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Buckles, Cobblers, Grunts and Slumps

It’s blueberry season in Maine. The abundance of blueberries got me thinking about my mom’s blueberry buckle recipe. What, pray tell, is a buckle?

Buckles

Fruit buckles are very much associated in my mind with New England, but my quick check of southern recipe collections suggest that that’s not the case historically. Southern recipes for buckles feature apples and plums Almond-Plum Buckle recipe rather than blueberries Blueberry Buckle Recipe. A buckle, for the curious, is an old-fashioned style of single layer cake, typically cooked in a flat pan, round or square (rather than , and includes fruit and streusel-style crumb topping. Some recipes call for mixing the fruit into the cake batter, others have the cook spread the fruit between the batter and streusel topping, as a separate layer. The batter is very dense, and as the cake cooks, the batter sinks to the bottom, and pushes the fruit and streusel up, making them “buckle,” or give way. In other words, the “buckle” in question is derived from the verb, with the meaning of “to bend, warp, bulge, or collapse.” Etymologically speaking, buckle derives from Middle English bokel, from Old French boucle, from Latin buccula, the cheek strap of a helmet, itself derived from a diminutive of bucca, or “cheek.”

Cobblers

Cobbler, ready to bake Image Credit: Lisafern via WikiMedia

A cobbler is a Southern fruit dessert. The fruit is usually peaches, or berries; either blackberries, raspberries or cherries. Biscuit dough is dropped in spoonfuls over a mixture of fruit and syrup (made with sugar and fruit juice) or biscuit dough is rolled out and placed over fruit filling as a top layer, sealing in the juice and berries. The OED associates cobblers with the American west, and offers Bartlett’s Dictionary of 1859 as the first attestation “A sort of pie, baked in a pot lined with dough of great thickness, upon which the fruit is placed; according to the fruit, it is an apple or a peach cobbler.” The OED subsequently refers to Mark Twain’s 1880 travelography Tramp Abroad, and a “Peach cobbler, Southern style.” I confess that I have no clue about the etymology of cobbler (neither does the AHD who offers “Origin unknown”); or why a word associated with manufacturing shoes, or temporary fixes might be associated with such a delightful dessert. I note, in passing, that it’s possible that the meaning of cobbler in this context is related to the use of cobble as a verb to mean “One who mends clumsily, a clumsy workman, a mere botcher.” But I’m guessing, and rather wildly, at that.

 

Grunts and Slumps

A grunt is very much a New England dish. It’s a fruit dessert made by stewing fresh fruit, briefly, then putting the very hot fruit in a baking dish and dropping spoonfuls of a biscuit-dough like batter on to the very hot fruit. The steam from the fruit cooks the dough—and often, the escaping steam from the partially smothered and still cooling fruit creates a “grunting” noise. You normally finish cooking the grunt in an oven so that the topping is browned, and if possible, you sprinkle a little sugar on the top before you pop it in the oven, and the sugar and the juice and the steam and heat from the oven create a lovely caramel. Grunts are very much part of New England wood-stove cooking, so much so that growing up I noticed some women identified their cast iron dutch ovens as “grunts.” Elsewhere, for instance in Georgia and coastal Carolina, the same dessert is called a slump, because when you take the dessert off the heat, it slumps or falls.

It’s not uncommon to still have fresh blackberries and plums in Southern New Hampshire in late September, just as fall is about to burst forth in full glorious leafage. I still get all nostalgic about grunts and cobblers and buckles. It’s a good time now to freeze ripe peaches, so you can have peach cobbler Peach Cobbler Recipe | SimplyRecipes.com in February. And there’s no reason not to freeze,cherries, blueberries and blackberries, too. I’m a firm believer in blackberry grunt and plum grunt Blackberry Grunt Recipe | Alton Brown | Food Network , as well, and the late plums are still on trees in some parts of the U.S. I note that buckles, cobblers, grunts and slumps are all best served warm with a scoop of really good vanilla ice cream.

Corned Beef and Corning

The corn in the phrase corned beef refers to salt-curing, or brining beef to preserve it. The corn refers to the large grains of salt used in curing the beef. The meat is placed in a crock and liberally covered with large grains (or corns) of salt.

Etymologically, the English word corn comes from the Germanic root kurnam, used to refer to small seeds or kernals, cognate with kernal and with Latin grain. Corned beef, traditionally made with a brisket of beef in Eastern European and Jewish traditions, is fairly simple to do at home. Here’s a recipe from Alton Brown for making your own corned beef.

Haggis

Haggis with tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnips)

If you mention to anyone, at all, that you’re going to visit Scotland, you’re bound to be warned about Scotland’s national dish; haggis. Haggis is, according to the AHD “A Scottish dish consisting of a mixture of the minced heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, oatmeal, and seasonings and boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal.” The closest thing I can compare with haggis to in terms of standard American dishes is stuffing, made with giblets.

People tend to think of haggis around the 25th of January, the date reserved to celebrate the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns. All over the world Scots are celebrating Burns Night with a meal that includes toasts to Burns, his poetry, a ceremonial presentation of the haggis, and naturally, a reading of Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis.”

Haggis was not always thought of as a Scottish dish; indeed it was quite popular in the Middle Ages as this English haggis recipe from c. 1430 implies.

Etymologically, the ancestry of haggis is French; The Random House Dictionary, unlike the OED or AHD, properly attributes English haggis to Anglo-Norman French, via late Middle English (c. 1375–1425) hageys, from Anglo-Norman French *hageis, the equivalent of the verb hag-, the root of haguer, to chop, hash. They then follow haguer back to Middle Dutch hacken “to hack,” with the addition of the -eis noun suffix frequently used for cookery terms. Language blogger Language Hat beat Random House to the chase to point out in this entry that there are several clear cognates in Anglo-Norman French.

Should you be so inclined, you can make your own haggis following Alton Brown’s recipe. Haggis is often served with neeps and tatties, or turnips and potatoes, as in the image above. Alternatively, the less intrepid can order their haggis in a can here.

The Truth about Corned Beef

Every year around St. Patrick’s day in the U.S. the grocery stores start putting corned beef brisket on sale, and restaurants and pubs add corned beef and cabbage to their menus as an Irish entrée. Unfortunately, corned beef and cabbage, even when accompanied by potatoes, is more American (or Germanic) than Irish; we’d do better to celebrate Irish cuisine with salmon or colcannon.

image of cooked slab of corned beef, partially sliced
Corned beef © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

Corned beef is not really very Irish, though it is very American (and Germanic). Pork was a staple of the Irish diet, particularly in the form of bacon. Historically, the Irish raised pigs for meat, and beef for milk. If you butchered a cow, you did it in late October or early November, at Samain. By March that meat, even if you had cured it by corning it, was gone. When Irish immigrants arrived in Boston and New York, their beloved Irish bacon was not available; what was available was corned beef, thanks to Jewish delis and butchers in New York, and the New England Boiled Dinner popularized by German immigrants to Massachusetts and other New England states. Corned beef is simply beef preserved with salt, a process known as corning.

The Irish immigrants, unable to locate or in some cases, afford the distinctively different Irish bacon, traditionally served with cabbage and potatoes, possibly with carrots or other vegetables, turned to corned beef, and Irish Americans perpetuated the local cuisine.

Historically, beef in Ireland was a luxury (now, beef is often cheaper than mutton); in the middle ages, cows were prized for their milk. Dairy products were so important in medieval Irish diets that cheeses and similar milk products were called “white meats.” In the eleventh century medieval Irish satire Aislinge Meic Con Glinne/The Vision of MacConglinne, MacConglinne attempts to entice a “demon of gluttony” to exit an abbot by preparing a magnificent feast that includes

juicy old bacon, and tender corned-beef, and full-fleshed wether, and honey in the comb, and English salt on a beautiful polished dish of white silver, along with four perfectly straight white hazel spits to support the joints.

This is very clearly an over-the-top outrageous feast, and the use of corned beef in the feast points up that it was considered luxurious, and down-right extravagant.

Pork was by far the more common meat, even after the English conquest, since what beef there was was exported to England (especially during the Napoleanic wars), leaving potatoes, fish, pork and cabbage for the native Irish. You’ll find Irish families and restaurants even now having gammon, or a roast joint of pork, as a family dinner. The Irish emigrating to America continued to bring Irish cuisine and traditions with them though of necessity modifying them to suit the new land.

Olive

Olive Tree, Portugal Image: Wikimedia Commons

Olives, deliberately planted and tended for thousands of years, are intimately tied to the early diets of ancient humans, who carefully cultivated them wherever we roamed, so much so that a plant with Afro-Asiatic ancestry is now grown even in Washington state. It’s no small thing, that, and it marks the importance of the olive tree in human history, given that the plant is used not only for the fruit (the olive), but for the oil, pressed from the fruit, and the leaves, and even the wood.

English, etymologically speaking, obtained the word olive via Old French, olive, from Latin oliva, “olive, olive tree,” from Greek elaia “olive tree, olive.” Elaia is most likely derived from one of the Aegean languages, possibly Cretan, or Minoan, since we also see ewi “oil” in Armenian. From roughly the 14th century on in Middle English, we routinely see olive used for the tree, and the fruit of the tree. Trees are closely tied to human migrations across the continent of Europe because humans took the plants that were most important for their survival, based on their uses for wood, oil, food and religion, with them, as they moved from the fertile crescent around the Tigris and Euphrates, across Asia and Europe, and, centuries later, to the New World. The prevalence of the olive helps us trace our ancestors migrations.

Olives are so closely tied to the early diets of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, that the word oil, meaning “Any of numerous mineral, vegetable, and synthetic substances and animal and vegetable fats that are generally slippery, combustible, viscous, liquid or liquefiable at room temperatures, soluble in various organic solvents such as ether but not in water, and used in a great variety of products, especially lubricants and fuels” (AHD) that the word for “oil” in a large number of Indo-European and Semitic languages derives from the word for olive. In English, for instance, we see already by 1175 olie, oile “olive oil” from Anglo-Norman and Norman French olie, and huile in 12th century French, from Latin oelum “oil, olive oil,” Greek elaion “Olive tree,” from elaia “olive.” In Middle English, olie always meant “olive oil” until ca. 1300, when olie began to be used for any fatty, greasy substance, even those associated with fossil fuels, or petroleum. Or food, in the creation of oleo in the nineteenth century, and the subsequent increase in use during World War II as margarine began to used at home instead of butter.

Oleo, short for oleomargarine, derives from “oil” via Latin oelum. Petroleum entered English via Middle Latin as a compound ca. 1520–30. Petroleum derives form Latin petr (derived from Greek pétra), “rock” + Latin oleum.

And it all goes back to a simple olive tree, potentially living for thousands of years.

[I posted an earlier version of this post on another site]

Soul Cake and Souling

Soul, soul, a soul cake!
I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him what made us all!
Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, anything good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, one for Paul, and three for Him who made us all.

Small round soul cakes with raisins and a cross marked on the top of each small cake.
Soul cakes Image credit: Malikhpur

All Souls’ Day is one of the feast days of the Roman Catholic Church. All Souls’ is observed on November 2. Special prayers are offered for the deceased souls in Purgatory, believed to be waiting for eventual release. All Souls’ follows All Saints’ Day on November 1, the day on which the saints in heaven are commemorated under the assumption that the souls languishing in purgatory should also be remembered and prayed for. All Souls’ was established by Abbot Odilo of Cluny (d. 1049) and  was widely celebrated by the 13th century. All Souls’ is also known as Soulmas Day or Saumas.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, it was common in England and the British Isles for people to give food and alms to the poor on All Souls’ Day with the assumption that the food was recompense for praying for the dead. In the 17th century John Aubrey1)John Aubrey. Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. 1686–87. Ed. James Britten. London: The Folklore Society, 1880. 23.  describes piles of small cakes set out on All Souls’ in Shropshire houses; visitors to the house would take a soul cake with the understanding that they would pray for the souls of the departed family members. The idea is that the prayers assist the departed souls in purgatory to move on to Heaven. Aubrey offers two lines of a lyric he describes as “an old Rhythm or saying”:

A Soule-cake, a Soule-cake,
Have mercy on all Christen soules for a Soule-cake.

Aubrey’s reference is to a traditional lyric performed by “mummers,” people going house to house and singing on November 2, the Feast of All Souls, the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, or in Latin commemoratio omnium fidelium Defunctorum, in hopes that the mistress of the house would reward them with a soul cake. The soul cake, as suggested by Aubrey’s reference, is a small round cake that was typically made with oats as well as flour, and seasoned with spices and dried fruits. The mummers or singers would be rewarded for praying with the soul cakes. The cakes and the custom of distributing them to visitors date back to the Middle Ages in England. The practice of going house to house and singing is called “souling” and is frequently cited as an analogue if not an ancestor of modern day Halloween trick or treat. Souling seems to have been a fairly localized custom until the 19th century, primarily associated with Shropshire, north Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire.

There are genuine medieval recipes for soul cakes but they’re generally not very tasty. Like many medieval desserts, historic soul cake recipes tend to be over indulgent with respect to spices for modern tastes. Later recipes, especially those from the 18th century, are much more like a modern slightly spicy scone with dried fruit.

Here is a modernized version of a recipe from the English recipe compilation referred to as Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book. The original recipe from 1604 is as follows:

Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit.

There’s a modern version of the recipe here that was featured on The Food Network.

These days the song is better known than the custom of souling. Here’s Sting on the David Letterman Show, singing the Soul Cake song, with the traditional melody, and some lovely but not quite so ancient additional lyrics. The song is from Sting’s If On a Winter’s Night album of seasonal music for Winter.

References   [ + ]

1. John Aubrey. Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. 1686–87. Ed. James Britten. London: The Folklore Society, 1880. 23.