Monday, December 5, 2011

Toast Water

If you’re feeling a bit “under the weather,” as the English like to say (because the English are obsessed with the weather), you’re feeling poorly, ill, not yourself. You’re not too badly off; just a tad miserable, physically speaking. We’re all under the weather, of course, all of the time (except astronauts and those flying above the clouds), so this phrase evokes an individual bit of weather, unique to you, a bit like a cartoon cloud.

It is thought the phrase originated in the early 1800s among sailors, who, if they were ill, were told to get below deck, or literally, “under the weather.”

The English are masters of euphemism and peculiar idiom, with regional variants being as mutually incomprehensible to foreigners as well as to the English themselves. This extends to food, naturally. While the French have always tended to use descriptive names for their dishes listing both the main ingredients and method of preparation, the English have tended to gives their dishes far more oblique names, as if they were members of a culinary family who could walk out of the kitchen and join you at the dinner table.

A notable exception to this is the case of “Pain Perdue,” or “lost bread,” which makes use of stale bread by soaking it in a custard and frying. In America it is better known as “French Toast,” because the Americans are a straightforward people who like to differentiate which of the many streams of immigrant culinary traditions their food came from. In England, however, it is known as “Eggy Bread,” which ditches the French influence altogether, not surprising for a nation that fought a war lasting 100 years with their continental neighbors. It was the Normans who likely introduced it to England back in the 11th century, where it was called by its French name, because everything was when William the Conqueror was in charge. It’s one of the perks of being a conqueror.

“Eggy Bread” sounds like a nursery food, partly because it is, and partly because the English also have an affinity for giving comfort foods comforting names.

This recipe for a bland, mushy substance designed for invalids has a pretty descriptive name. They might have called it “Toast Water” in Kentucky, but in England it would be called “pobsy,” a term applied to porridge-like gruels usually fed to small children.

It should not be confused with water with which one offers a toast.

Kentucky Receipt Book, Mary Harris Frazer, 1903

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