Toad-in-a-hole. Ostensibly it's been around for centuries; by the mid-19th century, cookery books were already calling it "an excellent old English dish."[i] Along with ‘bubble and squeak’ and ‘angels on horseback’ it captures that sense of playful eccentricity associated with British cuisine that we've all come to love. Indeed, the innocent referentiality of the name –– “toad-in-a-hole” –– evokes that syrupy Dickensian nostalgia for the good old days, when kids still played together in the garden and before our imaginations were stifled by the bottom-line.
Toad-in-a-hole makes no elitist claims for itself.[ii] It's cheap comfort food, after all, characterized by its elastic portions and its high caloric content. In 1861 Mrs Beeton described it as "a homely but savoury dish" noting that it could serve 4-5 people for a measly 1 shilling and 9 pence.[iii] In his comprehensive study about the tastes and preferences of 1960s Paris, the influential sociologist Pierre Bourdieu distinguished the airy delicacy of the bourgeois "taste of liberty" from the proletarian "taste of necessity" This latter category eschewed the gratuitous plating rituals, the social decorum, the restraint of our life-sustaining appetites at the table in favor of letting the good times roll. Toad-in-a-hole fits into this category like meat and beans in your grandmother’s cassole.[iv] It's your protein and your carb-heavy side rolled into one, baked to perfection, and doused in gravy. It requires only one plate, and there's virtually always extra enough for a second helping. What's not to love?
But toad in the hole was not always the beloved tradition it is today. The OED does not reference it until 1787. The term is attributed to the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose, who included it in his Provincial Glossary, a haphazard collection of forgotten proverbs and words gleaned around rural England. Included in that glossary is a forgotten Norfolk dish called "Pudding Pye Doll," which Grose defines as "the dish called toad-in-a-hole, or meat boiled in a crust."[v] Remarkably, the first time that toad in-a-hole is acknowledged in print, Grose presupposes its antique, pre-literary existence.
How did he come to know about it in the first place?
Thanks to the fastidious accounting skills of F.R.S. and F.S.A Josiah Colebrooke, Grose's colleague in the Society of Antiquaries, we know now that toad-in-a-hole was known in London circles as early as the 1760s. The dish was even served to the illustrious group of natural philosophers and virtuosi known as the Thursday's Club call'd the Royal Philosophers, the Royal Society's semi-official dining club.
The dish first appeared in 1769, and for the next ten years, the Royal Philosophers enjoyed toad in a hole once or twice a year or so.[vi] At the Mitre Tavern, the dining club’s chosen dining venue, toad in a hole was served alongside such delicacies as venison, fresh salmon, turbot, and asparagus. (The Mitre was also frequented by the likes of Boswell and Johnson as well as Grose’s Society of Antiquaries.) Sometimes the dish pops up in winter, sometimes in spring; toad in the hole was neither season specific nor associated with any particular holiday. On several occasions Mr. Colebrooke felt compelled to include an additional description like “alias beef baked in a pudding” in the club's dinner books, lest there should be any confusion among posterity. Obviously, the term was not yet familiar to everyone.
|The Royal Philosophers bill of fare dated February 21 1771|
Note the additional description of toad in a hole
Of course, it is extremely unlikely that Englishmen hadn't enjoyed various cuts of meat baked in batter long before the 1760s; the idea is certainly clever, but it’s not exactly rocket science. But the funny name –– even if it didn’t describe a completely novel dish –– was important, for it drew the dish into an emerging culinary canon with which Britons could collectively identify.
Alas, not everyone appreciated the lexicographical whimsy of toad in a hole. I’ve managed to find a print reference from as far back as 1762, which calls toad in a hole a “vulgar” name for a “small piece of beef baked in a large pudding.”[vii] In George Alexander Stevens’s popular satirical monologue, A Lecture on Heads (1764), toad in a hole is supposedly “bak’d for the devil’s dinner.”
Why such contempt for a silly name? It might well have to do with a growing sense of culinary patriotism cultivated during the Seven Years War (1756-1763). The English had long prided themselves on their stately haunches of grass-fed roast beef as opposed to the effeminate and over-seasoned ragouts preferred by the French. Yet toad in a hole wasn’t all about the beef; the meat could be disguised in pudding and dressed up with spices such as ginger and nutmeg.[viii] As several Victorian cookery writers would later attest, it was the perfect occasion to use up leftovers and "veiny pieces of meat" that one would otherwise throw away. Culinary nationalists likely bristled at the fact that one could put virtually anything in ‘toad in a hole’ and still utilize a quaint English name. Perhaps the literary celebrity Fanny Burney most perceptively summed up the social anxieties associated with the dish in 1797. Toad in the hole was “ill-fitted,” she said, as it submerged “a noble sirloin of beef into a poor paltry batter-pudding."[ix] Not only was British culinary decline linked to the lamentable decay of traditional class distinctions, but an international reputation could also be at stake. If toad-in-a-hole was admitted to the British culinary repertoire, how would anyone know what the jolly roast beef of old England tasted like?
|Many patriotic songs about roast beef|
were penned during the 18th century
It might be for this reason that the genteel and civilized members of the Thursday’s Club abandoned the dish when they relocated from the Mitre Tavern to the larger and better equipped Crown and Anchor on the Strand in 1780. The Crown and Anchor catered to gentlemen’s clubs, polite families, and political societies. Dinners there didn’t come cheap. But the absence of toad in a hole at this finer, more upscale establishment might provide new insight into the social politics of English cuisine. When toad-in-a-hole first came on the culinary scene as an potential exemplar of quintessential British cookery, it was reviled as vulgar, unpatriotic and ungodly –– an affront to tradition. Only as the dish accordingly sled down the social scale did it begin to command respect as part of the laboring man's diet. Once harnessed to 19th century "industrial" values –– such as frugality, versatility, and time-management –– toad-in-a-hole was reborn as the quirky yet savory tradition that still is today.
[i] Charles Francatelli, The Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s and Butler’s Assistant (London, 1861).
[ii] For more on working and middle class rhetoric of puddings, see Fiona Lucraft, “General Satisfaction: A History of Baked Puddings” in The English Kitchen: Historical Essays (Devon, Prospect Books, 2007) pp. 103-119.
[iii] Isabella Beeton, Book of Household Management (London, 1861).
[iv] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).
[v] In addition to the Provincial Glossary, with a collection of local proverbs and wider superstitions, Grose also wrote several books spreading the 18th century vogue for “antiquities” to a wider market, notably in The Antiquities of England and Wales (London, 1772).
[vi] See the dinner books, RSC Papers, kept in the Royal Society Archives, London.
[vii] The Beauties of All Magazines Selected, including the several original comic pieces, vol. 1 (London, 1762) p 53.
[viii] Indeed, the first English recipe for toad in the hole, recorded in Richard Briggs’s The English Art of Cookery (London, 1788) also suggests that the dish might be suited for less desirable “veiny pieces” of beef.
[ix] Frances Burney, Letters and Journals, (London: Penguin, 2001).