A stew was once a thing very different from the modern concept of something that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a preparation of meat slowly boiled in a stew-pan, generally containing vegetables, rice, etc.” The OED is in fact a mini-history of stews and stewing, as I hope to show you.
First, as a noun, the word ‘stew’as it was used in the fourteenth century was derived from the Old French estui, which referred to a tub or pond in which fish were kept until required for the table. Chaucer wrote, in his Canterbury Tales, “Ful many a fat partrych hadde he in Muwe And many a breem, and many a luce in Stuwe.”
To confuse matters however, at the same time the word had another usage, of which the OED admits, “the ulterior etymology is obscure,” but that “connection of some kind no doubt exists between the Romance word and the Germanic root” of a word which ultimately came into Old English in words such as stuf-bæþ or hot-air bath. This word seems pretty clearly to be related to the word stove. By the very early fourteenth century ‘stew’ referred to a cauldron as well as a heated room used for hot air or vapour baths. From here it came to refer to a brothel “on account of the frequent use of the public hot-air bath-houses for immoral purposes,” and “sometimes, a quarter occupied by houses of ill-fame.” Think on that, next time you make a stew for a nice family dinner.
It is not until the mid-eighteenth century that the OED finds the word used in the manner given at the beginning of this post, “a preparation of meat slowly boiled in a stew-pan, generally containing vegetables, rice, etc.”
Now, as for the word ‘stew” as a verb and an adjective, these are recorded in the first half of the fifteenth century in several cooking manuscripts, which refer to delights such as ‘pertritch [partridge] stewyde’ and ‘Smale Byrdys y-stwyde.’
So, ‘stewing’, when it did not mean spending time in a brothel, I suppose, was used in a culinary sense from the early fourteenth century, but the actual dish named ‘a stew’ was not found for four hundred years. Isn’t the evolution of language an extraordinary thing?
Which brings me to the recipe for the day, which is from Cookery Reformed: or, The Lady’s Assistant … to which is added the Family Physician (London, 1755,) a marvelous book which has already given us a Curious Method of Roasting a Pig and Wooden Leg Soup.
An extraordinary method of Stewing a Rump of Beef.
Take a rump of beef properly salted, and boil it till it is half enough ; then take it up, and stuff it with sweet herbs, beaten with the yolks of eggs; and save the gravy that runs out while it is stuffing then put it into the pot again, and when is boiled enough, take it up, and stuff it in other places with beef marrow, and oisters: boil it again a little while, and then take it up. In the mean time, put a veal fweet bread parboiled, and some ox- palate well boiled, into the gravy, mixt with a gill of red wine: stew these together well, and then add what anchovies you think proper; a quart of oister liquor, and add some lemon-peel shredded small: when the oisters are enough, add the yolks of four or five eggs, and then serve them up with the beef.