Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How Many Legs Has A Sheep?

There is a lovely story – a comment on what constitutes ‘madness’, I suppose – that I want to share with you today. It appeared in Heads and tales; or, Anecdotes and stories of quadrupeds and other beasts, by Adam White (London, 1870):

When the Earl of Bradford was brought before the Lord Chancellor to be examined upon application for a statute of lunacy against him, the Chancellor asked him, "How many legs has a sheep?” - “Does your lordship mean," answered Lord Bradford, "a live sheep or a dead sheep ?" - "Is it not the same thing?" said the Chancellor. "No, my Lord," said Lord Bradford, "there is much difference: a live sheep may have four legs, a dead sheep has only two; the two fore-legs are shoulders; there are only two legs of mutton.

A (very) brief research foray has led me to assume that the poor Peer under suspicion of lunacy must be Thomas Newport, the fourth Earl of Bradford (c. 1696-1762.)  The title became extinct on his death, as he died ‘without issue’ as they say. He was said to have become ‘feebleminded’ or ‘an imbecile’ after a fall from a horse as a child, but the witty response above is hardly that of someone with a dull mind, is it?

But let us get on with the food part of the story. An eighteenth century gentleman (and a nineteenth century one for that matter) would have been an expert on mutton. We find the adjective ‘inevitable’ frequently used in association with the appearance of mutton on the dinner table. Even Mrs.Beeton uses the phrase. The inevitability of mutton extended to the tables of the well-to-do as well as the boarding house, and it seems that it engendered a strange mixture of both boredom and pride.

We can buy our meat in meal-sized portions nowadays, if we wish, but in the good old days, when there was no refrigeration, and waste of any scraps of food an unconscionable sin, it took some ingenuity on the part of the cook or housekeeper to repeatedly serve up the inevitable remains of the inevitable leg of mutton, without too many complaints from the family. Luckily – or inevitably – there was no shortage of advice on the problem in many decades-worth of British cookery books.

In a post a long time ago, we considered the advice of Australian pioneer woman, Caroline Chisholm, who fearlessly faced-off the problem of how to serve salt beef again ... and again ... and again. Salt beef was the inevitable daily fare of the of the early settlers of the continent in the nineteenth century, and Caroline produced a leaflet describing Seven Things to do with Salt Beef. I think this puts the leg of mutton problem into perspective, doesn’t it?

The leg of mutton problem was not confined to Victorian England. Jennie June's American Cookery Book (1866) gives suggestions on how to make a leg of mutton provide four meals (and remember, this was before domestic refrigeration.)

Leg of Mutton in Four Meals.
For the first meal, cut off a handsome knuckle and boil it; for the second meal, take as many cutlets as required for the family from the joint; for the third meal, roast the remainder of the joint. The remains of both the boiled and roasted meat may then be hashed for a fourth meal.

It is difficult to escape the feeling that the worst thing about the inevitable mutton was the inevitable hash that awaited one on day four or five. Perhaps an elegant title would ‘sell’ the concept better?

The Epicure's Hash.
Cut in slices about one pound of cold mutton; then put two sliced onions into a stew pan with a small piece of butter, and fry brown; then add half a pint of good flavored broth, a dessertspoonful of Harvey sauce, the same spoon three times full of taragon vinegar, two tea-spoonsful of curry paste, a small lump of sugar, and a little pepper and salt to taste; let this sauce just boil up once and then simmer slowly by the fire for half an hour: stir it often, and thicken it with a table spoonful of flour, mixed smooth in a little cold water; or you can use corn starch, half the quantity will do. When the thickening has boiled thoroughly, and the sauce ready, put in the meat, let it heat through but not boil. Serve hot, with pieces of toast round the dish.
Jennie June's American Cookery Book (1866)

Quotation for the Day.

The real fact is that I could no longer stand their eternal cold mutton.
(On why he left England for South Africa)
Cecil Rhodes.

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