When looking for citations of “mango” the other week, I ran across this intriguing line in Peter King’s Life of John Locke:

Railes and heath-polts, ruffs, and reeves, are excellent meat wherever they can be met with.

The line intrigued me because I didn’t recognize a single one of these creatures.

Clearly, I am no birder. The ruff is still generally known, a bird of the sandpiper family, the female of which is called a reeve. In mating season, the ruff develops a ruff, that is, a ruffle of feathers around its neck. Clearly, the whole set must be varieties of birds. The rail can be any bird of the Rallidae family, still used for landrails and water-rails; the only kind of rail family-member I’d previous heard of was the corncrake. (See “The Echo mocks the Corncrake”, especially the Andy Stewart version – mp3 sample available here.) The heath-polt, or heath-poult, can be any kind of heath-dwelling bird, but was usually used to refer to the black grouse.

That would have been the end of it, except that, in reading through OED entries, I found the entry for ruff [1]. English, ever-versatile, named a particular small freshwater perch the ruff too. (1496, in the first book on fishing printed in England, from the press of Wynkyn de Worde, A treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle: “The ruf is ryght an holsome fysshe”.) Further, it’s an obsolete word for any kind of sea-bream, with examples of its use from c. 1440 to 1668. Finally, it was, for several centuries, a word for sea urchin, attested to in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, named for its spiky texture. (1591, in Percivall’s Spanish Dictionarie: “an hedgehog,..also a fish called a Ruffe”.)

So, the ruff has been both fish and fowl (and echinoderm), but has never been, as far as I know, a good red herring.

algae stew

There’s nothing like algae stew for evoking “desperate-but-cozy”. Philip Reeve uses it in Predator’s Gold, part of the Hungry Cities quartet of post-apocalyptic young adult steampunk.

She sat out the storm in his kitchen, while the Aakiuqs fed her algae stew and told her about other storms, far worse than this, which dear old Anchorage had come through quite unscathed. (p. 115)

The mobile cities of this world have limited opportunities for crop growth; to survive, they must bring their sustenance-production with them in the form of algae farms, in at least one case. (p. 108)

Metaphorically, “algae stew” is a phrase often used to describe a dense morass of algae suspended in water, i.e. eutrophic waters. As a result, it is a favorite dish for at least a couple of anthropomorphic sea creatures. (See Stella the Starfish and Pagoo, the story of a hermit crab by H.C. Holling.)

Algae generally is a favorite ingredient of grim visions of the future of the world and space travel. (This is a whole topic in its own right.) Stew is a favorite of all sorts of genres. Between them, I’m surprised there aren’t more algae stews out there. Perhaps they’re hidden in all those space travel visions of ambiguously “synthesized” food. The only other specific instance of science fictional algae stew I’ve wandered across, other than the Hungry Cities one, may be in the Star Wars universe: according to at least one source, it’s a specialty of Yoda, a watery dish from a swampy planet.

See also “plankton chowder” in Blish and Knight’s A Torrent of Face. (Encountered via Westfahl’s “For Tomorrow We Dine” in Foods of the Gods.)

liquorice water

Thomas More, in his Utopia, Book II, writes of the Utopian people,

They drink wine made of grapes, apple or pear cider, or simple water, which they sometimes mix with honey or liquorice, of which they have plenty. (From Logan and Adam’s 1989 Cambridge Texts series.)

In the original Latin: “Nam aut uuarum uinum bibunt, aut pomorum, pirorumue, aut denique aquam nonnunquam meram, saepe etiam, qua mel, aut glycyrizam incoxerint, cuius haud exiguam habent copiam.” Glycyrrhiza is still the genus name for the liquorice plant. It has the same Greek root as “glycerine”, meaning “sweet”.

This passage from Utopia is, as far as I know, is the first time I’ve heard of liquorice water.

It was a popular made-at-home drink in Scotland in the early twentieth century known as “sugarelly”. Liquorice root (not the modern candy) was infused into water. William, in the Just William books, apparently drinks it regularly. (A letter written by the books’ author, Richmal Crompton, gives a recipe.) The Egyptian drink Erk-soos is another variation on it.

The plant, more generally, is native to southeast Europe and the Middle East, and has been grown in Britain since at least the thirteenth century, when Henvry II taxed it. Several of Chaucer’s characters chew the root. See also, “The Licorice Fields of Pontefract”.) Liquorice seems to have been a ubiquitous sweetener and medicine in ancient Egypt and Greece and medieval England, at very least. It’s 50-150 times sweet than table sugar, writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. (2004, p. 418)

As for liquorice water more specifically, however: given the lack of detail of food which Henry VIII’s erstwhile lord chancellor otherwise provides, it seems certain that he knew it as a common, healthful drink. Other than Utopia and the Just William books (a rare pairing!), I wonder if the drink shows up in any other works of literature?


In honor of Canadian Thanksgiving, a post about turkey. (It’s also London Restaurant Week. Less relevantly, Chocolate Week in the UK begins today.)

Turkey, the bird, is the most haphazardly named creature I know of. The bird is native to the Americas, to North America or the Yucat√°n, depending on the species. Thus, they were only introduced to the rest of the world in the fifteenth century at the earliest. In no way is the bird from Turkey, even in a period when the term could be used by Western Europeans to describe Muslims generally.

Neither are turkeys related to guinea fowls, which are natives of Africa, although Linneaus classified the North American one as such with the Latin name Meleagris gallopavo, the “guinea fowl chicken-peacock”.

English was not the only language to become geographically disoriented when faced with these birds. In French, the word for them is “dinde”, from “d’Inde”, meaning “of India”. Relatedly, the Dutch word for them, “kalkoen”, which, like the Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Estonian words for the animal, is from the Indian city Calicut. The birds are not Indian any more than they are Turkish, although in Turkish they’re called “hindi”. These languages do have the excuse, at least, that the bird comes from what was originally thought to be India, later the West Indies. They were never from Calicut in any way, though.

In Greek, the word is “gallopoula”, meaning a “French chicken”, while in Egyptian Arabic, it’s a Greek chicken. In Arabic more generically, it’s a Roman chicken. (That sounds more inconsistent than it is; it refers to the Eastern half of the Roman empire, which was based at Constantinople.) The Greek might well derive from a confusion between Gallus and gallus, the Latin words for “Gaul/France” and “a chicken”.

One of the vaguely more accurate names – placing the bird on the right landmass at least – is one of my favorites because it pairs so well with the country/bird confusion which English has in Turkey/turkey; which the bird (of the Galliformes, or chicken-shaped, order of animals), inherited from the Latin Gallus/gallus pair; and which is shown in all the variations on India after which it is named. In Portuguese, and in Hindi thanks to past Portuguese influence, the animal is called “peru”, confusing the bird with yet another country. Turkeys were not introduced to Peru until the sixteenth century; they were, you will recall, from further north in the Americas.

Surely there is no animal named after more countries than this one is!

Paysandu potted tongue

H. Rider Haggard is not well-known for product placements (other than for firearms) in his tales of Englishmen having adventures in colonial Africa. This is why mention in Ch. 5 of She (1886) of “Paysandu” potted tongue stood out. His heroes had washed up on the shores of eastern Africa with only preserved goods to see them through.

Then, taking shelter from the sun under some trees, we made a hearty breakfast off a “Paysandu” potted tongue, of which we had brought a good quantity with us, congratulating ourselves loudly on our good fortune in having loaded and provisioned the boat on the previous day before the hurricane destroyed the dhow.

Paysandu potted tongue sustains the characters for a couple of meals before they are able to start hunting the local wildlife. In the same chapter: “So we lighted a lantern, and made our evening meal off another potted tongue in the best fashion that we could”.

Paysandu is a port, and the second largest city in Uruguay. Its potted tongue – and that of Uruguay generally – were military field staples at the end of the nineteenth and, according to this replica website, and through World War I as well. That tongue had a long history as high-status food for sea voyagers is reflected in the tradition, from long before 1703 until 1915, of giving a newly-commissioned captain in the British Royal Navy a cask of ox-tongues. (J. Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, 121)

While there were other types of containers and preservation methods available, it’s entirely plausible that Holly and his companions, in She, were eating tinned tongue. Delightfully, here is a reproduction of an 1896 label for Paysandu canned ox tongue, as imported to London by McCall & Co. The lively package design would indeed have been an icon of English civility in more ways than one for colonialist travelers washed up after a storm, on the verge of adventure into the unknown

*© S. Worthen 2009