Thursday, February 12, 2009

To crimp, or not to crimp?

I always wanted curly hair. My university friend, with whom I shared accommodation (you know who you are, Marj) spent some of her meagre disposeable income on getting her hair straightened. I spent some of my meagre student income on getting mine curled. Life is universally unfair. I especially coveted crinkly, frilled, crimped hair, not the childish ringlet-style. What has this to do with a food blog, you are probably asking.

References to ‘crimped’ fish occur commonly in old cookbooks. I must have read the phrase a thousand times without realising it was describing my dream hair. Suddenly, my brain asked ‘Which came first, the hair-style or the fish-style?’

Both, says the OED, after an extraordinarily long explanation of the sort intelligible to linguists, but not to mere food history dilettantes. The supporting quotes for ‘to crimp’ meaning ‘to curl’, and ‘to crimp’ meaning ‘to cause (the flesh of fish) to contract and become firm by gashing or cutting it before rigor mortis sets in’ are both given as 1698.

The best way to avoid rigor mortis sabotaging your crimping (of fish, not hair) is, of course, to perform the procedure while the fish is still alive. I appears that this was a common, if not a universal practice, and the blame for this idea is almost universally, in old books as well as the OED, placed upon the Dutch. An accusation in that direction, accompanied by an explanation of its rationale, occurs in Culina Famulatrix Medicinæ, (1806)

Crimping Fish.
In Holland, and in families where the dressing of fish is scientifically attended to, the operation of crimping is performed upon most kinds of fish. When it can be done, this cruel operation is performed upon the living fish; but it answers nearly as well, if performed within a few hours after death. The fish, when scored to the bone, is said to he crimped, in which state, or cut into pieces, it is committed to the fish-kettle, after lying a few hours in cold salt and water. And here a question occurs, why the Epicure should give the preference to fish after it has parted with a considerable portion of its rich and soluble parts in the boiling water? Of this question, Ignotus* can see no other solution than, that as the fish has become harder, the masticating powers are longer employed, to the great comfort of the Epicure, whose palate would reluctantly part with a soft morsel, if another was not immediately to follow.

Crimping: a practice which thankfully we twenty-first century ethically superior beings now recognise as being unreasonably cruel to our animal friends, agreed? Actually, no. Reasonable humans have been concerned about this sort of practice for centuries, but in previous times they did not have the benefits of the electronic media to circulate the righteousness. Here is one example of distaste for the procedure, from a dictionary of 1785, no less.

Crimp: ‘a cruel manner of cutting up fish alive, practiced by London fishmongers, in order to make it eat firm’

And, from the same source, the word as a noun (Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue)

‘Cod, and other crimped fish, being a favourite among voluptuaries and epicures’

And from a whole book on the topic (The Rights of Animals; on the Responsibility and obligation of man … Sarah Burdet, 1839)

‘Death, it is true, is the penalty attaching to every living creature, sooner or later, yet, where life must be taken, it ought to be in the least possible painful mode and manner, and without any previous torture; for example, not to crimp fish, nor fry alive the produce of the cruel sport of a whole day!’

To serve with your fish, crimped (pre- or post-mortem), the Culina Famulatrix Medicinæ suggests the following:

Dutch Sour Sauce For Fish.
Take the yolks of two eggs, a lump of butter sufficiently large for the quantity of sauce wanted, and a small bit of mace. A table spoonful of good white wine vinegar. Put all together into a sauce-pan, and melt over a gentle fire, taking care to stir, or shake, only one way. The sauce will be sufficiently thick without any flour.

Fish Sauce To Keep A Year.
Take walnuts of the size fit for pickling. Cut, and pound them in a marble mortar to obtain the juice. To a pint of juice, put a pound of anchovies. Boil till the anchovies are dissolved, and strain through a piece of muslin. Then boil again, and add a quarter of an ounce of mace; half a quarter of an ounce of cloves ; some whole white pepper ; and seven or eight shalots ; a few cloves of garlic, and half a pint of white wine vinegar. Boil all together till the shalots become tender ; then strain, and when cold, bottle for use.

[*‘Ignotus’ apparently roughly means ‘unnoticed’ in Latin. It has been used by several people in history and on the Internet, as a pseudonym. I have no idea who is referred to in the above extract!]

Next week, for those of you not fascinated by words, and not fond of fish, I will try to fit in at least one retro cake.

Quotation for the Day …

At a formal dinner party, the person nearest death should always be seated closest to the bathroom.
George Carlin.


Dianna said...

Ack, I'd never heard of crimping fish before! I'm glad it's not common practice anymore. Very interesting article, thanks.

The Old Foodie said...

I will always check fish for crimping now, in a restaurant. My life will never be the same again, since I learned about crimping.

Alexander Keefe said...

from "Pike and Perch" by Alfred Jardine (1898)
"For crimping, a fish exceeding 5 or 6 lbs. is best; and it is done by stunning or killing the pike by a blow or blows on the top of its head just behind the eyes, and making several transverse cuts, an inch or two apart, nearly as deep as the backbone; cut the gills under the throat, and hold the fish in a cool spring on the running stream until the bleeding ceases. Sir Humphry Davy says that 'crimping preserves the flesh hard and crisp,' and that 'a fresh fish not crimped is tough.' Stoddart and other authorities consider a pike is very much better eating when crimped, and especially so if for boiling."

The Old Foodie said...

Alexchander - thanks for this, it sounds much more humane. There is no doubt though, that crimping a live fish was a very common practice. I wonder why it doesnt all fall apart when it is cooked, if the fish is cc down to the backbone?

Foose said...

Dorothy Hartley's Food in England says that a "kettle of fish" was originally a "kiddle of fish" -- a fish-trap set in a river to catch fish technically owned by a religious house or the local lord. Discovery of a fish-trap set in motion widespread punishments for both the innocent or the guilty.

The Old Foodie said...

Foose - thanks for this. It is a long time since I read Dorothy. I guess that being caught setting up a kiddle of fish would get you into a fine kettle of fish, wouldnt it?

Foose said...

It's an old book, and possibly Hartley's explanation of the "kiddle of fish" has been superseded by those of more recent food historians.

Sorry I commented on the wrong post! I was in a hurry and just looking for the word "fish."