Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Mystery of Cooks.

Today, July 12th

On this day in 1482, King Edward IV granted the Cooks of London their first charter, thereby incorporating it as The Company of Cooks.

The preamble to the charter said “ "...the freemen of the Mystery of Cooks have for a long time personally taken and borne and to this day do not cease to take and bear great and manifold pains and labour as well at our great feast of St. George and at others according to our command...".

What is this “Mystery of Cooks”? I thought at first it was a collective noun, and there are few linguistic things more collectible than collective nouns. I can understand flock, and herd, and flight, but how come a ‘pitying of turtledoves’ and a ‘muse of capons’? On second thoughts, capons probably have much to muse about. A crash of rhinoceroses, a tower of giraffes, a pomp of pekingese, and a blessing of unicorns seem to fit, but a bind of salmon and a hover of trout are strange. For human groups we have conflagration of arsonists (obvious, that one), goring of butchers (ditto) and a shuffle of bureaucrats (ditto ditto). I particularly like an unction of undertakers, a converting of priests, and an ambush of widows too, but the food professions really caught my eye.

We have a tabernacle of bakers, a feast of brewers, and a glozing of taverners. A tabernacle is a sanctuary or place of worship, and a feast needs no explaining, so these nouns seem to fit the professions of baking and brewing quite well. ‘Glozing’ comes from an old English verb meaning ‘to interpret, explain away’, and means to use flattery or cajolery (to ‘gloss over’), which I guess can happen when one is exposed to the work of taverners, so it fits too. What we do not have is a mystery of cooks. The correct collective phrase is 'a hastiness of cooks’. Go figure, as they say.

A mystery, in the sense used in the fifteenth century charter, was ‘a trade guild or company’. It also means a ‘craft, art; a trade, profession’, and as far as the mystery of cooking goes I like the suggestion of things alchemical and secret and religious in the name. It would make a much better collective noun for a number of cooks than ‘a hastiness’, don’t you think?

This archaic use of the word mystery is often found in the titles of old cookbooks, such as today’s recipe source The complete practical cook: or, a new system of the whole art and mystery of cookery. Being a select collection of above five hundred recipes ... by Charles Carter, published in 1730. What to choose from it? Well, the OED gives another use of the word ‘mystery’ which touches on the cooking theme. It is in relation to ‘mystery meat’, which is ‘inferior meat of dubious origin, served as corned beef, sausages, etc.’ The supporting quotations also include hash and canned meat in the definition. ‘Hash’ is chopped meat (from the French verb hasher, meaning to chop). Here endeth the word lesson for the day. The recipe for the day, from Charles’ cookbook, is therefore for hash. But not a hash of dubious meat at all.

Hash’d Capons, Pullets, Turkeys, Pheasants, Partridges, or Rabbits.
Brown a Piece of Butter gold Colour, and put to it fine clear Gravy; hash the brawny and fleshy part of your Fowl very thin and small, and put to it your thicken’d Gravy; season with a little Pepper, Salt and Nutmeg, a whole Onion, and a Bundle of Thyme and Parsly; stove it a little, and take that out again: Put in the small Bones of your Fowl, and hack and broil the Legs; toss up your Hash with some thick Butter, and the Juice of an Orange or Lemon; let it be thick, and dish it on Sippets, and lay your small Bones and Legs about it and garnish it with Lemon or Orange

P.S if you really want to know about dubious mystery meat, see my notes on the tinned Australian meat perpetrated upon the Brits in the late nineteenth century. It is on the Companion site HERE. Now I have been reminded of the project, I promise to post a few more of the recipes at the weekend (I bet you cant wait)

Tomorrow’s Story …

A Muddy Cake Story.

Quotation for the Day …

A cook, when I dine, seems to me a divine being, who from the depths of his kitchen rules the human race. One considers him a minister of heaven, because his kitchen is a temple, in which his ovens are the altar. Desaugiers, 19th C French poet.


Liz + Louka said...

This hash sounds quite nice actually. Any idea what the "sippers" are that you serve it up on?

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Liz - thanks for pointing out a typo! (I plead a late night draft posting). It should be sippets - i.e toast.
now all i need to do is work out why the quotation is coming up in miniscule print, when it looks fine in the preview.