for redemption; but “Welsh Rabbit” without hint of a sneer. (And a buck is a male rabbit, don’t you know.)

9. King Rabbit? … Jews, like Muslims, may not eat pork, according to strict religious custom, so when they do put pork on the menu, it must be misidentified. Since a rabbit’s meat can look much like a pig’s after roasting, and vice versa, restaurants in Israel settled on this name. “Rabbit” is incidentally a venerable euphemism in the war zones of the world.

10. Lassie? … The Hindi word for a shake, made usually from yoghurt, and which becomes a meal with chopped blanched almonds. I like it best the Calcutta way, the curd quite sugared, then salted, then mixed with fresh milk, and poured over crushed ice made from the delicious local tapwater. (Of course, it’s the ice that will kill you; the milk came safely out of a goat.) The Chinese do it with soya milk, but do not be alarmed.

11. Love in Disguise? … A calf’s heart wrapped in minced veal, rolled in crushed vermicelli, then baked. The Victorians, who loved offal almost as much as they loved euphemisms, often substituted “love” for a heart. The result of this preparation is a foetid monstrosity, instead of which I would volunteer for a Haggis. One must dig into it like a cardiac surgeon.

12. Maid of Honour? … A small, almond-flavoured tart, shaped as a fishing dory, supposedly invented by Anne Boleyn while lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. Now Henry VIII, who married Catherine first, supposedly gave the tarts their name, while gobbling them in his characteristic manner.

13. Polecat Pie? … An old English pie made from bacon, onions, and apples. The more common name, Fidget Pie, comes from fitchet, a diminutive of fitch, the old word for a polecat. The pie in question comes out of the oven brown and black, so that it seems a polecat had been sleeping in there.

14. Prairie Oyster? … The well-known hangover cure is a raw egg, moistened with some sherry in a short glass, then swallowed whole (except the glass). It would anyway make no sense to plan more than one gulp. But out West, where they hardly need hangover cures (half the people are teetotal and the other half stay drunk), everyone needs to know that a Prairie Oyster is what the French call rognons blancs (“white kidneys”) — apparently, calf’s testicles.

15. Rock Salmon? … Among British fishmongers in the hungry ‘thirties, Rock Salmon became the generic name for dogfish, wolffish, and other seafood, not previously believed to be edible by humans. Rock Eel was also foisted, and in America the term Rock Lobster was applied to crayfish. Needless to say, these are all delicious, but the Anglo-Saxonish peoples are prissy, and need to be starved for their own good.

16. Scotch Woodcock? … By analogy to Welsh Rabbit, Scotch Woodcock is scrambled eggs on toast, “somewhat enlivened” by anchovy paste. I suppose some Welshman named it.

17. Shoofly Pie? …  A squall of sugar, flour, and crumbled butter over a bed of molasses, which naturally attracts flies. Its Pennsylvania Dutch origin suggests that “shoofly” may be a corruption of some forgotten German word. But I prefer to think it commemorates the flies. In his American Language — all three wonderful volumes — H.L. Mencken celebrates the American genius for non-retentive expressions, in contrast to the traditional English viscidity.

18. Spotted Dick? … The huge, cylindrical, sweet suet pudding, with delightful class associations from old British television series. It is studded with currants and Smyrna raisins, and has nothing to do with the perils of concupiscence. It might nevertheless be attributed to French letters, in the sense that it came to England by the writings of that literary chef, Alexis Soyer. A “dick” was a plain pudding, becoming a “treacle dick” when covered with sweet sauce. The alternative name, Spotted Dog, is explained by the Victorian use of “dog” for plum pudding; and “spotted” merely connotes marly.

19. Toad-in-the-Hole? … Sausage cooked in a thick batter. The idea of concealing savoury substances thus, goes back at least to the Romans, as I know at first hand, having tried to make a Pisam Farsilem from the instructions given in Book V of Apicius (his Artis Magiricae). It was layers of minced spiced meats, and pine kernels, in a pease-batter casing; and it came out of my oven like a huge, crumbling torpedo. I thought it excellent eating, but my interpretation of the recipe was subsequently exposed as a bit of a sham by a former Latin mistress — who pointed to several fairly grave grammatical confusions by return of post. Still, given the Roman propensity to eat stuffed dormice, and other “small cattle,” their gustatory enthusiasm for the variety of God’s creatures, and incurable weakness for a practical joke, I shouldn’t be surprised if a Roman original did have a toad inside, and possibly a live one.

20. Zuppa Inglese? … It is interesting to learn what foreigners think “the Anglo-Saxons” are eating; and instructive, for we don’t always know. I once purchased a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in the street market of the rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie, with French-only cooking suggestions on the back. (This would have been 1973, my summer of shameful memory.) In the bottom right corner was their recipe for petit déjeuner anglais. I gathered it was some sort of cruel joke, as the instructions were something like, “stir corn flakes and some bacon with milk, sugar, orange juice, and ketchup, in a bowl with a corkscrew, and eat without attention.” The Italians are more charitable, and the Italian idea of an English soup is much like the English idea of a trifle. It is a sponge cake, steeped in licker, but with ricotta to replace the custard, and it was adapted by Neapolitan pastrycooks in the century just before last.