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A Feast of Folklore will have you looking at your Spotted Dick in an entirely new light.

A Feast of Folklore: The Bizarre Stories Behind British Food

Ben Gazur
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A Feast of Folklore will have you looking at your Spotted Dick in an entirely new light.

Who was the first person to throw salt over their shoulder? Why do we think carrots can help us see in the dark? When did we start holding village fairs to honour gigantic apple pies? Or start hurling ourselves down hills in pursuit of a wheel of cheese?

Folklorist Ben Gazur guides you through the dark alleys of British history to uncover how these unconventional actions have been passed down through generations of folklore. He investigates the origins of famous food superstitions as well as much more bizarre and lesser-known tales too, from what day the devil urinates on blackberries to how to stop witches using eggshells as escape boats.

Over thirteen hilarious and fascinating chapters you’ll meet the gloriously eccentric folk who aren’t often noticed by historians: people whose kitchen larders became medicine cabinets and magic books out of necessity, boredom or belief. Here lies a smorgasbord of their dark remedies and deadly delicacies, waiting to be discovered.

Oranges and Lemons

“Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement's.”

So begins the well known nursery rhyme that often ends with innocent young children being decapitated. Such is the brutal law of the playground. But behind the rhyme lies the special nature of citrus fruit. A relatively rare import in former centuries, an orange or lemon would have been quite the treat – even when the only varieties known were the bitter citron and marmalade oranges. Certainly something to sing about.

Apart from in schools up and down the country one can go and hear the rhyme sung in the church of St Clement Danes in London each year during March. When the bells of the church were repaired and rehung in 1920 the Vicar, William Pennington-Bickford, decided to hold a special service. The Oranges and Lemons service saw children from a local school being given those fruit by London’s Danish colony and the bells rang out the well known tune.

Today each class from the school gets a chance to perform during the service but the highlight remains the setting up of tables in the church grounds where oranges and lemons are distributed to children. Those who cannot wait to hear the bells play their famous ditty can hear them ring it out each day to mark the hours from 8am to 9pm.

There are those who claim that the church became associated with oranges and lemons because in former years the church’s land backed onto the river Thames and fruit traders passing along the river had to pay a toll as they went. While St Clement Danes does have the bells to back up its claim, St Clement Eastcheap also regards itself as the St Clement's of the rhyme.

Orange folklore can be found everywhere in Britain, especially during the festive period. No Christmas for me was complete without being given an orange. No matter what exciting thing waited for me wrapped up downstairs it was the orange that invariably ended up in the toe of my stocking that most amused me. Why were my parents so obsessed with putting an orange there? There was a bowl of perfectly good oranges already on the table. It was just one of those inscrutable things adults did. Of course now I know they were simply carrying on a tradition their parents had done, and theirs before them.

The origin of the tradition is debated. Some see the oranges as a reference to the balls of gold St Nicholas, yes that one, threw through a window to help three poverty-stricken girls. Others trace it to the Great Depression in the United States. In times of hardship even an orange can bring joy.

If your children prefer not to be given an orange but would rather earn it then they can try their hand at “A Lug and a Bite” – a game played in Lancashire. Sometimes played with an apple it is also known to be played with an orange. The game begins with a child throwing the orange to their playmates. There is a mad scramble for the orange and the first to reach it bites down hard. It will take some will power to hold on as their competitors begin lugging down as hard as they can on the fruit-bearer’s ears. Once the pain has reached a sufficient pitch the orange is dropped and the scrum begins again.

Marginally less painful was the tradition of orange rolling, or orange pelting, that took place in Dunstable. There on Good Friday children would clamber up the steep slopes near Pascombe Pit to take part. Hundreds of them gathered to catch the oranges tossed or rolled by adults from the top. Pathéfilms from the 1930s show the scrums that could form around the tumbling fruit. Some adults wore garish clothes or top hats to attract the attention of the pelters. A top hat made for a top target. Not only were oranges a tasty treat they were a valuable commodity – a canny peltee could pick up the oranges and sell them on.

Though the tradition’s origins are lost in the fog of the 18thcentury the demise of orange pelting can be pinpointed exactly to the rationing of the Second World War. With oranges and other imports in short supply the event was cancelled and, despite sporadic attempts to bring it back, the oranges no longer roll at Pascombe Pit. Which is a shame given the description of a particularly windy day on which the orange pelting took place in 1900.

“A few courageous young people endeavoured to climb the Downs. Many of them belonged to the fair sex, and, as the wearing of bloomers has by no means yet become general, the wind played havoc with their skirts, and the result may be much more decorously imagined than described. No staid and sober journalist such as the writer of this article would ever dream of looking in that direction while the wind played such mad pranks with these ladyes faire; nevertheless it may easily be imagined that a wonderfully pretty display of multi-coloured petticoats was seen, while here and there a gleam of white, while the fair ones were executing most marvellous evolutions in frantic – but generally futile – endeavours to retain a serene and stately comportment.”

One of the concerns about resurrecting orange pelting is fear of injuries to children as they fall in the pursuit of the oranges. But oranges were sometimes a source of good health. It is well known today (though disputed by some historians) that the past stank. Open sewers, butchers in towns, and a lack of hygiene made the smellscape of the past somewhat more noisome than the one we enjoy today (if you ignore car fumes). Smell in the past was not just a matter of happiness though – it could be deadly serious. The miasma theory of infection suggested that bad smells could actually cause bad health. To avoid breathing in the poisonous aromas of the city rich people turned to pomanders.

Pomanders used highly expensive and fragrant ingredients to drive the sick-making fumes away. Often highly decorated and made from gold and silver they could only belong to the uppermost members of society. It was Cardinal Wolsey who is said to have introduced the poor man’s pomander, or Comfort Apple, and it came in the form of an orange.

One description has him “holding in his hand a very fair orange, whereof the meat or substance within was taken out, and filled up again with the part of a sponge, wherein was vinegar, and other confections against the pestilent airs; the which he most commonly smelt unto, passing among the press, or else when he was pestered with many suitors.” He could, of course, have pelted his smelly suitors with the orange to drive them away.

It seems likely that the Tutti men of Hungerford carry their distinctive staffs decorated with aromatic flowers and an orange studded with cloves for similar reasons to Cardinal Wolsey. The Tutti men once went around the houses of Hungerford to shepherd people to the Hocktide Court. While Hocktide was once celebrated throughout England it now exists solely in Hungerford. All those in Hungerford who held commoners’ rights of grazing their cattle were once required to present themselves at the Hocktide court or pay a fine of a penny.

This rather prosaic event somehow transformed over time into a ritual of kisses and fruit. Today the town crier, or Bellman, is accompanied by two Tutti men with their fragrant staffs of office. At 8am a horn thought to have belonged to John of Gaunt is blown and the Tutti men (who are occasionally women) set off. The Tutti men no longer collect rents that might have been due on this day but instead demand pennies or kisses. Sometimes the kiss is only won after a Tutti man climbs a ladder to gain access to the lady of the house in an upper window. They are followed by an Orangeman who distributes oranges from his sack to those able to provide a penny or a pair of lips.

The Orangeman’s job is a serious one. In former times the Tutti men were often given a liberal amount of hospitality at every home they visited. It was the job of the Orangeman to remain sober and ensure that the Tutti men did not get lost. This was sometimes an issue if the householders were feeling overly generous with their drinks.

At the end of the day oranges and coins were thrown to any and all comers. In the past this game of catch was even more exciting as the coins were heated first. There has been a sad diminution of this tradition recently. First the coins were left unheated so as not to burn people and recently the whole tossing of the coppers was abandoned as being too risky for cars passing by.

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Prepare to Feast Your Eyes: A Spectacular Reveal for Feast of Folklore's Cover!

Hello everyone, A Feast of Folklore has a shiny new cover! Designer Mark Ecob has done a fantastic job of capturing the weirdness that waits for readers. Everything on the shelves can be found in the ...

01.05.2024
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