Top 6 literary foods and drinks, demystified

Shrewsbury pub

If you’re going to eat pub grub, the interior of places like this add to the fun! Shrewsbury pub image courtesy of RoganJosh, Morguefile.

Earlier this week, I read a Susan Wiggs novel called The Drifter. It’s a good read — a Victorian female doctor in an island town off the coast of Washington State struggles to get accepted by the local people because she’s better with needles and bandages rather than words. It takes the intervention of others to make her realize that her behavior isn’t all that tactful and needs to change.

At one point, the action shifts to a boat where another character offers the doc a cup of grog to warm up. I got curious about grog because even though I’ve heard of it, I wasn’t quite sure what ingredients you use to create this drink. I did a quick search and it’s a mixture of rum, lime juice, brown sugar, a slice of orange and hot water, according to one recipe I found.

Every once in a while, an author will mention a food or drink in a book that is appropriate to that era but doesn’t exactly explain what it is. To amuse everybody today, I thought I’d talk about a few of them.

1. Blancmange: In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jo offers blancmange to Laurie, after he’s recovering from an illness affecting his throat. I used to think blancmange was a type of yogurt, but it’s a sweet dessert made from milk or cream, combined with sugar, some almond flavoring (optional), and a thickening agent such as gelatin or cornstarch.

2. Hardtack: You often see hardtack in books that involve the Civil War era. Hardtack is a very hard cracker made from flour, salt and water; soldiers would dunk it in a liquid to make it easier to chew. A variation on hardtack was ship’s biscuit.

One of my favorite names for hardtack is “edible rock”. A college buddy of mine (she’s a history teacher, naturally) offered me some hardtack and I tried it.  It was good, but it definitely needed to be dunked in something.

3. Negus: This is a hot beverage that really gets around! It appears in Jane Eyre, A Christmas Carol, Wuthering Heights and Bleak House, to name a few. Negus is hot wine and water combined with spices and sugar, and it’s named after a British courtier.

4. Posset: A hot posset is used in several Regency-era books to put cranky children or adult insomniacs to sleep. This drink involves milk, almonds, grated lemon peel, sugar, egg white and brandy/rum.

5. Ratafia: I notice this one in other Regency novels. This drink is a type of fruit-flavored liqueur.

6. Welsh rarebit: Also known as “Welsh rabbit”, it’s mentioned in Jane Eyre. Although the recipe varies depending upon where you look, it’s hot cheese sauce over toasted bread. I haven’t tried it yet, but I could go for this one. Cheese and bread — two of my favorite foods (next to chocolate, of course).

One of these days, my sib and I want to create several recipes from the books of Betty Neels. Betty’s characters were often good cooks and she frequently mentions dishes such as winter salads and Lobster Thermidor. (First, we have to catch the lobster. They’re crafty little guys.)

I wouldn’t mind recreating a Titanic-era dinner, a Victorian dinner or a Regency dinner. That could be fun, don’t you think?

I also want to try Irish dishes such as boxty and colcannon someday. I just need to get to Ireland first. In the meantime, I’ll console myself with listening to music such as The Corrs and The High Kings. Enjoy the YouTube video!




Filed under Writing

19 responses to “Top 6 literary foods and drinks, demystified

  1. Jaclyn

    Blancmange is delicious and surprisingly easy to make at home. I’ve made it with raspberries mixed in and scattered over – yum. Now I want to revisit Little Women and find that reference!

    Welsh rarebit is delicious too. I’ve had it a few times, most memorably in Wales, in a pub in the shadow of Tintern Abbey.

    And now you’ve made me want to try posset! That actually sounds marvelous.

  2. I’ve actually eaten and/or cooked all of these. Blancmange is a simply homemade vanilla pudding. It’s a bit gloppy, but easy to make. Rarebit used to be a household favorite. REALLY easy to make if you nuke the cheese.

    Posset would put ANYONE to sleep, depending on how much brandy or rum you put in it. Tastes SO good. Like mead, which is sweet, delicious, and lethal. 🙂

    I think I’ll go melt some cheese now!

  3. Oh my goodness! This is one of my favourite songs! 😀 Also, the post was really helpful. I’ve always wondered what really went into a posset. 🙂

  4. I’ve made boxty once! and heard this poem from the book I got the recipe: boxty on the griddle, boxty in the pan, if you can’t make boxty, you’ll never catch a man

  5. Fascinating! You can find out a little more about the origin of grog in this post of mine!

  6. Great song! in former times 😉 I loved the Dubliners…….

  7. Hard Tack, known here as Hard Bread is very much a part of the culture of NL. Here’s a half-decent recipe so you know what we do with it 🙂

  8. Hmm, I wonder just how much brandy or rum went into that posset! Something tells me that was the magical ingredient. 🙂


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