Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Month: June 2015

Wellington and Napoleon 2

Waterloo 200: Wellingtons and Napoleons

The first half of Feast and Phrase’s Waterloo 200 special examined historical accounts of what soldiers ate during the campaign. In the second, it’s time for mains and desserts: wellingtons, napoleons, and other edible associations with two of history’s military masterminds.

The Duke of Wellington’s name has been used for many things. In 1840, the New Zealand Company bestowed it on their small North Island settlement, honouring the commander’s support of their business. That became the national capital in 1865, and has remained so ever since. Antique lovers can buy ‘Wellington chests’ – drawers with locking covers, designed for military use when travelling. Most well-known of all are ‘wellington boots’ or ‘wellies’: initially knee-length leather footwear, now synthetically produced for a rainy day. Coming from them is ‘give it some welly’, that delightful expression for ‘giving a bit more force to something’.

It might feel logical to assume that puff pastry ‘wellingtons’ – whether filled with beef, fish, beans, or even tofu – follow the same tradition, but the matter is unclear. Despite a lack of evidence, various sources have claimed that ‘beef wellington’ is so called because the Duke was fond of eating it, or because of the pastry’s supposed resemblance to a wellington boot (this second reason, as journalist Leah Hyslop rightly adds, ‘depends on the cook in question being outstandingly awful’).

Carrot WellingtonCarrot wellingtons in the Narcissa Restaurant, NYC. Photo by Flickr user T.Tseng.

An early written reference to a dish bearing this name may be found in The Los Angeles Times of 28 October, 1903: ‘Fillet of beef, a la Wellington.’ However, this seems to be something else entirely, calling for the meat to be consumed with chutney. A record of the pastry version can first be seen in a New York dining guide from 1939:

Tenderloin of Beef Wellington… Larded tenderloin of beef. Roast very rare. Allow to cool and roll into pie crust… Slice in portions and serve with sauce Madire.’

                        Diana Ashley, Where to dine in Thirty-nine (1939).

Beef wellingtons as known today appear to have come from the United States; Hyslop notes food writer Theodora FitzGibbon’s suggestion that they may have had Irish precursors which crossed the Atlantic. More certain than any guessing after origins is that their inclusion in the ground-breaking American publication Mastering the Art of French Cooking led to a surge in popularity from the 1960s onwards. The Oxford English Dictionary gives earlier examples of recipes ‘à la Wellington’ which were named after the Duke. Two ‘Wellington pudding’ desserts stand out: one from 1827, featuring plums; the other from 1881, with ‘puff paste’ and ‘some apricot jam’.

Beef WellingtonBeef wellington. Photo uploaded by Flickr user Elsie Hui.

Earlier still are written mentions of ‘Wellington Apples’large cooking apples with a pale yellow exterior. These were brought to London around 1820 by one Richard Williams, who had received them from the Leicestershire Gopsal Hall estate ‘under the name of Wellington’, which quickly became widespread. This variety is more commonly referred to by its initial name of ‘Dumelow’s Crab’ or ‘Dumelow’s Seedling’, after the 18th century farmer who bred them, Richard Dumelow. Insistence on this occurred from the very beginning. Williams sent samples to the Horticultural Society, which, viewing the whole renaming affair as most improper, expressed its displeasure:

‘This Apple affords another instance of the impropriety of giving new names to fruits already named. […] There can be no doubt as to the propriety of restoring its original name, by which it is so extensively known in the neighbourhood where it was first produced.’

           In Transactions, of the Horticultural Society of London, Volume IV (1822).

640px-Royal_Horticultural_Society_(4624387791)A commemorative plaque for the founding of what is now known as the Royal Horticultural Society. It was the Horticultural Society of London to begin with, gaining a royal charter and its present name in 1861. Image located via Wikimedia Commons.

There are several fruity links to Napoleon’s name. ‘Napoleon Bigarreau’ is a type of cherry with white flesh – a ‘magnificent cherry, of mammoth size’, as an 1864 copy of The Canada Farmer testifies. Robert Hogg’s Fruit Manual of 1860 lists a ‘Napoléon’ pear, now quite uncommon. Other titles for it include Gloire de l’Empereur (‘Glory of the Emperor’) and Captif de St. Hélène (‘Captive of Saint Helena’); a fitting reflection of Bonaparte’s rise and fall. Described in the same work is the ‘Emperor Napoléon’, a large gooseberry with smooth red skin.

Longwood HouseLongwood House: Napoleon’s home on the British island of St Helena during his captivity from 1815 until his death in 1821. Photo by Flickr user David Stanley.

 ‘Napoleon brandy’ is ‘brandy thought to be of great age or merit’. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a line from Cole Porter’s 1934 hit song, ‘You’re the Top’, which carries that sense of immense worth: ‘You’re the top! You’re Mahatma Gandhi. You’re the top! You’re Napoleon brandy.’ For all that, don’t be fooled – the next example is from wine writer Creighton Churchill, who states in a 1967 book that ‘‘Napoleon Brandy’ ranks high among some of the more transparent promotional myths of the industry.’ Such an opinion is seconded in the Cambridge World History of Food: cognac can get better with around 50 years of aging, but anything more is unlikely to have an effect. Brandy lasting from the Napoleonic era is apparently nothing more than a legend; were it to exist, it would not be palatable.

‘Mille-feuille’ pastries (termed so because of their many layers; mille feuilles being French for a thousand leaves) are also called ‘napoleons’ in various countries of the world, such as the United States and Romania. The early 1900s saw the creation of an Iranian ‘napoleon’, which was a mille-feuille baklava with rosewater flavouring. None have any relation to the Emperor; the word is a corruption of Napolitano, ‘pertaining to Naples’, either indicating that the delicacy originally came from the Italian city or was named out of respect for its pastry-making renown.

Mille-FeuilleA mini mille-feuille with vanilla bourbon. Image from Flickr user puce576.

Considering the previous article’s focus on what soldiers ate, it would be appropriate to explore Wellington and Napoleon’s own dietary habits. As touched on before, a lack of supplies affected commanders and troops alike, and both missed home comforts. Returning to England in 1814 after six years away, the Duke is said to have ordered ‘an unlimited supply of buttered toast’ at the Ship Inn, Dover. An acquaintance, George Robert Gleig, wrote of his routine at home as follows:

‘His general habits, to which he adhered to the last, may be thus described. […] At seven he dined. The Duke ate but twice a day, at breakfast and dinner. Though not a large feeder he ate fast, and had an excellent appetite. He was never given to much wine, and in later years found it advisable to cease from the use of it altogether. But the hospitalities of his table were generous.’

George Robert Gleig, The Life of Arthur, First Duke of Wellington (1862).

Duke of WellingtonThe Wellington Statue by Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1846). Originally on the Wellington Arch in London, it was moved to Round Hill, Aldershot, in 1885. Image from Flickr user Fotorus.

Bearing in mind that conflict situations do not exactly allow for leisurely meals, it is hardly surprising to find out that Wellington was a fast eater, and even less so to learn that Napoleon was the same:

‘Napoleon eat and slept according to the time, circumstances and situation in which he found himself; […] “Doctors,” said he to Antommarchi, “have the ordering of the table; it is but fair that I give you a description of mine; this is how it is arranged, one dish of soup, two of meat, one of vegetables, a salad when I can have it, compose the whole. I take half a bottle of claret much diluted, and a little pure at the end of dinner. For the rest I eat quickly and masticate little, for my meals do not take much of my time. You do not approve of that, but in my situation what is the advantage of mastication?”’

In The Table Talk and Opinions of Napoleon Buonaparte (1870).

Jacques-Louis_David_-_Napoleon_Crossing_the_Alps_-_Schloss_ChThe famous painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by French artist Jacques-Louis David (1800). This is a noteworthy piece of propaganda – Napoleon actually crossed the Alps on the back of a mule! Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Historical author Shannon Selin points out that Bonaparte was incredibly fond of liquorice, eating it so frequently that it may have been responsible for discolouring his teeth. Such was his love of the stuff that he insisted on drinking nothing but liquorice water when dying. One can only speculate whether he might have enjoyed Napoleon cherries and pears, and it is intriguing to imagine the Duke tucking into a beef wellington were he alive today. Would Bonaparte have seen the appeal of Napoleon brandy? Quite possibly – though he may also have put it aside for another glass of liquorice drink.


Waterloo 200: Battlefield Victuals

In this two-part 200th anniversary special, Feast and Phrase looks at the food and words linked to the Battle of Waterloo. First course: Written accounts of battlefield feeding.

What food did soldiers have during the Waterloo Campaign of 1815? The frequent attribution of the popular saying ‘an army marches on its stomach’ to French leader Napoleon makes it all the more appropriate to ask. A collection of accounts published in the same year as the battle gives some idea of how those in the field ate – and how they didn’t:

‘The whole of the 17th, and indeed until late the next morning, the weather continued dreadful; and we were starving with hunger, no provision having been served out since the march from Brussels. While five officers who composed our mess were looking at each other with the most deplorable faces imaginable, one of the men brought us a fowl he had plundered, and a handful of biscuits, which, though but little, added to some tea we boiled in a camp-kettle, made us rather more comfortable; and we huddled up together, covered ourselves with straw, and were soon as soundly asleep as though reposing on beds of down.’

‘Letter from an Officer to his Friend in Cumberland’, in The Battle of Waterloo, published by John Booth (1815).

De_Slag_bij_Waterloo_Rijksmuseum_SK-A-1115.jpegDe Slag bij Waterloo (The Battle of Waterloo), by Dutch artist Jan Willem Pieneman (1824). Located via Wikimedia Commons. The featured image at the top of this article is Wellington at Waterloo by English painter Robert Alexander Hillingford, also found on Wikimedia Commons. Grand and impressive as both works are, they show a very different reality to that endured by the combatants.

Difficulty getting supplies to British troops and their European allies during clashes before and during 18 June meant that many were fighting on low fuel. The French were similarly afflicted, with their support wagons falling behind as they advanced into Belgium. As evidenced above, fighting was fed by foraging, which made up for direly insufficient rations. The process could drain areas of resources – one report by a French eyewitness almost seems to liken it to a Biblical plague:

‘As soon as the troops had taken even a momentary position in the vicinity of a village, they rushed like water from a broken dam over all the country beneath; corn, cattle, bread, meat, even household furniture, linen and clothes disappeared in an instant. The village became a mass of ruins; empty houses; broken doors, and the inhabitants flying into the woods and fields. The adjacent fields, hitherto covered with the promise of a rich harvest, seemed like the straw in a stable trodden under foot; and the fires of the bivouacks, leaving their blackening traces in meadows and corn fields, seemed to mark so many places which had been struck by thunder.’

From The Journal of the Three Days of the Battle of Waterloo, translated from the French (1816).

Waterloo_campaign_mapA plan of the Waterloo Campaign, located via Wikimedia Commons.

Finding enough food in a conflict situation is one problem; finding enough time to eat it is another. A British officer’s description of the lead up to the Battle of Quatre Bras (two days prior to Waterloo) shows the overriding force of urgency and orders:

‘[…] we had scarcely rested ourselves, and commenced dressing the rations, which had been served out at Enghien, when an Aide-de-Camp from the Duke of Wellington arrived, and ordered us instantly under arms, and to advance with all speed to Les Quatre Bras, where the action was going on with the greatest fury, and where the French were making rapid strides towards the object they had in view […] The order was, of course, instantly obeyed; the meat which was cooking, was thrown away; the kettles, &c. packed up, and we proceeded, as fast as our tired legs would carry us, towards a scene of slaughter, which was a prelude well calculated to usher in the bloody tragedy of the 18th.’

‘Extract of a Letter from an Officer in the Guards’ (21 June 1815), in The Battle of Waterloo, published by John Booth (1815).

Wollen,_Battle_of_Quatre_BrasThe Black Watch at Bay, by British painter William Barns Wollen (1894). The Scottish regiment is shown fighting at the Battle of Quatre Bras. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Following victory, the trouble with provisions continued. Some British soldiers ‘slept supperless in the fields’; others hunting for sustenance found French huts full of meat which was dealt with so hurriedly that it was rendered inedible:

‘[…] scattered over their floors were numerous fragments of meat partly raw, partly half-cooked, which in the hurry of some movement had been thrown away. The British soldiers were very hungry, but they could not bring themselves to taste these viands […] raw meat of every description in abundance – beef, pork, and mutton; but it had been so beaten about in the hurry of the strife, and was so vilely dressed – the very hides being in many instances left upon the morsels, and these but indifferently bled’.

George Robert Gleig, Story of the Battle of Waterloo (1847).

Napoleon_French_Lancer_by_BellangeA Lancer in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, or ‘Great Army’. Illustration by Horace Vernet in Laurent de l’Ardèche’s Histoire de l’Empereur Napoléon (History of the Emperor Napoleon), published in 1843. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

According to the National Army Museum, a British soldier’s basic everyday ration during the Napoleonic Wars was a pound of meat – fresh or salted – and the equivalent weight of bread biscuits.  Other items could include oats, cheese, vegetables, rice, and alcohol. The biscuits were generally made of wheat, with added barley in times of poor harvest. Their tough, solid texture earned them the name ‘hard tack’, while normal bread was known as ‘soft tack’.

One such biscuit is featured in the museum’s online showcase of ‘200 Objects from Waterloo’; another eye-catching food-related item is a nutmeg grater made of silver. This was the possession of Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, an Irish officer who served under Wellington but missed Waterloo as he was honeymooning at the time! Given the high cost of the spice due to Dutch monopolies on trade, to have and to use such a piece of equipment was an unmistakeable indicator of wealth. It also allowed for much more exotic meals than those on standard rations might enjoy. Wellington apparently remarked that Cole gave ‘the best dinners in the army’, while his own were ‘no great things’. Not that officers lived a life of complete luxury – if supplies were strained, they suffered with their men.

Bryan DonkinAn image of British industrialist Bryan Donkin, who revolutionized food storage by being the first person to mass-preserve goods in tin cans. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

One innovation which made an appearance at Waterloo was canned food. As Tom Standage writes in An Edible History of Humanity, this developed from a preservation technique of sealing food in bottles, thought up by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1749. In the 1810s, a merchant by the name of Peter Durand received the first patent to do so in England, later selling it to British industrialist Bryan Donkin. He replaced the bottles with cans, and the technology took off. Can openers were not invented until around fifty years later, so soldiers would have to prise their rations free using a trusty bayonet or chisel.

British Rations21st century British rations: A 24-hour Multi-Climate Ration (MCR) pack developed by the Ministry of Defence in 2009. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Canned foods are common sights in modern ration packs, which can feature everything from squid to Szechuan noodles for a taste of home, depending on their country of origin. To note this and recall men in the first source ‘starving with hunger’ and ‘looking at each other with the most deplorable faces imaginable’ makes it all the more clear: whether meat and biscuits or stuffed peppers and halva, food plays an essential part in boosting morale. 


Cheesy, Corny, Cringey Biscuit

‘Cheesy’: a word with associations from the embarrassing to the unmistakeably delicious. The Oxford English Dictionary gives four main definitions, with three ‘draft additions’ showcasing more recent developments in meaning. It can be used in the first sense for something ‘abounding in cheese’ (think fondue and Quattro Formaggi) or being ‘of the nature of cheese’ (which has quite a philosophical ring to it). What is ‘the nature of cheese’? Discuss. On the subject, it is worth highlighting that the English ‘cheese’ comes from the Latin for the foodstuff, caseus.

Nature of CheeseMusing on ‘the nature of cheese’. Cheesily edited together using a picture by Flickr user m01229 of Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ and an image of a cheese plate by photographer Jon Sullivan.

The second sense is medical, describing a pathological condition with the appearance or consistency of cheese, for example:

‘Cheesy plugs often occlude the bronchial tubes.’

Austin Flint, A treatise on the principles and practice of medicine (1881).

This may be hard to take seriously given the food-related significance of the term, which makes the quotation almost sound like the consequence of talking with your mouth full while eating mozzarella bites. Medical terminology now replaces ‘cheesy’ with ‘caseous’; a clear reflection of the Latin caseus.

One such phrase is ‘caseous necrosis’, also known as ‘caseous degeneration’, which the American Heritage Medical Dictionary defines as ‘a type of tissue death in which all cellular outline is lost and tissue appears crumbly and cheeselike, usually seen in tuberculosis’. That is definitely more squirm-inducing than savoury.

Cheese Fondue It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an image of fondue is considerably less distressing than one of caseous necrosis. Courtesy of Flickr user Pedro Cerqueira.

The modern colloquial use of ‘cheesy’, indicating something overdone or too nostalgic which may still be somewhat likeable – such as ‘cheesy music’ or ‘cheesy jokes’ –  is listed as a draft addition. It seems to have developed from the third definition, which moves away from food entirely. Current in the mid-1800s, this slang version of the word conveyed something ‘fine or showy’:

‘To see him at Tattersall’s sucking his cane, his cheesy hat well down on his nose.’

Robert Smith Surtees, Ask mamma; or, The richest commoner in England (1858).

A different ‘cheese’ was responsible for this – not from the Latin caseus, but from the Persian and Urdu cheez, or ‘thing’. Picked up during the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent, it was spelt in the same fashion as the edible variety and came to signify ‘a notable thing’. From the 1900s onwards, it denoted ‘wealth’ or ‘fame’ – this was the original sense of ‘the big cheese’:

‘Del had crawled from some Tenth Avenue basement like a lean rat and had bitten his way into the Big Cheese… He had danced his way into..fame in sixteen minutes.’

O. Henry, ‘The Unprofitable Servant’ (1910).

Mammoth CheeseA modern replica of the 22,000 pound (9979 kg) ‘Mammoth Cheese’  which was originally produced in Perth (Ontario, Canada) and displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Photo uploaded by Wikimapia user lanarkcounty.

According to The Phrase Finder, the expression may have taken on its modern meaning of ‘the most important individual’ through the influence of giant wheels of cheese, or ‘big cheeses’. These were created as promotional products and cut for the public by well-known figures like politicians. As Douglas Harper of the Online Etymology Dictionary points out, to ‘cut a big cheese’ was another way of saying to ‘look important’.

The ‘fine or showy’ sense gradually altered as these idioms were applied in an increasingly mocking manner, hence the fourth definition: ‘Inferior, second-rate, cheap and nasty’. It can be tricky to differentiate between this and the prevailing colloquialism ‘cheesy’ which developed from it, an early written record of which occurs in the script of a film from the Second World War:

‘Of all the cheezy [sic] songs I ever heard..that one certainly takes the crackers.’

Hail the Conquering Hero, directed by Preston Sturges (1943).

Mozzarella and Tomato BitesTomato and mozzarella bites. Not for inhalation. From the ProFlowers blog; uploaded on Flickr.

Not to ignore another gastronomical idiom, ‘takes the crackers’ looks to be an American variation on ‘taking the biscuit’, used to imply that something causes displeasure or astonishment, for instance: ‘You ate all my mozzarella bites? That really takes the biscuit.’ Both seem to have arisen from ‘taking the cake’, which has more of a sense of superiority or ‘carrying off honours’, as well as showing surprise.

That has its origins in the ‘cake walk’ contests held by African American communities of the southern states between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Participants would display their style; cakes were given to the victors. There is evidence that a similar phrase was used in Ancient Greece in reference to winning, but none to suggest that this had any influence on the English. A ‘cakewalk’ can now mean ‘something easy’, much like ‘a walk in the park’.

1896 Cake-walk PosterAn 1896 cake walk advertisement. From the Library of Congress.

Researching this reminded me of when a friend in school once asked if I had ever heard the expression ‘takes the cringey biscuit’. I hadn’t then, and a Google now doesn’t bring up any relevant results. In the spirit of wordsmithery, as with my previous ‘lemonage’ attempt, I suggest adopting it:

‘Take the cringey biscuit’: To be cringe-inducingly bad.

e.g. ‘Sing?! That would take the cringey biscuit.’

e.g. ‘Your continued mention of mozzarella bites takes all the cringey biscuits.’

Synonymous to some extent with ‘cringey’ and ‘cheesy’ is ‘corny’. This was initially used in the 1930s with regards to music played in a rustic or ‘corn-fed’ style, which was seen as outdated. Aside from the immediate sense of ‘relating to corn’, there are some older, obscure definitions which are not associated with the crop. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language gives ‘strong or hard like horn’, coming from the Latin for horn, cornu.

‘Corns’ on the skin are from the same word; ‘corny’ in the 18th and 19th centuries carried the meaning of ‘having corns on the feet’ or ‘pertaining to corns’. Examples from the 1800s show that ‘corny’ and ‘corned’ could also mean ‘drunk’, while ‘corny-faced’ from 1699 describes a person who has a very ‘Red or Blue pimpled Phiz’, or countenance. Whether or not that is caused by drink is another question.

Corny in Johnson's Dictionary 1785The entry for ‘corny’ in a 1785 printing of Johnson’s Dictionary. Located using Internet Archive.

A spread of other food-linked adjectives relate to ‘cheesy’ and ‘corny’. ‘Schmaltzy’ is queasily fitting for making known that something is sickeningly sentimental, deriving from the German and Yiddish for edible bird fat. Like ‘corn’, ‘schmaltz’ was also applied to music:

Schmaltz (cf. the German schmalz, meaning grease) is a derogatory term used to describe straight jazz.’

Vanity Fair (New York), November 71/2 (1935).

‘Syrupy’ and ‘treacly’ perform much the same role. Together with ‘schmaltzy’, they are logical choices for indicating excessiveness due to the excessive qualities of their respective foods. This is less the case with the negative ‘cheesy’ and ‘corny’ – for the vast majority of people, there is nothing obviously disagreeable about cheese and corn. ‘Cheesy’ is employed so frequently in connection to commonplace things that cheez and its indication of status is hardly apparent. Likewise, the social judgement on country culture in ‘corny’ is easily overlooked.

Lyle's Treacle and SyrupBritish classics: Lyle’s Black Treacle and Golden Syrup. The design for Golden Syrup has remained virtually the same since 1885, winning it the Guinness World Record for ‘Oldest branding (packaging)’ in 2006. Image uploaded by Flickr user Richard Rutter.

Exploring etymologies not only brings this to light; it also makes it all the more tempting to imagine how the words will be utilized in the future. Could ‘cheesy’ return to being specifically positive? Perhaps ‘corny’ and ‘schmaltzy’ might see a reversal. Will ‘cringey biscuit’ ever establish itself? Were it ever to do so – well, that would certainly take the cake.

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