This night, when I was growing up in Yorkshire, was ‘Bonfire Night’ – a night we children looked forward to, and planned for weeks in advance. It was a night of fires, fireworks, burning effigies, and general fun and mayhem. As the night approached we saved our pocket-money for fireworks, and collected rubbish for the bonfires, and scrounged old clothes to dress up our ‘guy’, which would become our glorious burning effigy. The ‘guy’, when finished, would be propped up on our street corner in the hope that friends and neighbours (there were no ‘passers-by’ – we knew everyone) would be inspired to ‘donate’ a few coppers to buy more fireworks - which was needed as we never managed to avoid the temptation to let off our earlier purchases well in advance of the night itself.
Sadly, the fun has fallen victim to fire and safety regulations, political correctness and the fear of strangers willing to give money to children on the street, and I understand that Bonfire Night is now a pale imitation of its former exciting self.
The night, of course, commemorates the failed “Gunpowder Plot’ – the attempt in 1605 by provincial English Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament during its opening, when the Protestant King James would be present. One of the chief conspirators was Guy Fawkes, one of the city of York’s most infamous sons, who, in the wake of the failure was tortured, tried, and executed.
In Yorkshire, it is traditional to eat ‘parkin’ on this night. Parkin is a sort of gingerbread made with oatmeal and black treacle (not molasses, please!). It is very much a November treat as it is also eaten on ‘Parkin Sunday’ (the Sunday within the octave of All Saints, which was last Sunday – first Sunday in November). I don’t know why parkin was associated with this particular day in the calendar however!
An article from 1857 describes the eating of parkin on November 5 as already a very old custom at that time:
‘A very old custom, coeval, apparently, with the annual bonfires and fireworks, prevails to this day in the West Riding of Yorkshire, of preparing against the anniversary of Gunpowder Plot, a kind of oatmeal gingerbread, if I may so call it, and religiously partaking of it on the “dreadful” day, and subsequently. The local name of the delicacy is Parkin, and it is usually seen in the form of massive loaves, substantial cakes, or bannocks.’ [Notes and Queries]
I have written briefly about parkin previously, but have done a little more research since then. As I mentioned in the previous post, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the first written mention of parkin is attributed to Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of the poet William, who wrote in her diary on November 6, 1800, ‘I was baking bread, dinner, and parkins.’ In that post I also noted that the OED is not convincing on the name ‘parkin’, and half-heartedly suggests an association with the name surname Parkin (which is a diminutive of ‘Peter’)
I have since found a couple more theories as to the name. The first suggests an association with ‘bairns’, and therefore a Celtic connection perhaps?
‘Parkin is gingerbread, treacle and oatmeal: it is especially presented to children on the fifth of November. Whatever were its components among our Saxon ancestors, the word is of very difficult solution. If it be of later origin it is still as intricate. Changing p into b we have bar, or barn, - a child, (Gingifer), is ginger. Barnking.’ Nugæ literariæ: prose and verse (1841)
The second theory I like very much. It extends the Irish or Celtic connection by noting the similarity of the sound ‘parkin’ to bairgains, or bairn breacs - ancient unleavened cakes of barley bread, the name of which is still evident in Irish bairn-brack or barm-brack.
The name may still be a puzzle, but the concept of spicing up the daily bread for feast days is very ancient. Oatmeal was the daily grain in the northern parts of the country, and ginger the popular spice– hence an early form of oatmeal gingerbread was probably the traditional feast day treat in the north of Britain since very old times.
The idea of gingerbread cake on Guy Fawkes Night did not spring up in the first few decades after the failed plot, else why would there be no mention until Dorothy Wordsworth’s time?
Gingerbread was almost certainly already associated with the celebration of the end of the harvest, and the pre-winter animal slaughter that took place in November – which was also the time of year associated with bonfires (originally bone-fires ) since pagan times. Happy synchronicity perhaps created the link between these ancient ideas and the idea of exploding Houses of Parliament, and thus parkin ‘history’ was born.
A couple of other developments were necessary before the oatmeal gingerbread took the form we recognise now – the availability of cheap sugar (or treacle), and the development of powder rising agents in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Clearly, from the reference by Dorothy Wordsworth, parkin was already a well- established household bakery item in 1800. The absence of parkin recipes in cookery books before this time is testament to its ordinariness and simplicity – it was so well known that every housewife could make it without thinking, and a written recipe was not considered necessary.
The first published recipe I have found so far is from, of all things, a cookery book from that famous oatmeal-eating race – the Scots (although the author acknowledges it as originating in Leeds.)
Parkin, or Leeds Gingerbread.
Sift four pounds of oatmeal, and mix it with four pounds of treacle, half a pound of brown sugar, the same quantity of melted butter, and three quarters of an ounce of powdered ginger. Work it all well together and let it remain for twenty-four hours, and then make it into cakes.
The Practice of Cookery, (1830) Mrs Dalgairns.
Quotation for the Day.
Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. Women never throw out spices. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I'm taking with me when I go.