I am always intrigued by the special dishes that attend special life events. I wrote a story last year about some of the food traditions associated in previous times with a ‘lying-in’ or a ‘groaning’ (childbirth), and thought that I had exhausted the topic. It seems that this is not the case.
A recent hunt for an entirely different food tradition turned up a book with the amusing title of The Remains of John Briggs: Containing Letter from The Lakes; Westmorland as it Was; Theological Essays; Tales; Remarks on the Newtonian Theory of Light And Fugitive Pieces, (by John Briggs, 1825). Mr Briggs was clearly not afraid to spread his subject matter far and wide. He could have benefitted from a little editorial advice however, as he tackles the same topic (food at a lying-in) twice in the chapter on Westmorland As It Was.
Firstly, he writes:
At a lying-in the matrons of the lating, were regaled with furmity [frumenty] and sweet butter; the latter of which was a compound of sugar and butter boiled together, and seasoned with spices and spirits: this and a new milk cheese were always provided a few weeks before they were wanted; and amongst poor people the expense attending these preparations for each addition to a family was defrayed by a “gathering” amongst the gossips.
A little later he refers to the practice again:
“Lying-in:” It has not been our fortune to obtain very much of the customs formerly practised on these occasions, though we believe there were some very interesting ones What we have obtained we shall give. Previous to the time, a quantity of sweet butter was prepared; for many of the Dale-landers believed that a lying in woman would never recover unless she had plenty of sweet butter. It was thus prepared. The butter was melted (not boiled) in a brass pan, till the milk ran to the top, and the salt sunk to the bottom. The milk was then scummed off, and the butter decanted clear from the salt. A quantity of rum and sugar having been well beat together in a bowl, with a little grated nutmeg, was then mixed with the butter, when all was stirred till the mixture began to cool. Thus prepared it would keep for any length of time, and few houses were without a pot of sweet butter at all seasons of the year.
The word ‘lating’ (spelled elsewhere in the book as ‘laiting’) is a bit of a mystery – not just to me, but to the OED and its colleagues too. The connection with milk would seem obvious (lait is French for milk), but I cannot find any support for that idea. The verb late used to mean ‘to seek or find, or examine’ – but I cant fit that concept into the reality of childbirth either.
By way of another linguistic aside, I must come to the defence of ‘gossips’. A gossip was not always a talkative busybody. The word was originally godsibb, and indicated ‘one who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism [in other words a godparent]’, and also, specifically ‘a woman's female friends invited to be present at a birth’.
I love that idea of wetting the baby’s head with rum (he mentions this elsewhere), and the new mother being fed rum and butter and sugar!
In honour of those genuine old gossips, and all women approaching their lying-in, I offer this rum and butter and sugar (and bread and milk … ) recipe. The recipe intrigues me greatly because I don’t believe I have ever seen a sweet milk pudding containing cayenne pepper before.
Bread and Butter Pudding.
Stone half a pound of raisins, wash and dry half a pound of currants, cut some slices of bread very thin, pare off the crusts, and butter them. Butter the shape [mould] well and stick the raisins in rows in the inside of the shape. Put in a slice of bread, the buttered side next the shape; lay in some raisins and currants, then a slice of bread, then fruit and so on, alternately until the shape is three fourths full. Beat up six eggs with one table spoonful of sugar, a little lemon juice, grated nutmeg, and cayenne, a little milk and one glass of brandy or rum; mix them well together, and pour into the shape, butter the cover, and boil or steam it for two hours. Serve it with wine sauce in a tureen.
The Practice of Cookery and Pastry, by I.Williams, 1862.
Quotation for the Day.
Rum, n. Generically, fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers.