Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Month: July 2015

Tonka Beans

A Tonka Bean Mystery

Yesterday’s Celebrity MasterChef final left its audience with a head-scratching conundrum after former Pussycat Doll Kimberly Wyatt made a tonka bean and vanilla soufflé under the guidance of Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett.

headscratcherThe likely expression of most viewers when the arcane ingredient was announced. Image uploaded by johnny_automatic at Openclipart. The featured image for this article is from Flickr user Fred Benenson.

There were amusing sprinkles of confusion and speculation on Twitter:

Tonka Bean Tweets 2

I too made a link with Tonka trucks, then blurted out, ‘Back it up like a tonka bean. ¡Dale!’ in a weird homage to Pitbull’s line from the 2011 Jennifer Lopez hit, ‘On the Floor’.

Tonka Truck 1978A Tonka truck from 1978. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, no particular connection exists between tonka beans and Tonka trucks. The legendary brand was founded in Minnesota during the mid-1940s as ‘Mound Metalcraft’, a gardening equipment company. Following a business acquisition, they began making toy vehicles and changed their name to ‘Tonka’, taken from Lake Minnetonka. In the Native American Dakota language, mni is ‘water’, while tonka, tanka, or taåka is ‘big’. Minnetonka is therefore ‘Big Water’.

Lake MinnetonkaThe ‘big waters‘ of Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota. Picture from Flickr user edkohler.

Tonka beans are the seeds of the leguminous South American tree Dipteryx odorata. Around an inch in length, they are like blackish almonds or large raisins to the eye, with a scent similar to vanilla, if somewhat spicier. Shavings can be used to infuse dishes, with the whole product also being soaked in alcohol to extract its flavour.

The name derives from the term for the bean in Guyanese Creole. Its ultimate meaning is not known, but English variants in the eighteenth century included tonga, tonqua, and tonquin, as in this early example:

‘The tonquin beans are said to grow in a thick pulp, something like a walnut, and on a large tree.’

John Gabriel Stedman, Narrative, of a five years’ expedition (1796).

Tonka Beans JamieAnneTonka beans, photographed by Flickr user jamieanne.

In the Arawak tongue of the same region, the word is cumaru, which gave rise to ‘coumarin’, the name of the aromatic compound found in the seeds, chemical formula C9H6O2. Obtained in a crystallized form, this is used by the perfume industry when creating fragrances. High concentrations of coumarin can cause liver problems; food sources of the substance have been outlawed by the United States Food and Drug Administration since 1954, though two notable exceptions include cinnamon and liquorice. Ike DeLorenzo argues in a piece for The Atlantic that an individual would have to consume some 30 tonka beans in order to fall ill, with one providing enough shavings to flavour up to 80 plates of food – nutmeg has a similar toxicity. For all this, the exotic tonka remains a popular alternative to vanilla, used in sweet and savoury dishes alike.

Case closed.


The Cucumber King

The forest was no place for riding that day, with air heavy and unforgiving, like swamp water to the lungs. Hands of foliage appeared ready to catch those falling from exhaustion, but all instantly gave way on touch. King Theinkho, son of Sale Ngahkwe, was drained and hungry. Far ahead of his company, he reached a clearing and dismounted. An empty squint revealed leafy rows extending up to a farmhouse in the distant shade, and, growing right before him, line on line of dark green gourds. Tearing one free, the monarch took a ravenous mouthful.

Hunched over his meal and crunching away, Theinkho heard nothing of the figure rising behind him. Then a thick spade handle crashed into the back of his skull, forcing his jaws to make their final bite. His body collapsed on the soil.

Cucumbers GrowingCucumber plants. Picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Many things have led to the deaths of kings, but ‘cucumber-stealing’ is difficult to imagine as being one of them. Bizarre as the crime may be, it appears to have occasioned the end of this Burmese Pagan dynasty ruler of the 10th century CE, with the exchange of power begun not at the tip of a sword, but the butt of a spade. Of course, the above description is fanciful; one entry in the Hmannan Yazawin, translated into English as The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, puts it rather more plainly:

‘This was the manner of his death. He rode abroad for sport in the forest, and being hungry he plucked and ate a cucumber in a farmer’s plantation. And because he plucked it without telling him, the farmer struck him with the handle of a spade that he died.’

The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, translated by Pe Maung Tin and G. H. Luce (1960).

Not that the story closes there – Hmannan Yazawin goes further. Theinkho’s groom, perhaps foreseeing chaos among the people, carried out a desperate cover-up operation. He told the farmer that ‘he who slayeth a king, becometh a king’. The man of the soil was less than keen, being more content with tending to his cucumbers. He was eventually won over by the groom’s promise that he would not only have all the riches of a ruler, but would also be allowed to keep his plantation going.

Bagan TemplesThe temples of Bagan, once the capital city of the Pagan dynasty. Photo from Flickr user KX Studio.

Secretly brought before the queen, who greatly approved of the whole plan, he took to the throne as Nyaung-u Sawrahan, also known as Taung-tah-gyi or Taungthugyi, the Cultivator King’. The Glass Palace Chronicle terms him ‘the farmer king’, while G. E. Harvey uses ‘Cucumber King’ in his History of Burma. Nyaung-u went on to turn his beloved cucumber patch into a grand garden.

There is likely to be more legend behind this tale than solid fact. In Hmannan Yazawin it is claimed that a concubine and a minister who scorned the new king were killed by a living stone statue near the palace door.  Harvey mentions that there is another version of the cucumber story in the Burmese narrative of one Princess Thudhammasari, with two more in historical accounts from Cambodia. While The Glass Palace Chronicle gives his reign as 931 to 964 CE, sources dispute when exactly Nyaung-u Sawrahan lived. It also credits him with the founding of five Buddhist temples; a stone tablet found in 1212 CE apparently mentions his refurbishment work on a local monastery, which may link to this.

TabinshwehtiKing Tabinshwehti (1512 – 1550), here depicted as a Nat, or Burmese folk spirit. He was supposedly assassinated while hunting for a white elephant. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

More certain is the history of cucumbers. The plant is held to have originated from the region between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal, with excavations in 1970 at the Spirit Cave site between Burma and Thailand unearthing cucumber seeds dating to 9750 BCE. As for Burmese kings, several seem to have had unusual deaths – so Ben Schott writes in his classic collection of knowledge, Schott’s Original Miscellany. A number died through the actions of elephants, one due to laughter, and others thanks to buffaloes or poison. Even so, Theinkho’s end and the rise of the ‘Cucumber King’ remains the strangest of all.

Humpty Falling

Nursery Rhyme Nibbles

English nursery rhymes abound with images of food, from Jack Sprat’s eating habits to ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. Memorised and recited without a second thought, these instantly recognisable lines and verses seem to hail from a hazy time long gone, where pigs went to market and dishes absconded with spoons. Many, however, are not as old or mysterious as is often assumed.

Folklorists Iona and Peter Opie write in their authoritative Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes that most can be traced back to the seventeenth century, with the term ‘nursery rhyme’ growing in use following the 1806 publication, Rhymes for the Nursery. While earlier printings made references to individual pieces, the first true collection to appear was Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of 1744, featuring ‘Bah, Bah, a black sheep’, ‘Hickere, Dickere, Dock’, and several other songs which are now indisputable classics.

Four_and_Twenty_BlackbirdsAn illustration for ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, from the 1833 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies. In the United States, ‘nursery rhymes’ are also known as ‘Mother Goose Rhymes’. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

The Opies state that the concept of ‘childhood’ as recognized in the present day has developed relatively recently; in past centuries, well into the 1700s, society viewed children as small adults. Few nursery rhymes were originally aimed at children, developing instead from ballads, drinking songs, riddles, and proverbs. Their ‘nursery’ status comes from their having been repeated to children over time by grown-ups, and this spoken heritage has led to widespread myths about the origins of different verses. As one source puts it, they have ‘suffered the indignity of having more nonsense written about them than any other folklore genre’. Cutting past this ‘game of spotting hidden meanings’ to focus on facts allows for a clearer understanding of the colourful range of figures and subjects in each, and what they might stand for – if at all.

Humpty DumptyA classic image of Humpty Dumpty. Uploaded by Flickr user tiffany terry.

Where food is concerned, this can be especially revealing. Take ‘Humpty Dumpty’, for instance:

‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses
And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.’

Imagining a humanized egg is now instinctive, but the rhyme gives no description of this. It was possibly once a riddle, with the answer being ‘an egg’. That function has since died out, due to the solution being such a well-known image; contributing to its spread were illustrations of Humpty as an egg, such as that in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872).

Humpty_Dumpty_TennielJohn Tenniel’s illustration of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

The word puzzle likely played on the meaning of ‘humpty-dumpty’ which was current during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: ‘a short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person’. Going back further brings up one more gastronomical connection, in that it was also the name of a drink consisting of ‘ale boiled with brandy’:

‘He answer’d me that he had a thousand such sort of Liquors, as Humtie Dumtie, Three Threads.’

In William King, A Journey to London (1698).

A popular theory put forward by multiple books and ‘did you know’ websites argues that Humpty Dumpty was not an egg, but a siege engine employed in the English Civil War by the forces of King Charles I – ‘all the King’s men’ – which was toppled from its position. As the Opies point out, this was proposed by one Professor David Daube in 1956 and was ‘one of a series of spoof nursery-rhyme histories for The Oxford Magazine– don’t ‘fall’ for it!

Jack SpratJack Sprat and his wife, as depicted in an 1864 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies. The whole work may be read online.

Another expression for a small person, dating from 1500 to 1700, was ‘Jack Sprat’ (an older form of which was ‘Jack Prat’):

‘Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean:
And so, between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.’

This rhyme, or some variety of it, seems to have been present in the Tudor period. It is referred to in The Marriage of Witte and Science, a play from around 1570. The personified characters Instruction and Wit fight against Tediousness, declaring the following:

INSTRUCTION: […] But what, no force ye are but Jack Sprot to mee.

WITTE: Haue houlde heare is a morsel for thee to eate […]

[INSTRUCTION: No matter, you are just a little person to me.

WIT: Take this – here is a morsel for you to eat! [Strikes TEDIOUSNESS.]]

The Marriage of Witte and Science, Act 5, Scene 5 (c. 1570).

Perhaps ‘Jack Sprat’ came to signify a little person in allusion to the ‘sprat’, a small-sized fish. This was also known as a ‘sprot’, ultimately from the Old English sprott, a small herring’.

SpratAn image of the sprat from the 1877 French publication Les Poissons (‘Fish’). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Little Jack Horner’ has also been linked to the Tudor era:

‘Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie.
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”’

It is claimed that this speaks of Tom Horner, steward to Abbot Richard Whiting of Glastonbury. In a bid to please King Henry VIII, Whiting sent Horner with the gift of a pie, in which were concealed several property deeds, including that of the Manor of Mells. The steward opened it up and took Mells for himself. While there was a historical Thomas Horner who came to possess this manor at the time, he is known to have bought the property. No written mention of this tale has been found before the nineteenth century; the rhyme was first printed in 1725.

Little Jack Horner DenslowWilliam Wallace Denslow’s picture of Little Jack Horner in his 1901 collection, Denslow’s Mother Goose. Located via the Library of Congress.

Incidentally, the notion of ‘having a finger in the pie’ – ‘to be part of something in an interfering or suspicious manner’ – does date to a similar point. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a line from Act 1, Scene 3 of the 1553 dramatic piece Respublica: ‘Bring me in credyte that my hande be in the pye.’ Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s 1623 play Henry VIII has the dialogue:

‘The diuill speed him: No mans Pye is freed
From his Ambitious finger.’

[‘The devil speed him: no man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger.’]

William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, Henry VIII (1623).

Apple Pie FeaturedPictures from Mark’s History of an Apple Pie, which gives one version of the ‘A was an apple pie’ rhyme. The whole work can be read online.

Pies turn up so frequently in English nursery rhymes that it would be impossible not to encounter at least one! There is ‘A was an apple pie’, ‘Dame, get up and bake your pies’, and ‘Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie’. There is the old woman who ‘sold puddings and pies’ and there is the Scottish ‘Aiken Drum’ with his waistcoat made of pie crust. One version of ‘The Derby Ram’ has the creature end up in a pie, while one of ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’ suggests that it will be possible to buy ‘a two-penny apple-pie’ at the destination.

Yes – pies are everywhere in nursery rhymes. A thesis on the subject may well exist. According to John Ayto in The Diner’s Dictionary, the earliest occurrences of the word ‘pie’ were in the 1300s; the Yorkshire Lay Subsidy mentions one ‘Rogero Pyman’ selling his wares in 1301. Simple Simon’s ‘pieman’ was part of a longstanding profession, though the rhyme itself belongs to a lengthier fictional piece published in 1764. On the topic of baked goods, the role of ‘The Muffin Man’ was more nineteenth-century, while ‘Hot Cross Buns’ pays homage to the cries of street sellers in the 1700s.

Song of Sixpence‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ in the 1864 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies.

What about ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’? ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ was first printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. There are various theories for what the birds might symbolize – everything from the twenty four hours of the day to hidden property deeds, as in ‘Little Jack Horner’. None are particularly strong. As for putting live birds in pies, the Opies draw attention to the 1549 Italian cooking guide Epulario, in which there are instructions to, in the words of the 1598 English translation, ‘make pies so that the birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up’. The English chef Robert May included a recipe for the same purpose in his monumental 1660 work, The Accomplisht Cook.

Accomplisht CookThe title page of a 1678 copy of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook. From the Wellcome Library, London.

Looking at English nursery rhymes from a factual perspective takes the explorer well beyond the world of children into one of drama, publications, and wordplay. Looking at their depictions of food in the same way highlights historical changes in gastronomical practices and language, whether selling pies or drinking humpty-dumpty.

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