Friday, October 24, 2008

Not Luncheon

Once upon a time, instead of lunch (or maybe as well as lunch?) there was nuncheon (or nonsensche or nuncion or many other permutations). The word is quite a problem. It has the odd ‘-uncheon’ ending (analagous with luncheon, truncheon and puncheon, says the OED), but its etymology is obscure, to say the least. It appears to come from the words noon and schench. Noon seems obvious – it is 12 midday, right? Not always. Noon comes from nones, the Latin word for ninth, and noon used to refer to the ninth hour of the day reckoned from sunrise, or maybe the word is related to nón, the old Icelandic time of about three in the afternoon. Three in the afternoon was the Christian prayer time of Nones, - based on the nine hours from daylight approximation.

Shench is an ancient word meaning a drink. So – nuncheon was originally (whenever that was) a drink taken at midday or three o’clock or somewhere between. Soon it certainly came to refer to a small meal as well as a drink, which may make it a better competitor for our modern afternoon tea! The problem is that some references clearly indicate a mid-morning snack.

What to eat for nuncheon? Most references seem to be to a lump of something such as bread or cheese with beer or ale. One of the few specific foods mentioned in the OED supporting quotations comes from 1880, which is a very late use of the word, and it mentions “bread and cheese and gingerbread for noonchin”. Gingerbread we have plenty of in the Through the Ages with Gingerbread archive – but it is a long time since I added to it, and the time of Christmas approacheth when many thoughts turn to such spicy treats. Here is a nice do-able recipe from Mrs.Radcliffe.

Orange Gingerbread.
Sift two pounds and a quarter of fine flour, and add to it a pound and three quarters of treacle, six ounces of candied orange peel cut small, three quarters of a pound of moist sugar, one ounce of ground ginger, and one ounce of allspice : melt to an oil three quarters of a pound of butter, - mix the whole well together, and lay it by for twelve hours, - roll it out with as little flour as possible about half an inch thick, cut it into pieces three inches long and two wide, - mark them in the form of chequers with the back of a knife, put them on a baking plate about a quarter of an inch apart, - rub them over with a brush dipped into the yolk of an egg beat up with a tea-cupful of milk, bake it in a cool oven about a quarter of an hour; - when done, wash them slightly over again, - divide the pieces with a knife, (as in baking they will run together.)

A Modern System of Domestic Cookery: Arranged on the Most Economical Plan M. Radcliffe; 1823.

Quotation for the Day …

I'll bet what motivated the British to colonize so much of the world is that they were just looking for a decent meal. Martha Harrison.

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