Jilly: History on a Plate

Yorkshire Puddings

What recipes or dishes are entrenched deep in the history of your hometown or family or country? Like it or hate it, food that would transport you to a particular place or time before you could say Beam me up, Scotty?

After our adventures in Highgate Cemetery and at Shakespeare’s Globe, last week Kay and I spent a few days visiting Derbyshire. I wanted our trip to be a uniquely English experience, and I think I succeeded. I knew the pretty stone-built towns, gorgeous countryside and historic houses would be a safe bet, but I hadn’t thought about how much of what we eat is particular to our land and culture.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how the judicious use of dialect, slang and cant can add richness and depth to a story world. Now I’m thinking I should pay more attention to my characters’ meals. I’ve given them food that’s appropriate to their time period, but I need to double check whether I missed an opportunity to make their meals local, distinctive or significant in some way.

For example, the Yorkshire Pudding, which Kay sampled for the first time last Sunday at a country pub on the edge of the Chatsworth estate, is history on a plate. It’s the classic accompaniment to roast beef, which has been a British signature dish for hundreds of years.

Henry Fielding wrote a patriotic ballad, The Roast Beef of Old England, in the 1730s (click here for a Youtube recording, illustrated by a painting on the same theme courtesy of William Hogarth from 1748). More than two hundred and fifty years later, roast beef and Yorkshires is still the classic choice for a Sunday lunch, with roast root vegetables and gravy made from the pan juices.

Yorkshire Puddings have been a thing since the 1700s, when wheat flour became commonly available as a cooking ingredient. The dish is made from eggs, flour and milk, mixed into a pancake type batter and cooked in the very hot oven used to roast the beef. Originally the pudding(s) would have been cooked in a dripping pan, set under the meat to catch the hot fat as it fell.

Nowadays Yorkshire Puddings are expected to rise during cooking and emerge golden brown, tall, light and fluffy, with lots of air in the center. I can report from experience that this is best achieved by keeping the oven door firmly closed during cooking, because any sudden lowering of the temperature results in a sad, soggy, pancake-like offering. I’m guessing this is a modern conceit. I bet the eighteenth-century version would have been more like my flat, spongy disasters.

I also wonder if these puddings were universally enjoyed or were reserved for the lower classes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they were definitely a boon to the budget conscious. Both my grandfathers worked in the coalmines and my parents grew up during the Second World War. I’m sure money was tight. Mum and dad said that it was common, during their childhoods, to serve Yorkshire Pudding with gravy as a first course to bulk out the meal: diners would be encouraged to fill up on the savory flavors of the roast so that they’d be less hungry by the time a smaller portion of expensive meat was served. Today the puddings are more likely to come as individual creations, served as a side dish to embellish the roast. Perhaps in times past the wealthy might have served it this way as a subtle demonstration of plenty, and maybe poorer people, or servants, might have dined only on pudding?

Yorkshire Pudding was the first of Kay’s culinary adventures. She followed it up with a classic Derbyshire Bakewell Tart (or Pudding, click here to read a fabulous article by Felicity Cloake in The Guardian about its nineteenth-century origins, variants and medieval predecessors); pork pie (apparently originated in the Midlands as Stilton cheesemakers fattened pigs on the whey and then made pie from the pigs); and Scotch Eggs (hard boiled eggs wrapped in sausage meat and breadcrumbs, supposedly invented by the grand London department store Fortnum & Mason in the 1730s as travelling fare for the aristocracy).

As so often happens, I try to think of an author who uses food to establish place and time, and find Georgette Heyer. When the resourceful Venetia learns the truth about her family and rushes back from London to Yorkshire to proposition the rakish but idiotically self-sacrificing Lord Damerel, his butler serves fresh bannocks (a kind of griddled flatbread) and she immediately knows she’s home.

Do any of your favorite authors use food to create a strong sense of location?

Could you use food to anchor a story in your hometown? What would you choose?

12 thoughts on “Jilly: History on a Plate

  1. Robert B. Parker was a master of using food in his Spenser books. The hulking private eye was a gourmet chef and what he cooked always reflected his state of mind. His psychiatrist (psychologist?) girlfriend, Susan, distinguished herself by her minute and slowly-consumed portions. We’d spend an entire meal, sometimes, watching her whittle away a single spinach leaf. Since she was held up at the acme of feminine beauty and grace, it kind of irked me. Eat some damn food, woman!

    • That would have irked me, too! The only thing more annoying would have been if she’d scarfed up all his gourmet dishes and yet somehow remained a graceful size zero.

  2. The first book I read where food figured in for me in a big way was Heidi, who ate a lot of cheese. The sickly Clara went to the mountain to visit and recovered her health, largely by eating cheese and breathing the mountain air. I remember thinking it was weird that cheese seemed to be something of a health food in that book, since I ate quite a bit of cheese as a kid and I wasn’t particularly healthy. Well, fiction!

    • I’m sure I read Heidi, but somehow I forgot the health-giving cheese–she should have had strong teeth and bones! Thinking of Clara’s diet led me to the enchanted Turkish Delight eaten by Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When I read the book I didn’t even know what Turkish Delight was, but I was left with a lingering distrust of the stuff. Huh, fiction!

        • Ooh, I don’t know that one. Clearly Turkish Delight hits a villainous sweet spot!

          In Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, the eponymous hero finds himself in Constantinople, where he runs afoul of a treacherous gourmet chef who feeds Lymond not poisoned Turkish Delight, but ever increasing doses of opium disguised in his exotic and highly flavored cuisine. By the time Lymond figures out what’s happening, he’s in serious trouble, just at the time he needs to be on top form to defeat the bad guys and rescue his peeps.

      • See, I have a good impression of Turkish Delight, because when we read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in school, our teacher had us make a version of Turkish Delight (probably not very accurate), and it was delightful. I think the point was to show how poor Edmund could have been seduced by a box of candy. The wartime rationing completely escaped our fifth-grade minds, I think, and maybe our teacher’s as well.

        Also: there are a lot of books from the Heidi era that promote good simple food and exercise. Clara was brought around with fresh air and the chance to move. Also, that formula features in The Secret Garden, where I believe the sickly heroine from India was brought around to health thanks to potatoes roasted in the garden by Dickon (a neighbor boy), and the chance to run the moors and skip with skipping rope — free of malaria-air, of course.

        • How clever of your teacher to have taught you all to make Turkish Delight–lots of fun, an enhanced reading experience and a great way to spark a discussion.

          My dad, in particular, was affected by wartime rationing all his life. I remember clearly his being upset because my brother and I ate a whole bar of chocolate each, far too quickly, without (in his eyes) showing proper appreciation for the treat we’d been given. We couldn’t understand why he was getting so wound up about a candy bar.

  3. Oh, I love this. I think when writers go on a diet, it comes out in their writing sometimes.

    I’m not saying these writers are on diets all the time, but Lois McMaster Bujold has a fabulous chef (Ma Kosti) who captures the hearts and stomachs of both characters and readers. She’s not a major character, but she’s got a major fanbase. Little chocolate thingies the density of plutonium . . . spiced peach tart . . . jeweled little dessert things. Maple ambrosia!

    And don’t forget Jennifer Crusie, with her chicken Marsala and the Krispy Kreme. Food, food, food galore, wonderfully described and appropriately enjoyed by the characters. (Well, sometimes inappropriately enjoyed, but that’s a tremendous amount of fun, too!)

    I’m following a guy on Twitter, an expat in Los Angeles, who has a filter set for “Yorkshire Pudding”. He’s posted several things recently — YP with curry filling, a YP pizza (I think) and there was a YP wrap — like a tortilla wrap but with a flat Yorkshire pudding wrapped around some roast beef, gravy, mashed potatoes and something green. (Am I wrong in thinking that anything green strikes terror in a Yorkshireman’s heart? We have some good ol’ boys in the midwest who think green stuff is the “food that my food eats”. cf: Ron Swanson from Parks & Rec.)

    In my hometown, there are two main food traditions. The free pulled pork sandwiches at the county fair every year, and when I was a child at least, the food at Dairy Queen. I’ve heard that several treats were invented in my hometown, including the famous Dilly Bar (Dairy Queen serves soft-serve icecream. Throwing out the leftovers at the end of the day was wasteful, so someone started putting swirly circles on a cookie tray, freezing those, and then dipping them in chocolate or butterscotch coating. Very fun!)

    I tend to put way too much food into first drafts. I find it hard to distinguish between keeper-food scenes and non-keeper food scenes when I move into later drafts. Food really is essential to humans, and it (or its absence) does shape character and narrative.

    • Yorkshire pudding batter is indeed versatile. It’s really good with sausages and onion gravy (Toad in the Hole), and my mum used to make a dessert with batter and fresh rhubarb (Drop pudding), which was delicious with lots of brown sugar and cream.

      My dad’s parents would certainly have agreed that green stuff is the “food that my food eats.” When my grandmother went into hospital they tried to feed her salads, which was an epic fail. I think most modern Midlanders have moved on from that mindset, though. Kay and I had a fabulous selection of vegetables with our roast beef lunch.

      And Dairy Queen! I was quizzing Kay about DQ last week, because I’ve never been to one and didn’t realise it’s all soft serve ice cream. Now Elizabeth’s craving Yorkshire pudding, and I’m craving a Dilly Bar.

      • LOL, it’s a small world about the Dairy Queen! In a lot of ways, it was a cultural center in my small town. I loved going when I was a kid because they had more than just burgers — I could get a hot dog (which I couldn’t at the time at McD’s or Burger King — which were in bigger towns, anyway), or chicken if my parents were feeling patient. And then there were the ice cream desserts. I think there were only two flavors (chocolate and vanilla) but there were enough toppings to create a sense of variety.

        My favorite is probably the banana split — it’s a community dessert with a split banana, three piles of soft serve, then our DQ used to use pineapple, strawberry and chocolate as toppings. Add nuts, whipped cream and a cherry on top! Order it with three spoons for sharing. There’s a food that could provide a story! Conflict, negotiation, and ultimately satisfaction!

  4. Great, now I’m craving Yorkshire pudding. I generally only make it around Christmas time since that is pretty much the only time I cook a roast. I love it though. That’s an interesting idea that it was a way to compensate for the lack of actual roast (for those that did not get any) or to fill folks up to make the portions of roast spread further.

    As for books hat use food to establish location, I am drawing a blank, though a lot of Jenny’s books do use food to establish the characters / build connections / etc.

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