stewed tea

Perusing early uses of “stew”, I noticed that “stewed tea” warranted its own OED notes. It made perfect sense: it’s the only case in which “stewed” reliably means “overcooked”, unless, of course, you prefer your dried fruits unrehydrated in any way or know someone inevitably prone to overcooking all foods.

The earliest use of “stewed tea” the dictionary has is from 1908. The phrase appears in Arnold Bennett’s novel, Old Wives’ Tale. Two new guests arrive at a hotel, avidly watched by the assembled guests, gathered for afternoon tea: “They vanished quietly upstairs in convoy of the manager’s wife, and they did not re-appear for the lounge tea, which in any case would have been undrinkably stewed.”

Rudyard Kipling uses the phrase twice in his 1926 collection of short stories, Debits and Credits, in “The Wish House” and “A Friend of the Family”. (The stories were written between 1923 and 1925.) In both cases, it is part of a larger repast, whether “buttered toast, currant bread, stewed tea, bitter as leather, some home-preserved pears, and a cold boiled pig’s tail to help down the muffins” in the first case, or “stewed tea with your meat four times a day”, as in the second.

A few intriguing snippets from Google Books pushes the earliest date of its use further back, if those dates of publication are correct. In 1905, a local education authority in Great Britain advised that “If you take this stewed tea it will prevent you from getting the proper goodness out of your food.” It continues on to recommend that tea being drunk promptly after brewing. In 1904, Vol. 8 of The Queen Cookery Books uses it, although the available excerpt is not enough to provide anything more than a description of what stewed tea is.

In any event, “stewed tea”, as a phrase, first shows up in print at the beginning of the twentieth century, leaving me wondering about the earlier history of words used to describe over-steeped tea. Quickly checking Google Books again: “Over brewed tea” goes back at least to 1884. “Over steeped tea”, a rarer phrase, at least to 1915. And before 1884?


After a day of fast food, I was pining for plants. Rhetorically, I vowed to eat only vegetables the following day. “Broccoli for breakfast! Lettuce for lunch!” And then I stalled. I couldn’t think of a single vegetable beginning with D. Dill and dandelion leaves were not compelling options.

I was in the car at the time, but when I arrived at our destination, our host kindly got out her copy of The Complete Book of Vegetables to search out an answer. (There are several books by that name; I didn’t think at the time to check author and year.) That’s how I first heard of both dasheen and the doodhi gourd.

“Dasheen” is a name for the tubers of the taro plant, members of the Colocasia genus. I know taro; I’d never heard dasheen. The word seems to have originated as a creole version of the French phrase “de Chine”, that is, “from China”. In other words, like the turkey, it is a plant named for its supposed place of origin.

In French, the plant isn’t called “dechine”, however, in the same way that turkey is “dinde” (lit. “from India”); it’s called “taro” or, after its Latin name, “colocase”. Funnily enough, it would be more accurate to call taro “dinde” than it is to call it “dasheen”, since the root’s cultivation originated in India at least 7000 years ago, according to The Oxford Companion to Food. At least “dasheen” is not as wrong as “dinde”, since the turkey bird is from the Americas, an entirely different continent, while taro really has been cultivated in China, from sometime before 100 BCE.

The OED gives the earliest known use of “dasheen” as 1899, when it had long since been established in the Caribbean, as well as in the tropical parts of Central and South America. With the exception of my original source, the other reference sources I consulted all listed “dasheen” under “taro”, rather than vice versa. The name is widely used for the root vegetable in parts of the West Indies.

So: “Broccoli for breakfast, lettuce for lunch, and dasheen for dinner.” The Complete Book of Vegetables alleviated my alliterative lack even if, as a diet, it lacks a great deal.

Martian madness

In the early 1970s, at Betsy Ballantine’s request, Anne McCaffrey coordinated a large number of science fiction authors in the publication of a cookbook, Cooking Out of This World. With a title and a cohort like that, one would logically expect a certain degree of science fiction-like cuisine within.

Instead, the book is largely a collection of minimalist or at least easy-and-inexpensive recipes, designed for the starving and cash-poor author or college student rather than as a science fictional exploration of food in its own right. There is, for example, a total lack of food pill recipes, that staple of unappetizing futures. None of the names of dishes are totally made up words.

At best, the recipes are named allusively rather than literally. A “tortilla saucer” is a minor fancy, since tortillas are approximately saucer shaped to begin with. “Deadline stew” is almost self-explanatory. “Cosmic minestrone” is a copious amount of minestrone made with earthly ingredients. Most of the recipes are named literally, such as “Fish steamed in wine”. As a general rule, I’m all in favor of clear labeling; but the lack of coinages is striking in a book written by science fiction authors, and makes me interested in knowing how typical this is or is not of fictional food in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

“Martian madness”, by Bob Shaw, is one of the few exceptions. It is not obvious to me, at least, what it is from its name alone. (Although I can safely say it’s not an iPhone app.) It is a dessert confection of crushed digestive biscuits, buttery chocolate sauce, rum, candied cherries, and icing, designed to look vaguely like Mars (cherries) surrounded by two dots of icing (moons) in space. It’s also so full of calories that its eater is better off in the fractional gravity of Mars than the heavier gravity of Earth after he or she has eaten it.

The other exceptions in the cookbook are mostly written by Ursula Le Guin, and tied to books I have not yet read. A sequel to the 1973 cookbook, Serve it Forth, was published in 1996.


“Great Dunmow: historic flitch town” reads the road sign on the A120 as it passes the town in question. After years of very occasionally driving by, I finally remembered to look up the word on returning home, expecting that it would be of some architectural or mining term. But no. In the Great Dunmow sense, a flitch is a side of bacon, a preserved half of a pig.

The Great Dunmow Flitch Trials test the happiness of married couples, who must convince a jury that they have never once wished themselves not married. The competition has been around at least since the fourteenth century, when Chaucer referred to it in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. (lines 217-8: “The bacon was nat fet for hem, I trowe, / That som men han in essex at dunmowe.” ) Once yearly, they now take place every four years. The next one will be in July of 2012. The prize, awardable to multiple couples in a given trial, is a flitch.

A form of it, flicci, was used in Old English (c. 700) and “flitch” was regularly found in Middle English inventories, wills, and other lists of possessions. (From a York will in 1462: “iiij. bakon-fliks, ij. beffe-fliks”) In his Ovid-inspired parodic poem, Baucis and Philemon (1710), Jonathan Swift used it:

And then the hospitable Sire
Bid goody Baucis mend the fire;
While he from out the chimney took
A flitch of bacon off the hook,
And freely from the fattest side
Cut out large slices to be fried;

Its use continued at least through the nineteenth century when a George Elliot character from Adam Bede (1859), weighted with local accent, observes,

“But what’s th’ matter wi’ th’ lad? Thee’t hardly atin’ a bit o’ supper. Dostna mean to ha’ no more nor that bit o’ oat-cake? An’ thee lookst as white as a flick o’ new bacon. What’s th’ matter wi’ thee?”

A Derbyshire stalactite is named, analogously, the Flitch of Bacon.

“Flitch” was not used exclusively to refer to pork. Originally, it could refer to any side of meat (see the “beffe” mentioned above). In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it was also used to refer to cuts of whale and halibut. Knight’s Mechanical Dictionary (1884, IV.348) defines “flitching knives” as “for slicing halibut into steaks or flitches.”

So. Great Dunmow: historic flitch town. No whale, no halibut, no beef, no stalactites. The winners of the trials, instead, bring home the bacon.

odorra pod

Consider the odorra pod. It grows in an Egyptianesque climate and is, for whatever reason, relatively rare. It may be hard to grow. It’s a cheery pink, long and narrow, contrasting with the plant’s vivid green leaves. It’s not a smooth pod, but scalloped, the lumps likely tracing interior beans. The pod is hard to open, although quite how hard, I cannot tell you: does it require pliers? In any event, when sufficiently boiled, it becomes a dish so covetable that it is traditionally served to its native land’s royal family as a first course.

There. Now you are one of the world’s experts on the odorra pod. There is nothing else to know about it. Not the plant it grows on, not its genus and species, not its care and feeding. Unless its creators choose to make up more about it, I have given you all there is to know about the subject.

The odorra pod, you see, is a fictional food with a made-up name. It exists on the all-ages gaming website Neopets, where it can be sold, bought, and eaten, although what it tastes like, I do not know.

Never before have so many food names been made up so frequently. Humans are immensely creative in the foods they create, but they don’t often coin wholly new words to describe them. Made-up food names, however, are a staple of many kinds of worlds from fantasy and science fiction, and a quick way to give verisimilitude to the alienness of a different world or place. They mimic the sheer variety of food and food-words among cultures in the real world. As a consequence, the burgeoning market for gaming in fantastical surroundings has led to more foods being made up. As players explore a world, they can encounter new and strange edibles, sketched out superficially.

In novels, there’s generally an incentive to limit the number of made-up foods, as there’s only so many invented words that a reader can feasibly learn without being distracted from the story. (See xkcd and Jo Walton’s recent column for Tor on made-up words.)

In explorable online worlds, in contrast, there is no effective limit, as each new creation adds the illusion of depth. Most of those foods, however, are no more well-rounded than the graphics which define them, and the assumptions about recognizable words within their names (“pod”) that the reader brings to them.

*© S. Worthen 2009