A Feast of Folklore

By Ben Gazur

From witch cake to wassailing, strange stories of Britain's food.

Food & drink | History
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British food has a somewhat dubious reputation. Who in their right mind would eat a Puppy Pie? Is a toad-in-the-hole something edible? I can even imagine some people turning their nose up at my Nan’s Toenail Pudding. The quirky nature of British food is matched by hundreds of years of folklore and folk tales that A Feast of Folklore brings to life.

A Feast of Folklore leads you down the dark alleys of British food history to meet the gloriously eccentric folk and the food they used in everything from magic spells to medicine. They even ate some of it.

Why do people hurl themselves down a hill in pursuit of a wheel of cheese? Why are hot cross buns hung from the rafters of a pub? Why do farmers shoot their shotguns through the branches of apple trees? The questions may be peculiar, but the answers are all peculiarly British.

In twelve chapters packed with more titbits of folklore than a Stargazy Pie has fish-heads A Feast of Folklore brings dark magic and deadly delicacies back into the home, where they belong. Alongside folk tales you’ll find recipes and instructions for those brave enough to give these traditions a go. Here’s a smörgåsbord of what you’ll find inside:

  • Bread – How to get perfect bread every time by placing a Pixie Loaf next to your oven.
  • Hot cross buns – Why, grated into a drink, they cure all ills.
  • Cakes – Are witches really put off by urine in a cake?
  • Baking – Why the village of Biddenden makes biscuits in the shape of conjoined twins.
  • Eggs – How you can stop a witch using an egg-shell as a boat.
  • Dairy – Why a pregnant lady might use a groaning cheese.
  • Meat – How not arguing with your spouse could win you a side of bacon.
  • Fruit – What day the devil urinates on Britain’s blackberries.
  • Vegetables – How to ward off the flu with an onion.
  • Drink – Will a live eel placed in a drink really cure alcoholism?
  • Spices – How much salt should you place on a corpse’s chest?
  • Love spells – How to find your true love with nothing more than an onion under your pillow.

Inspired by Ben’s gourmand appetite for both food and folklore, A Feast of Folklore will have you looking at your Spotted Dick in an entirely new light.

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  • Ben Gazur avatar

    Ben Gazur

    Ben Gazur has a PhD in Biochemistry but has given up the glitz and glamour of life in the laboratory for a career as a writer. He has written about everything from Mudlarking for Mental Floss to terrible TV for the Guardian. His work has also appeared in All About History, i-D, the BBC, and Fortean Times. As a host for the Twitter account @FolkloreThursday he has shared his passion for folklore on social media. Based in London he can often be found in the British Library searching for folklore among a pile of dusty books before whipping up a Whirlin Cake worthy of the Devil himself.

  • 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.

  • 1st March 2022 Happy Pancake Day!

    Hope everyone is making some pancakes tonight.

    Here are a couple of tips from British food history to make the day even more festive!

    First when you toss your pancakes make sure there are real consequences to messing it up. It used to be that whatever happened to your pancake you had to eat it. Yes, from the floor. Yes, even if you had to wrestle it from the mouth of your dog. As one folklorist…

    3rd February 2022 Happy Cake Month!

    Hello all!

    It is cake month. At least it is according to the Anglo-Saxons. They called February “Solmōnaþ” – meaning something like “Month of the Hearth Cakes.” These were cakes that were baked on the hot stones around the fire. The Venerable Bede writing in the 8th century said “Sol-Monath can be said to be the month of cakes, which were offered to their gods.” If you lack gods of your own who…

    21st December 2021 Merry Christmas Cakes!

    Merry Christmas!

    Hope everyone is ready for Christmas and has stocked up on food. You might, or might not, like to try this bit of foody folklore to get your party started.

    It used to be a tradition to hide a dried bean and a dried pea to the fruit cake to be eaten on Twelfth Night. Whoever got the slice with the bean in was crowned the king of the feast, and the pea decided who was the queen…

    22nd November 2021 Witch cakes

    Looking through old books of folklore I found a few references to witch cakes. If you do a quick search online your likely to find cakes covered in lurid green icing and a little woman in a pointed hat. But the witch cakes made in the past were just a bit different - and probably not ones you'd want to eat.

    One of the first mentions of witch cakes comes from the Salem witch trials. When the young…

    8th November 2021 An onion a day...

    Hello All!

    Thank you everyone who has supported A Feast of Folklore so far. It really means a lot that so many people seem interested in the topic!

    While I’ve been working on this book I seem to keep coming across food being used in folk medicine. In the past people must have used anything they had to hand to ward off illness and obviously food was easy to get. But did any of it work? In the…

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