Monday, November 9, 2009

The Noble Nombles

We visited George Washington's Mt. Vernon estate today. The house and grounds were beautiful; and the tours and museum exhibits were educational. But one of the best things I got out of the trip was a copy of Martha Washington's A Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, which I found in one of the gift shops. I'm only a few pages (and some random recipe browsing) in, but it's already an engaging read - as both a food history (both the introduction and the recipe notes are very well done) and an historical recipe book.

While I won't be preparing this dish anytime soon (though it sounds delicious), it turns out that humble pie began as anything but. As Karen Hess explains in her gloss of the recipe,
    [t]he humbles are the heart, liver and other organs of the deer. The word comes from Old French nombles...OED is firm; humbles is an occasional spelling of umbles, itself a later form of numbles....In due time, umbles became confused with humble, meaning meek or lowly. There is no basis for this in early culinary history. Indeed, noumbles was a royal dish, and recipes appear in The Forme of Cury, about 1390, which was compiled by the master cooks to Richard II. The earliest citing of humble pie in the figurative sense of suffering humiliation is given in OED for 1830. 
Though historian Richard E. Barkley has declared that "[t]o eat humble pie is in no way related to the food Umble pie," Hess hypothesizes that "[p]erhaps the substitution of pluck [the innards of any animal used as food] from other beasts, as evidenced in our manuscript, gradually lowered the status of the dish and so contributed to the figurative meaning, already prepared for by the homonyms umbles and humbles."

Herewith, the original recipe:
    Take ye humbles of a deere, or a calves heart, or pluck, or a sheep's heart; perboyle it, & when it is colde, shread it small with beefe suet, & season it with cloves, mace, nutmegg & ginger beaten small; & mingle with it currans, verges & salt; put all into ye pie & set it in the oven an houre; then take it out, cut it up & put in some clarret wine, melted butter & sugar beat together. then cover it a little & serve it.
Finally, here's the loveliest piece of humble pie that comes to mind.

UPDATE (24 Nov.): These charming, ambulatory nombles holders currently live on the Mt. Vernon estate:

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