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Who baked the blackbirds?: Food in nursery rhymes

Startled: John Everett Millais’s painting of ‘Little Miss Muffet’.

Startled: John Everett Millais’s painting of ‘Little Miss Muffet’.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The ancient connection between nursery rhymes and food

The only time I played a star role in a play was when I was in kindergarten in a school in Delhi where I studied for a short while. The play was something to do with Mary and her little lamb. I was the little lamb. I am not sure I had any lines, but remember friskily following Mary around.

Those were the days of innocence, when the words ‘Mary had a little lamb’ meant just that — that she had a lamb. Now I can’t think of the original lines of the nursery rhyme. Instead, what comes to mind is a rhyme that appeared years later in an Archie comic. It went: Mary had a little lamb / Some lobsters and some prunes/ Then she had a glass of milk/ And then some macaroons/ It made the waiters grin/ To see her order so/ And when they carried Mary out/ Her face was white as snow.

Hidden meanings

Somehow, nursery rhymes and food have always gone together. There is Little Tommy Tucker, who sings for his supper, and is given brown bread and butter. Simple Simon meets a pie man, and Polly is urged to put the kettle on so that we can have some tea, with toast and muffins. Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man, bake me a cake as fast as you can, says another rhyme. Then, of course, there’s little Miss Muffet, peacefully eating her curds and whey till a spider scares her away.

Quite a few rhymes that we read as kids have meanings that we never knew of. There is, for instance, considerable speculation about the origins of Miss Muffet. Was the rhyme written by a 17th century English physician called Dr. Thomas Muffet for his stepdaughter Patience, as some claim, or is Miss Muffet a reference to Mary, Queen of Scots, and is the spider the 16th century religious reformer John Knox?

Likewise, Little Jack Horner. I never thought much of the boy who put his thumb into his pie, pulled out a plum, and said, what a good boy am I. But the poem, I am now told, is about opportunism and greed.

Samuel Bishop, an 18thcentury poet-academic, even twisted the poem to describe the bureaucracy.

What are they but Jack Horners,

who snug in their corners

Cut freely the public pie?

Till each with his thumb has squeezed out a round plum

Then he cries, “What a good man am I!”

The poem about four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie has many explanations. Apparently, baking live birds in a pie was quite the thing some centuries ago. The birds would fly off when the pie was cut, much to the amusement of the diners. It takes all kinds, I suppose.

Street rhymes

Some of the poems are references to street cries. Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold was a reference to foodsellers’ cries at London’s Bartholomew Fair in the 18th century.

Street hawkers also loudly hailed hot cross buns. I loved the rhyme as a child, for it at once drew up a picture of what seemed like a delicious, freshly baked bun: Hot cross buns/ Hot cross buns/ One ha’ penny, two ha’ penny/ Hot cross buns!

I can connect with that, for I grew up with street cries. Vendors of a mix of horsegram and masala, sold in long and triangular paper cups, used to advertise their ware with the loud cry: Channajor garam. And even now, during the peak of summer, I can hear the familiar cry of street hawkers selling a berry called phalsa: Kaley kaley phalsey — ‘Ripe black phalsey’. The tune and the words haven’t changed over the years. Neither have the rhymes. What’s changed is how we look at them.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 10:35:01 PM |

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