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Porridge

The Bad Old Days

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From the Hoax:

    In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while -hence the rhyme, "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."

The Facts:

In peasant cottages there was no kitchen in which to cook. The poorest families had only one room where they cooked, ate, worked and slept. It is also possible that most of these extremely poor families owned only one kettle. Poor town-dwellers usually didn't even have that, and obtained most of their meals ready-made from shops and street vendors in the Medieval version of "fast-food."1

Those who lived on the edge of starvation had to make use of every edible item they could find, and just about everything could go into the pot (often a footed kettle that rested in the fire rather than over it) for the evening meal.2 This included beans, grains, vegetables and sometimes meat -- often bacon. Using a little meat in this manner would make it go farther as sustenance.

The resulting stew was called "pottage," and it was the basic element of the peasant diet. And yes, sometimes the remains of one day's cooking would be used in the next day's fare. (This is true in some modern "peasant stew" recipes.) But it was not common for food to remain there for nine days -- or for more than two or three days, for that matter. People living on the edge of starvation were not likely to leave food on their plates or in the pot. Contaminating the carefully-gathered ingredients of a night's supper with rotting nine-day-old remains, thus risking illness, is even more unlikely.

What is likely is that leftovers from the evening meal were incorporated into a breakfast that would sustain the hard-working peasant family for much of the day.

I have not been able to discover the origin of the "peas porridge hot" rhyme, and you are welcome to post any sources you have on our bulletin board. It is unlikely to spring from 16th-century life since, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word "porridge" did not come into use until the 17th century.

Addendum: Lauren Henry writes:

My source is The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie, published by Oxford University Press, 1997, pages 406-409. According to that, the rhyme made fun of a hawkers' cry at Bartholomew's Fair in the 18th century, documented in a description written by G.A. Stevens in 1762.

Thanks, Lauren!

Next: Pork

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Notes

1. Carlin, Martha, "Fast Food and Urban Living Standards in Medieval England," in Carlin, Martha, and Rosenthal, Joel T., eds., Food and Eating in Medieval Europe (The Hambledon Press, 1998), pp. 27-51.

2. Gies, Frances & Gies, Joseph, Life in a Medieval Village (HarperPerennial, 1991), p. 96.

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