I couldn’t quite believe what I had just read. It wasn’t until 1955 that “hummus” first appeared in English? I was willing to believe the BBC piece on the state-of-hummus in the UK in terms of its modern trendiness, massively growing sales, first appearance in Waitrose in the late ’80s, M&S in 1990. Britain eats 12,000 tons of hummus each year these days, apparently.

1955 just seems so recent for a word import when guidebooks or anthropological studies might have been using it sooner than Elizabeth David in Mediterranean Food. But there it was in the OED, just as the article’s author claimed.

I went looking, but every hit on Google’s ngram viewer for before 1955 for “houmous” seems to be an OCR error for “burnous”. Eleanor Cecilia Donnelly’s 1896 book A Tuscan Magdalen didn’t mean what we would when she was mis-OCR’d as writing, “‘Prostrate thyself in this lone desert place, And in thy houmous muffle up thy face?'”

“mashed chick peas” got me further, but nothing quickly which wasn’t from Latin America or was a pottage. Broadening the scope, there are “chich” pea recipes from the fourteenth century; they’re used in The Forme of Cury. Around the same time, the Wycliffe Bible offers this translation of 2 Sam. xvii. 28 “Fried chichis [Vulg. frixum cicer], and hony.”

But coming back to the main point – the OED sometimes misses out on still-earlier references to something. But in this case, it looks like they’re right after all. “Hummus” was first published in English in 1955 by Elizbaeth David.

laksa (Lyons Seafoods)

A combination of a thoughtful friend and corporate marketing generosity led me to eat dinner last week in a lovely space more usually used for photography shoots. A dozen of us arrived for an event which far surpassed its somewhat unpromising invitation. (A “new range of meal solutions” are not words which should be allowed out into the wild, for starters.)

We were greeted with cocktails made by a flair-wielding bartender, and by representatives of the marketing agency and the brand, Lyons Seafoods, whose products were the evening’s centerpiece. Gorgeous, towering displays in vases of vegetables represented each of the four dishes being launched. The vegetable display was a genius idea on someone’s part. Our conversations looped regularly back around to how impressive and well-done they were.

This was not a meal which began with eating – although there were nibbles to go with our cocktails – but with cooking. We each chose a dish and a chef equipped with a plethora of woks cooked them up, one variety at a time. It doubled as a group deduction as to why professional chefs so often do not use stirring spoons when a home chef would: spoons would carry contaminants from raw to cooked phases of a dish.Also, cooking lots of dishes at once can easily result in spoon-confusion. (I came home and have been practicing tossing my food about in pots ever since. Only one minor disaster so far.)

Along with two others, I opted for the modestly-spicy Malaysian prawn laksa. After being cooked, a food stylist took over for plating and decorating. Our tidy piles of rice and laksa were scattered with micro-coriander and pretty purple violas. A slice of lime completed the presentation.

Since we were sent home with all four of the feeds-two-each quick-cooking variants to try, I can tell you about their commonalities. The meals are designed as easy-to-cook, refridgerated compartments of pre-cut vegetables, fish and/or prawns, and a sauce sachet. None of them are meant to take more than 6 minutes to cook, and none of them did. Admirable attention has been put into texture and color contrast, with all of them featuring a good variety of both. They’re all well-rounded, with enough meat and vegetables built-in for a comfortable portion size. (Not ample; comfortable.)

Of course a lot of thought was put into the design of these meals, but that was brought home in hearing of some of the other tasty dishes developed in early stages of the line which didn’t look to have enough of a market in the UK to make them worth launching. American classics of chowder and jambalaya, for example, did not make the final cut; at least, not for the launch.

My favorite of the four was the Catalan fish stew, whose taste dimensions were rounded out by thin slices of cured chorizo. It’s also the only one with neither gluten nor dairy products among the ingredients.

The Kerala curry had a touch of dairy in the sauce, but no gluten. The Thai sweet chili king prawns had personality, though no real heat; still, it was no rollover dish. It had presence, and I didn’t mind at all eating it for two meals in a row, as ended up happening.

The consensus among the various people I ate these meals with was that they’re solid choices, good food worth eating when an easy-to-cook meal is the right choice. One friend observed her price point for these was right where the introductory offer put them, at £4.99 each.

For now, the Lyons Seafoods dinners are only available in the UK’s 150 largest Sainsburys.

P.S. I have no good etymological source for “laksa”, but it may either come from a kind of noodle whose name, in turn, derives from the Sanskrit “lakshas”, or a hundred thousand; or it dervies from the Cantonese “spicy sand”, for grit of the ground dried prawns in the sauce. I quite like the idea of a stew named after a large number.

rubaboo stew

Zynga is a powerhouse among gaming companies. As of last year, their Farmville was one of the world’s most played games. Their newest, CityVille, garnered a hundred million users within six weeks. That’s approximately the entirely population of Mexico, or a third of the population of the U.S.

I haven’t played either of those games, but a friend lured me into trying out one of Zynga’s other games, Frontierville, with the promise that it offered interesting food-related things. And indeed it did.

About a week and a half ago, a new in-game quest gave users the chance to make something called “rubaboo stew” as a way of welcoming a new character to the game, a French frontier trader named Jacques, complete with bad accent. The stew’s name looked ridiculous, but nothing else the game had previously offered was wholly made up, so I went to have a look for more information.

The stew is exactly what the game says it is: a stew made by fur traders and possible native peoples out of peas and bacon or, more generally, made from peas or corn and animal fat, whether bear or pig. It was often sweetened with a bit of maple syrup.

Until two weeks ago, I’d wager that rubaboo was a fairly obscure word, most likely to be encountered by those immersed in Canadiana. There was a Canadian journal for kids by that name in the 1960s. A 1976 book, Colombo’s Canadian References, says that rubaboo was an Algonquin word for the stew, soup, or broth eaten by fur traders. (The OED agrees.) 1821 was the earliest-recorded English language reference to it.

All sorts of children’s books set in frontier Canada make use of it. Here an excerpt from Willa’s New World: “‘The rubaboo? Onions, turnips, venison…whatever I have. Sometimes dried meat, though not as good as the pemmican we make back home.'” A magazine from 1907, Canadian, describes it as synonymous with pemmican stew. Water, flour, and fat is another frequently-used descriptor of what it contained. Skunks, patridges, and smaller birds could all be incorporated into it.

As of two days after the quest’s release in the game, Google hits only amounted to about 300 for “rubaboo stew”. They’re up to a thousand now. The distinctive imprint which Zynga has put onto references to it is the addition of “stew”, a word which is redundant to the original, but explains what this dish is, very briefly, for the sake of their players. Stew is again a generic word, forgiving of innumerable adjectives, which explains an unfamiliar dish without making it necessary for the casual reader to find out just what rubaboo is or was. “rubaboo” has ten times the number of references as the phrase “rubaboo stew”, but most are to the 1960s children’s magazine, rather than the foodstuff per se.

Stardust Stew

Café World is a popular, poorly-animated restaurant-running game on Facebook. Currently, it has a small selection of alien foods available to serve in-game, such as Martian brain bake and alien sushi. One of these is named Stardust Stew. The lurid blue-green dish looks like onion soup, complete with cheese melted over the top and the sides of the bowl.

One “feature” of the game is that it reduces cooking preparation to mere three steps of active intervention. In this case, the steps are as follows:

  1. Chop fusion rods
  2. Sift stars
  3. Dice Gort root

After those steps, it’s left to boil. (Not simmer.) The short-hand recipe is not meant to be comprehensible – it’s alien cuisine – but the verbs are all still English so, at a certain level, the reader can still follow along with the method of cooking. Still, what kind of stars are these that we can sift them? What kind of kitchen gizmo (and protective equipment) would be required to chop fusion rods? Gort root looks kind of like ginger; does it grow like ginger too? How large a pot does this recipe require?

Speaking of stardust and stew, and since stew is on my mind from working on edits on a related article, stew appears regularly in the Neil Gaiman novel, Stardust. Secondary characters eat bowlfuls of mutton stew, while the hero consumes an apparently meat-free one of vegetables, beans, and barley. (Gaiman uses stew in most of his fantasy novels.) I would go into more detail, but I don’t know where I’ve mislaid my copy; there’s only so far Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature and Google Books between them can compensate for a wandering physical copy.

porpoise porridge

Porpoise porridge has been minorly in the news recently, an event not likely to happen again anytime soon. It’s in the news because it’s a recipe which appears in The Forme of Cury(e), one of the earliest cookbooks written in English, specifically Middle English. It was written by a chef working in the court of Richard II. It’s a well-known cookbook as a result.

It was from this book that most of the recipes came when one of my departments held a medieval feast. It was from this book that all the recipes came when I took a medieval cooking workshop several summers ago. Editions of it have been available online and offline for years. What’s new is that this summer, back in June, the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester put a digitized version of the original manuscript online.

The porpoise has been monopolizing headlines. The BBC announced the release of the digitized manuscript with “14th Century cookbook goes online. Recipes for porpoise, pike and blancmange from a 14th Century cookbook have been made available online by the John Rylands University of Manchester library.”

This week, the two other major UK newspapers caught up with this year’s events, inspired by the press release for a tasting session based on the cookbook, held at the library’s café. On the 2nd, The Telegraph’s article was entitled “How to cook porpoise, and other 600-year-old recipies” [sic]. The Daily Mail, on the 4th, used the headline “Porpoise porridge, Sire? World’s oldest recipe book reveals dishes English kings enjoyed 600 years ago”. (Larsdatter’s Medieval Material Culture Blog comments on the factual error in the latter headline.)

All the these articles leave out their centerpiece, however. How does one make “furmente with porpeys”? The book offers two recipes. (There’s also a recipe for “porpeys in broth” but “porpoise soup” doesn’t have the same alliterative appeal.) I’ll give you the more detailed of the two.

A furment (“frumenty” in modern English) is a kind of porridge, made from wheat. It comes from the Latin, frumentum (wheat), unlike porridge which comes from the Latin word for “leek”, porrum.

Take clene whete and bete it small in a morter and fanne out clene the doust, þenne waisthe it clene and boile it tyl it be tendre and broun. þanne take the secunde mylk of Almaundes & do þerto. boile hem togidur til it be stondyng, and take þe first mylke & alye it up wiþ a penne. take up the porpays out of the Furmente & leshe hem in a dishe with hoot water. & do safroun to þe furmente. and if the porpays be salt. seeþ it by hym self, and serue it forth.

In modern English, slightly adapted: “Take clean wheat and crush it into powder in a mortar. Aerate it to clean out the dust, then wash it clean and boil it until it’s tender and brown. Then take the second milk of Almonds and do the same thing. [i.e. Powder, aerate, boil?] Boil them together until they are thick. Then take the first milk and mix it up with a feather. Take the porpoise out of the frumenty and leave it in a dish with hot water. Add saffron to the frumenty. And if the porpoise be salted, set it by itself and serve it forth.” The recipe, like every other in The Forme of Cury, is non-specific about quantities and cooking times.

In practice, the porpoise – from Latin “pig-fish” (porcus + piscis), via Old French – is a group of protected species, and thus illegal to hunt and eat in many places, including the US and the UK, so the recipe is not actually likely to be of much use to you.

*© S. Worthen 2009