A (Belated) Pancake Day Post


Nothing I could say would do this picture justice.

Welcome back, History Lovers.

After a bit of a hectic hiatus, I’m back to serve you up some of the most delicious food related tales from history.

My friend Sally wanted me to write a post on Pancake Day, and although it’s quite late, I’m still sticking to my word. In any case, pancakes are always worthy of examination so I doubt that anyone is going to get too upset over my tardiness.

Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday, is an annual event that falls 47 days before Easter Sunday. As such, the date varies from year to year and can fall anytime between 3 February – 9th of March. Pancake Day is of course the last day before the period of Lent begins, a time of strict abstinence that ends with Easter.

The name ‘shrove’ is derived from the old word ‘strive’ which means ‘to confess’. During the Middle Ages, people would confess their sins on Shrove Tuesday and ask for absolution from God before the commencement of Lent.

So how did pancakes come to be associated with such an important and solemn Christian tradition?

As previously mentioned, Lent is a time when one would give up luxuries, particularly those of the culinary persuasion. Traditionally, eggs and butter were two items that used to be forbidden during the time of Lent as they were considered to be a luxury. It’s believed that pancakes were made in order to use up the leftover eggs and butter. In modern times, people tend to be more inclined to give up things such as chocolate.

A modern-day Pancake Race. I seriously would love to get in on this action.

One of the more amusing traditions surrounding Pancake Day is the Pancake Race, which began in Olney, England in 1445. The contestants, traditionally women, carry a frying pan and race to over a 415 yard course to the finishing line. The rules are strict: contestants must toss their pancake at both the start and the finish of the race, as well as wear an apron and a scarf. When men want to participate, they must dress up as a housewife, usually with an apron and a bandanna.

This tradition was born out of a story about a woman cooking pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. She heard the shriving bell summoning her to confession, which she was running late for. The cut off time was 12pm, so she ran to church wearing her apron and still holding a frying pan with a pancake in it. The result of this was a tradition that has now lasted for over five hundred years.

Some tasty Shrove Tuesday pancake variations from around the United Kingdom include –

Welsh Pancakes – Also known as Welsh Cakes or Light cakes. They are made with sour cream and buttermilk, spread with butter and then piled on top of one another. Sometimes, various ingredients such as fish, cheese, sugar or jam (not altogether, gross) are added between each layer and then the pile is cut into quarters.

Gloucester Pancakes – Made with suet, which gives them a rich and grainy texture. They are traditionally served with golden syrup.

Harvest Pancakes – Often served to the poor, they are made with a mild ale, powdered ginger, and chopped apples. They are then cooked in lard and given to farm hands.

Rich Pancakes – Large and thin, these are made made with cream, nutmeg, and dark sherry before being fried in butter and getting the hell in my belly.

But wait, there’s more! Check out some of the Pancake Tuesday variations from around the world –

France – Mardis Gras, which translates to mean Fat Tuesday/Grease Tuesday. The name refers to the last night of eating rich, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season. Mardis Gras is also the name of the carnival season in New Orleans, which also finds its roots in the preparation for Lent. Celebrations are concentrated for about two weeks before and throughout Fat Tuesday.

Brazil – Terca-feira Gorda, which also translates to mean Fat Tuesday. The Brazilians celebrate with a three day carnival that concludes on Fat Tuesday.

Iceland – Sprengidagur, which translates to ‘bursting day’. I don’t think that needs any further explanation.

Greece – Apocreas, meaning ‘of the meat’. The name is significant because its the last chance to eat meat due to being forbidden during Lent.

Yep, the solemn season of Lent was indeed born out of naked frolicking and drunken debauchery, also known as Saturnalia

I think that one of the most interesting facts about Pancake Day, and the Lenten season in general, is its origin. Despite being a Catholic holiday, its beginnings can be found in Saturalia,  an ancient Roman festival that honoured the God Saturn. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and with a public banquet. This was followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a general carnival atmosphere that overturned societal norms. Naturally, the Catholic Church adopted the festival and turned it into a farewell to all things indulgent, as well as a season for religious discipline.

After much consideration and research, I have decided that despite my love of pancakes with maple syrup and bacon, I would much rather party on down with the Romans.

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The Origin of Birthday Cake


Yesterday was my birthday! This of course means a celebration that will last for several weeks, as well as a related post. It’s all very exciting.

In other amazing news, I won’t be posting for a couple of weeks because I’m going on a cruise to the South Pacific. I’ll be sure to come back with some great topics to write about, as well as a tan. Everybody wins! Anyway, without further ado, let’s learn about birthday cake!

As you may remember from my wedding cake post, the words for ‘cake’ and ‘bread’ were virtually interchangeable in early Europe. Unsurprisingly, the only difference between the two was that cakes were sweet.  In the 15th century, bakeries in Germany conceived the idea of marketing cakes for customers’ birthdays, as well as for their weddings. They were mostly used for the birthdays of young children and thus these celebrations were referred to as Kinderfest. It was during this time period that cakes began to be layered and laden with new ingredients in order to render them sweeter and less bread-like. These kinds of cakes were called Geburtstagorten by the Germans.

Mmm, cake.

During the 17th century, the birthday cake took on a more contemporary form. These elaborate cakes, which possess the same attributes of modern cakes (multiple layers, icing, and decorations), were only available to the very wealthy. However, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, birthday cakes eventually became proletarianized as materials and tools became more advanced and more easily acquired.

The tradition of placing candles on cakes can be attributed to the Ancient Greeks, who baked cakes to honour Artemis, the goddess of the moon. The theory behind the practice was that the light from the candles made the cake itself glow like the  moon. It is also believed that the smoke from the candles carried their prayers to the Gods. This tradition has survived to a certain extent today. We may not say a prayer when we blow out birthday candles, but most of us do still make a wish.

The earliest reference to the tradition of blowing out birthday candles was documented Switzerland in 1881. Researchers for the Folk-Lore Journal recorded various “superstitions” amongst the Swiss middle class. The following statement was recorded, ““A birthday-cake must have lighted candles arranged around it, one candle for each year of life. Before the cake is eaten the person whose birthday it is should blow out the candles one after another.”

I hope you have enjoyed our rather short and sweet foray into the history of birthday cakes. I  also hope that it will tide you over until I’m back in the country and have constant access to my precious internet. See you all in a fortnight!

 

Marshmallows – An Australian Bush Fire Special


For all of my international readers that aren’t aware, New South Wales has been issued with a Catastrophic fire danger level for tomorrow. Temperatures are set to be around 41 degrees celsius (roughly 106 degrees farenheit) and this kind of weather almost always ends in disastrous bush fires. As a distraction, I thought that I could use our impending doom as inspiration for a fire-centric post on marshmallows. Whipping out a bag during a bush fire wouldn’t be my highest priority, however, under SAFE circumstances there’s nothng wrong with cooking those babies under a nice NON-CATASTROPHIC flame. Mmm, survivalicious.

The Marshmallow Plant

Now, I hope you’re sitting down and have your smelling salts handy, because I’m about to drop a knowledge bomb on you all. Marshmallow is actually derived from a plant. That’s right, it’s organic and not a purely factory produced diabetes inhibitor. The Marshmallow Plant, or, Althaea Officinalis, is native to the wet marshy regions of Europe and West Africa. Hence the name. Greek physician Dioscorides advised that marshmallow extracts be used in treating wounds and inflammations. During the Renaissance, extracts from the plant’s roots and leaves were used for medicinal purposes, namely as an anti-inflamatory and soothing agent for sore throats.

The modern marshmallow confection is a mid-19th century French Invention and was a cross between a medicinal lozenge and a bonbon. Originally, the plant’s root juices were combined with eggs and sugar and then beaten into a foamy paste. The plant extracts were later replaced by gelatin, which still gave the candy its signature pillowy texture and, given its ready availabilty, allowed for quicker, less labour intensive production.

Original Campfire Marshmallow tins

It’s unknown when people first began roasting marshmallows over a fire. However, the product Campfire Marshmallows have been popular in the USA since 1917, when the Imperial Candy Company introduced the delicious treats with packaging that recommended roasting the product over fires.

But what about S’mores? Although this treat isn’t particularly popular in Australia, it would be doing the history of marshmallows an injustice to exclude them.

For those who are unaware, S’mores consist of a roasted marshmallow and a layer of chocolate sandwiched between two Graham Crackers. The name is a contraction of the phrase “Some More.” While the origin of the dessert is unclear, the first recorded version of the recipe can be found in the 1927 publication “Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts.” The recipe is credited to Loretta Scott Crew, who reportedly made them by the campfire for the Scouts. It is unknown whether the Girl Scouts were the first to make S’mores, but there appears to be no earlier claim to their origin or invention. Although it is unknown when the name was shortened, recipes for “Some Mores” are in various Girl Scout publications until at least 1973.

So there you have it folks, just a few little historical snippets about marshmallows. I hope that all of you who are currently in Winter run straight to a fire to roast one. In the meantime, us Australians will continue running from any sign of fire.

New Years Traditions – The Twelve Grapes of Luck


Happy (almost) New Year, everybody!

All over the world people are getting ready to ring in the New Year. If the line at my local supermarket is anything to go by, a great deal of the celebrating will involve consuming an almost offensive amount of food.  Good times!

Here in Australia, we don’t really have any specific food traditions associated with New Years, unless of course alcohol counts as a food group. It does, right? This made me wonder whether other nations celebrated with specific food. After a bit of research, my question led me to Europe.

The Twelve Grapes of Luck is a Spanish New Years tradition that dates back to 1895. It consists of eating a grape with each chime of the clock at midnight. Anyone who manages to consume all twelve grapes before the last chime strikes will have twelve months of prosperity and good luck.In some areas, it is believed that the tradition also wards away witches and general evil. Nautrally, this is an incredibly difficult feat to concur. Most people end up with a mouth full of grapes that they’re trying to choke down between fits of laughter.

So how did this tradition come to be? Surely it must be ancient and sacred. Not exactly.

Its origin can be traced back to the end of the 19th century where there was a bumper crop of grapes in Alicante – a southern Spanish province on the Mediterranean. Farmers were going to be left with an abundance of surplus grapes if they couldn’t convince people to buy them. The result was the promotion of eating twelve grapes to celebrate the twelve rings of the bell at New Year. Obviously, this practice caught on in Spain and is even celebrated in Mexico and within Hispanic communities in the USA today. It’s even possible to purchase cans containing 12 pre-peeled grapes for the consumers convenience. Clearly, this fabricated tradition was nothing short of marketing genius.

I hope you all have a delicious New Year. See you all next year!

A Very Tudor Christmas


Merry Post-Christmas, everyone!

Now, I know I’m at least two posts overdue and am therefore a very naughty blogger. I can assure you that I have a very good excuse in regards to the END OF THE WORLD post. I was melting down sugar to make salted caramel and it splashed up and burnt every finger on my left hand. It wasn’t pretty. I’m convinced that I’m going to have a rather obvious scar on my thumb.

As for the lateness of my Christmas post, I have no good excuse. I spent the day I had allocated to writing at a water park. I’d apologise if I didn’t have so much fun.

Anyway! Onwards, upwards and every-other-way-wards! Seeing as we’re still within the confines of the Festive Season, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the delicacies involved in Tudor period celebrations.  So, as you recover from your food and family comas, enjoy reading about just how damn long the Yule Tide season was celebrated in 16th century England. If you weren’t exhausted already, I can guarantee that you will be by the end of this.

Unlike in Modern society, Tudor Christmas celebrations didn’t begin until Christmas Day itself, which kicked off the 12 days of Christmas. That’s right, they partied and feasted for almost two straight weeks. No thank you.

The period leading up to the Christmas celebrations was (and still is) known as Advent, and it began on the fourth Sunday preceding December 25th.  Ironically enough, this was a time of fasting and prayer, as opposed to a time of scoffing tiny chocolates out of an Advent Calendar.

A traditional Christmas boar head being presented by a creepy 16th Century Colonel Sanders

Christmas during the Tudor times involved traditional foods, as it does today. For example, on most modern tables ones would find a leg of ham. A Tudor Christmas table was much the same. Just replace the pig with a boar and the leg with a head. Tasty. The boar head was the centerpiece of the table and an all round Christmas pièce de résistance.

Christmas Day wasn’t the most important day in the Tudor Yuletide calendar. That honour went to Twelfth Night, aka the twelfth day of Christmas. One of the most important items associated with the day was the Twelfth cake, and not only because it was the dessert.

Traditionally, a gold coin or ring was baked into the cake. The idea was that whoever found the prize within their piece would preside over the evenings festivities. If it was a man, he would be the King of the Bean, if it was a woman, the Queen of the Pea. These names originated from poorer households that couldn’t afford to bake gold into the cake, and thus used a pea or a bean instead. This tradition is still maintained in France, where a coin or a small gold figurine of the Christ child is baked into an almond tart.

Despite its importance to Twelfth Night, the exact nature of the Twelfth Cake remains a mystery. However, one source suggests that the main ingredients were flour, honey, ginger and pepper.

Due to the importance of Twelfth Night, it was often a political affair within the Royal Household. Those who were in favour with the Monarch often had the coin planted within their piece of cake. Often this included ladies in waiting or maids. The theory behind this was to prove that the King or Queen were happy to be upstaged by servants, thus demonstrating their kindness and benevolence.

Another Christmas tradition was that of wassailing. This was a fertility rite that was leftover from the Pagan days of Britain where one would toast fruit trees in order to encourage them to produce a good crop the following year. Every region had its own traditional Wassail beverage. Some of these included cider, ale or spiced drinks such as lambswool, a kind of beer that was served warm.

That’s it for our Tudor Traditions today, however, there will be a great deal more where that came from in the future. I hope that you all had a wonderful Christmas and that you’re still enjoying all of those lovely leftovers. As for me, I need to get my Yuletide loving butt to the gym before gravy and sugar start escaping through my pores.

The Origin of Margherita Pizza


Hello all! Welcome back after such a long hiatus!

As you may have noticed, today’s topic has absolutely no relation to Christmas or Holiday eats. Never fear, there will a festive themed post before the 25th. More importantly, there will be a Mayan themed post on Friday. If we survive, of course.

In the meantime, I thought we could take a peek at the origin of Margherita Pizza. I have always rather enjoyed this story and am arrogant enough to assume that you’ll share my convictions.

Foods similar to pizza have been prepared since the Neolithic Age. In fact, records of people adding other ingredients to bread to make it more flavourful can be found throughout ancient history.

  • In Sardinia, French and Italian archeologists have found a kind of bread baked over 7,000 years ago. According to Professor Philippe Marinval, the local islanders leavened this bread.
  • The Ancient Greeks made a flat bread called Plakous, which was flavored with toppings like herbs, onion, and garlic.
  • In the 1st century BCE, the Latin poet Virgil refers to the ancient idea of bread as an edible plate or trencher for other foods in his epic poem, The Aeneid.

In short, evidence clearly suggests that the origins of pizza can’t be pinpointed to a single place or time. However, there is one particular historical tale that is attributed with making pizza the sensation that it is today.

In 1889, Queen Margherita of Savoy, and her husband, King Umbero I, were taking a royal tour of Italy. This was only a short 29 years after the unification of the country. Throughout their travels, Margherita had noticed a a great deal of peasants eating large, flat bread with colourful toppings.Curious, the queen ordered her guards to bring one of these so called ‘pizza breads’.

MP

Margherita Pizza – a delicacy that’s literally fit for a Queen

The Queen loved the bread and would eat it every time she was out amongst the people, wich caused some consternation in Court. It was unseemly for a Queen to dine on peasant food. Naturally, Margherita didn’t care, because she was a bitchin’ queen who had just discovered pizza.

However, the Queen’s love for the bread was legitimized when a famous pizza maker, Raffaele Esposito, created a pizza topping in honour of the Queen. It was garnished with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella cheese in order to represent the Italian flag. He of course named it the Pizza Margherita. Legend also has it that he was the first to add cheese to pizza, which means that we’re all obliged to worship him as our deity from now on.

There is contention to this origin story. It wouldn’t be Delicious History if there wasn’t. Descriptions of a similar pizza recipe can be traced back to at least 1866 in the book “Customs and Traditions of Naples.” The author describes the most popular pizza toppings of the time, which included one with tomato and basil, often topped with slices of mozzarella.

Whatever the real origins of this pizza recipe are, it can be firmly declared that Esposito’s creation for Queen Margherita was the one that made it popular. Since then, it has grown into one of the most recognisable symbols of Italian food culture in the world, as well as a staple in the lives of most university and college students. All hail, Queen Margherita!

Next time – We talk about some Mayan staples to celebrate the end of the world.

Choctoberfest Halloween Special! Trick-or-Treating


Welcome to the last Choctoberfest post of the year! In the spirit of Halloween I thought that we could finish up by looking at the origins of trick-or-treating. Although I’m aware that this doesn’t directly correlate with the realm of chocolate, I believe that enough kids get to chow down on it as part of their Halloween haul, so that’s good enough for me.

The trick-or-treat element of Halloween was born out of All Souls’ Day. This holiday was established by the Catholic church in the 10th century in order to honour and recognize all of the Christian dead.

Observed on November 2, All Souls’ Day was celebrated with Masses and festivities. The living prayed on behalf of Christians who were in purgatory, the state in the afterlife where souls are purified before proceeding to heaven. Through prayer and good works, living Christians could assist their departed friends and family move on into heaven.

All Souls’ Day – lighting candles for the dead

All Souls’ Day is still celebrated today, particularly in Mexico,  where All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are collectively observed as “Los Dias de los Muertos” – The Days of the Dead.

So how does our little history lesson relate to trick-or-treating?

In medieval times, one popular All Souls’ Day practice was to make ‘soul cakes’ which were simple bread desserts with a currant topping. In a custom called ‘souling’, children would go door-to-door begging for the cakes, much like modern trick-or-treaters. For every cake a child collected, he or she would say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. These prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heaven.I’m unsure of how the trick element came into this practice. Perhaps if a person didn’t hand over a cake they simply had to live with the knowledge that they were sentencing their loved ones to more time in purgatory? Harsh.

The children even had a soul cake song along the lines of the modern “Trick-or-treat, trick-or-treat, give me something good to eat.” One version of the song went:

“A soul cake! A soul cake! Have mercy on all Christian souls, for a soul cake!”

There is also some evidence of trick-or-treat type activities in Celtic tradition. On November 1st they would celebrate Sahmain, which translates to ‘Summers’s End’. Celts would dress up in ghoulish outfits and parade out of town in order to lead wandering spirits away. Additionally, Celtic children would walk door to door to collect firewood for a giant communal bonfire. Once the fire was burning, the revelers would extinguish all the other fires in the village. They would then relight every fire with a flame taken from the bonfire, as a symbol of the people’s connection to one another. This spirit of community is somewhat of a contrast to the children at my door this evening who were yelling for more chocolates to be put into their Halloween bags.

The main reason for celebrating Samhain was to honour the Celtic Gods, and there’s evidence that the Celts would dress as these deities as part of the festival. Like with All Souls’ Day, people would also go door to door to collect food to offer to their Gods. There may have also been animal and human sacrifices, however, the evidence that suggests this is not conclusive.

The Celts also  believed in fairies and other mischievous creatures, and the notion of Halloween trickery may have come from their reported activities during Samhain. However, another theory is that much like modern New Years Eve, people let go of their inhibitions, drank heavily and got into trouble during Samhain. As such, it’s possible that the trickery tradition may simply come from this spirit of revelry.

Like many religious festivities, these early trick-or-treating traditions morphed into a commercialized entity that is designed to make money. Alas, at least we know that this frenzy for candy did come from some rather fascinating historical practice.

I hope you’ve all enjoyed Choctoberfest as much as I have! And for my North American friends who haven’t started celebrating yet – Happy Halloween!