Friday 10 February 2012

Mary Midnight's Bubble and Squeak

When I was a child in the 1950s one of my favourite dishes was 'bubble and squeak', made by my mother from potato and cabbage left over from the previous day. She fried the ingredients in a little beef dripping saved from the Sunday roast, creating a piping hot slush of brassica and mash trapped within a crisp browned crusty jacket. Sometimes she cooked it in bacon fat, which was even better. This humble dish is the stuff from which my earliest food memories were forged. Never mind Proust's dainty madeleines - just the thought of a pile of bubble and squeak infuses my whole being with a poignant yearning for those breakfasts of more than half a century ago. Sadly, I am now always disappointed with the dish as it never lives up to my nostalgia-driven expectations. 

The closest to my mother's I have experienced is Nigel Slater's excellent recipe. However, like most other modern versions this requires a non-stick pan, a luxury unknown in the 1950s. As a child, it was those crunchy, not quite burnt golden flakes of potato that had to be physically scrapped off the bottom of an old black cast iron frying pan that gave the dish its character. Without them it was bubble, but sadly deficient in squeak. 
Essential tools for bubble and squeak - a 19th century scrapper and cast iron frying pan
The off-set handles of these knives allows the ingredients to be chopped and scrapped in the pan as they cook
The process of making bubble and squeak required as much scrapping as it did frying. A specialised tool called a bubble and squeak scraper (above) was once used for making the job easier. However, the true purpose of these beautifully designed utensils has now been entirely forgotten. As well as having a sharp edge for scrapping the crunchy bits that stuck to the pan, they also allowed you to chop the vegetables as they fried. Their craftily designed handles enabled you to use them without being obstructed by the sides of the pan. 

Bubble and squeak choppers or scrappers

The English have also forgotten that the very nature of bubble and squeak changed radically at some point in the twentieth century. This favourite dish has been around since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, but for the first hundred and eighty years of its existence it was made by frying together small slices of meat, usually beef, with boiled cabbage. Potatoes did not even get a look in until the late nineteenth century. I suspect the meat got dropped from the recipe during the course of the Great War, but the jury is out on that one. By 1951, The Good Housekeeping Magazine Home Encyclopedia declared that 'in the modern version of bubble and squeak the meat is usually omitted'. This modern version is the one I remember from my childhood breakfasts and which is still cooked today.

In the 1890s the great Victorian chef Theodore Garrett, described bubble and squeak as, 'a favourite domestic réchauffee of cold meats and vegetables, variously compounded, according to what materials are at hand, or to fancy.' This is quite close to the modern concept of the dish, a kind of fried mish-mash of any vegetables left over from a previous meal. But Garrett's recipes all contain meat, so in the late Victorian period it was quite a different dish to the bubble and squeak the British enjoy today. I have appended Garrett's article on bubble and squeak at the very end of this posting.

Christopher Smart aka Mary Midnight, the author of the first printed recipe for bubble and squeak
As far as I know, ‘bubble and squeak’ first gets a mention in literature in 1752 in an issue of The Drury-lane Journal, by Madam Roxana Termagant. This was a scurrilous magazine, in reality written by the poet Bonnell Thornton. Thornton was a member of the Nonsense Club, a gathering of literary figures and artists, which included William Cowper among its members. The earliest recipe I know was published a year later in 1753, not in a cookery book, but in another irreverent collection of satirical verse and prose called The Midwife, or Old Woman’s Magazine by one Mary Midnight - again a pen name, this time used by the eccentric poet Christopher Smart (1722-1771). 

Title page and frontispiece of Christopher  Smart's The Midwife. This is the first number of October 1750. Mary Midnight's recipe for bubble and squeak was printed in Vol III in 1753.
Mary Midnight's style of writing is peppered with juvenile humour, much of it downright silly and often outrageous - a kind of Georgian Monty Python. The recipe had probably been around for decades and may have originated as a sailor's way of dealing with salt beef or pork. It is quite fitting that a recipe for a dish with such a ridiculous name first appeared in such an absurd journal. Mrs Midnight's 1753 recipe, reproduced below, is really a spoof, a satire on the life style of the Oxford and Cambridge students of the day, but it does work. 
The earliest 'recipe' for bubble and squeak -  made with salt meat.
Bubble and squeak naturally lent itself to comedy and features regularly in humorous poetry and prose during the second half of the eighteenth century and beyond. Peter Pindar's marvellous evocation of it noisily cooking in the pan, surely explains the onomatopoeic origins of its name -

What mortals Bubble call and Squeak 
When midst the Frying-pan in accents savage, 
The Beef so surly quarrels with the Cabbage. 

The first directions in an actual cookery book do not appear until 1773, and then only in a footnote to a recipe for boiled beef in Charlotte Mason's The Lady's Assistant (London: 1773). The dish seems always to have been of a homely nature. In his marvellous  Slang. A Dictionary (London: 1823), Jon Bee offers this definition - 'Bubble-and-squeak - a vulgar but savoury kind of omnium gatherum dinner of fried scraps, the scrapings of the cupboard.'

Although synonymous with plain living and making do, bubble and squeak had some surprising fans. According to Fraser's Magazine (1837 Vol. 15. p. 375), George IV, when Prince of Wales, was introduced to it when he dined with Sir Robert Leighton at Loton Hall in Shropshire - 

‘Sir Robert, being a batchelor, was unused to giving so large a dinner as this occasion called for; and his cook, being rather at a loss to fill all the numerous side-dishes required, decided on fried beef and cabbage for one of them. “What have you got in that dish?” said the prince to a gentleman before it happened to be placed. “That sir,” answered Sir Robert, “is a favourite dish in Shropshire, called bubble and squeak.” “Then give me some bubble and squeak,” resumed the prince; and he ate heartily of it. Thus far I can vouch for what I have said; but it was currently reported that this homely dish was afterwards frequently seen at Carlton House.’

To me, this is the whole point of bubble and squeak. George was a prince noted for his love of extravagant dining. He employed Antonin Câreme for a short while and ate the most sophisticated French cuisine off the grandest gilt service ever made in the history of English silversmithing. But he could still take pleasure in such a homely dish.

In a similar fashion, it is a common experience that after over indulgence in the rich foods of Christmas dinner, our jaded appetites can still be revived by this 'vulgar but savoury kind of omnium gatherum dinner of fried scraps', in other words the Boxing Day bubble and squeak made from the leftovers. Englishmen of every class have had a long lasting love affair with this most basic, but tasty of dishes.

The last word on the matter must go to the anonymous versifier who wrote the following lines for an edition of Punch magazine published at the height of the Crimean War.


I am a man who dwells alone,
Save only that I keep a dog,
Who eats my scraps up, orts and bone,
So that the creature shares my prog.

I had a boiled salt round of beef
On Monday, all to my own cheek,
Wheron my hunger sought relief
From day to day, for near a week.

Of cold boiled beef the daily round,
After a while begins to tire,
One longs for something nicely browned,
Or steaming from the genial fire.

And then the beef was getting dry;
But food away I never fling,
What can be done with it? thought I:
Bubble and Squeek, sir! – that’s the thing.

KING GEORGE THE FOURTH was not a dunce
At least in gastronomic lore;
Bubble and Squeak he tasted once;
And then he ate it evermore.

The King had oft on turtle dined,
As I have sometimes chanced to do,
We both, to think I am inclined,
The less enjoyed it of the two.

So large with what it fed on grew
My whetted appetite’s increase,
That ‘twas as much as I could do
To leave my dog a little piece.

And even when I gave him that,
I muttered in a doubtful mood,
“is this quite right now – what I’m at,
In giving you, Sir, Christian food?”

The dish at which I’ve pegged away,
So that it my interior fills,
Would that they had it this cold day,
The Brave on the Crimea’s hills!

They in the cannon’s mouth do not
The Bubble reputation seek,
But Glory find; their onset hot,
Leaves to the Russians all the Squeak.

But Bubble, not of empty air,
And Squeak that’s more than idle sound,
Soon may those gallant heroes share
At mess on Russia’s conquered ground!

Anon. Punch 1855. vol. XXVIII, p.10

Theodore Garrett's article on bubble and squeak. The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery (London: nd. 1890s)
Bubble and squeak made with beef and cabbage arranged on the plate as in Garrett's method above


  1. Fabulous, thorough post. I just love visiting this blog, delighted I discovered it when I did.

  2. This is really interesting Ivan. I have been wondering for a while if bubble and squeak is part of a wider array of similar dishes?

    I ask because I have two bubble and squeak scrapers, one bought in Italy (although it is very similar, if more crude, to the one you show above). Was Bubble and Squeak such a popular dish or were there other dishes that used these choppers to cut ingredients when in the pan? I ask as these choppers appear to be uncommon, but not super rare.

    1. I am interested that you found one of these objects in Italy. I have a small collection of them, some of which are of quite beautiful form. I will publish a photograph of the best ones on the post when I get time. Some have maker's marks, though most of these are unreadable. However, all appear to have been made in Sheffield. One of very basic form is marked with 'Trade Mark Lewis Barnascone Sheffield'. Barnascone, who was born in Sheffield in 1852, was the son of Quirico Bernasconi, who emigrated to England shortly before Lewis was born. Quirico was a Swiss Italian cutler from Mendrisio in Ticino. Perhaps he introduced this form of implement from his native land? It is a puzzle. Are there any readers of this blog from Switzerland or Italy who can explain what these implements were used for in their countries? Surely there is not a Ticinese version of bubble and squeak - bolla e squittio?

  3. Yes, one chopper is from Sheffield and has a basic thin blade that has been made to produce a blueing effect on the metal (although it is quite rusted now).

    The one from Italy (Piedmont) has no makers marks that I can see, has a rounded tip to the blade and has a iron collar. It could very well be from Sheffield.

    I cand send you a photograph if you like.

  4. I have one exactly like the bottom one, I use it as my main vergetable and herb chopper. It's beautifully balanced and I love it.