Today, January 20th …
“The Athenaeum” was a popular weekly literary magazine, founded in England in 1822 and popular for a century before being merged into oblivion with several other publications. There was an interesting snippet in the edition of this date in 1875, which referred to an event of food significance a century before:
“About 1774 Isaac Sparks, the Irish comedian, founded in Long Acre a Colcannon Club.”
Colcannon itself is somewhat of an Irish national dish, and although it is infinitely variable, in its basic form as it was defined in a dictionary of Isaac’s day it is “An Irish dish of mashed potatoes and cabbage, seasoned with butter”.
The name is another mystery. Most say it is based on the unpronounceable Gaelic words for “white cabbage” and/or onion (suggesting that onion is essential). If it isn’t Celtic, it is Teutonic, for the variations of cole, kale, khol etc are all cabbagey words, which is why cabbage salad is called coleslaw (although many older American cookbooks insist on calling it “coldslaw”, presumably because it is not hot, and proving yet again the division of the two cultures by a common language).
The best explanation, mooted by the OED no less is:
“ … it is said that vegetables such as spinach were formerly pounded with a cannon-ball”
Which may only prove that the editors of the OED have never pureed spinach, or they are not totally without humour.
When all is said and done, colcannon is really the Irish version of “bubble and squeak”, for which the eccentric Dr William Kitchiner in his book “The Cook’s Oracle” (1817) suggested his own famous “Wow Wow Sauce” as an accompaniment.
Wow Wow Sauce:
Chop some parsley leaves very fine; quarter two or three pickled cucumbers, or walnuts, and divide them into small squares, and set them by ready; put into a saucepan a bit of butter as big as an egg; when it is melted, stir to it a tablespoonful of fine flour, and about half a pint of the broth in which the beef was boiled; add a table-spoonful of vinegar, the like quantity of mushroom ketchup, or Port wine, or both, and a tea-spoonful of made mustard; let it simmer together till it is thick as you wish it; put in the parsley and pickles to get warm, and pour it over the beef; or rather send it up in a sauce-tureen.
On Monday: Misunderstood, misused and misliked?