Discover more from Folklore, Food and Fairytales
From The Apple Harvest to The Best Panperdy
via Cairo, Just One Tale from 1,001 Nights, Kitchen Protections, and A Cure for Cramp
Dearest Gentle Reader,
I hope this slightly cooler Summer day (here at least) is bringing you joy or at least a sense of contentment. Often the gentler emotions are more achievable. I hope you enjoy this slightly briefer letter which is much more full of story than last week but as a result there is less folklore. There is a little food folklore break in the calendar apart from St Peter’s Day on 29 June when in Herefordshire it was believed there needed to be a shower of rain fall on the apple orchards to ensure a good apple crop. I haven’t checked the weather for Herefordshire on Thursday but fingers crossed.
The only other day of significance for me in this week ahead is 28 June which happens to be my Mum’s birthday. It is to my Mum that I owe my love of the 1,001 Nights and the children’s collection of them that I had as a child. She is also the reason I love the food of the eastern mediterranean as well as Islamic art. She is also responsible for my very high falafel standards because of our incredible holiday to Cairo in 1988 where I tried falafel for the first time and then ate them with abandon until we came home. I was not the omnivore I am now at the age of 10, I was actually very fussy but I loved the foods in Egypt and the way they were often served as mezze. I will also never forget the buffet laid on in a hotel which had once been an Egyptian palace which I may still be my gold standard of mass catering. I also have stories which involve a horse named Madonna and a camel named Michael Jackson, the view of the Pyramids with the sun rising behind them and an inland sea which changes from salt to sweet water on a regular basis. Also a cat who was raising her kittens in our small hotel entrance plant pot with the assistance of my donated breakfast cheese triangles.
I loved the Khan el-Khalili souk and the magical old city and my exposure to these buildings together with a full day at the Alhambra Palace in Granada with my Dad a few years later, was the start of my love for historic Islamic architecture. You are probably wondering why I am sharing this with you but I think my story will clear things up. I will tell the name of the story at the end as it does rather give the game away. I have adapted this from various translations of the Nights plus Marina Warner’s version from her book Stranger Magic and I hope you enjoy it:
A story is told that there was once a very wealthy Baghdadi merchant who spent his money until his circumstances altered and he became reduced to penury, earning his daily bread only with the greatest of difficulty.
I want you to imagine, if you will, a lovely old house in Baghdad, built around a shaded and tiled courtyard with a square pool in the centre where a small jet of water pulses. It resembles many others in that old city. Doves fly down from their dovecote in the heat of the day to rinse their dusty wings in the little pool, and the small lemon trees breathe their sharp scents; Mashrabiya shade the windows of the house, both those overlooking the street and those facing the courtyard, and their shadows mottle the cool inner rooms. It is not unlike many other houses in that city.
But to the owner it was not like any of them; it was his mother’s family home, and living there gave him great pleasure . Besides, his mother had lived there till her death two years before and over decades she had added distinctive touches – a carving on the lintel of the kitchen quarters with a special blessing for the food, bowls and dishes inside. His wife and daughters watered the potted flowers every morning in the courtyard and put out food for the birds at a table in the corner of the courtyard.
In the days when this story unfolds however, the house is falling to rack and ruin, the wooden shutters are missing beads and leaning on their hinges, the pump no longer purls in the little pool, and nobody in the household thinks of feeding the birds since they themselves have to scavenge to survive.
After several difficult years, the owner’s business has failed completely; he can’t pay his servants, satisfy his creditors, or revive his trade and help his family. One night in the depths of his despair, he dreamed. A form appeared in his bedroom and a voice announced to him, as clearly as if the speaker were standing in the room at his very ear, ‘If you want to know how to live, go to Cairo.’
So he set out for Cairo, but when he finally arrived there it was evening and he had no money for a bed so he went to sleep in a mosque. This happened to be near the house of a rich man, and on that night of all nights, a number of robbers entered the mosque and went on from it to the house. Their movements aroused the household, who raised the alarm, at which the Chief of Police and his men came to their rescue. The robbers fled, but when the men went into the mosque they found the only the impoverished merchant asleep. He was seized and the Chief of Police had him beaten and thrown in the cells. It was so severe a beating that he nearly died but even without his agony he thought he might expire from his despair alone.
After three days in the filthy cell where he thought he would see the end of his days he was dragged before the Chief of Police
The Chief demanded of the traveller, ‘What brought you to Cairo?’The man told him of his dream, adding ruefully that at least he’d now found a new way of life, which was to be beaten like an old donkey.
The Chief of Police laughed so heartily that his back teeth could be seen and then he said ‘I have dreams, too. On several occasions I’ve heard a voice telling me to go to Baghdad. “There’s an old house there,” the voice says, “built around an inner courtyard and a little pool with a fountain – it must have been lovely, but now the whole place is dilapidated and abandoned.”
In my dream someone shows me the house, the lemon trees in pots, the shadows cast by the shutters and a funny prayer inscribed over the door to the kitchen asking for protection for the food and pans.’ He began laughing heartily again. ‘The voice tells me, “Under the threshold of the doorway there, a fortune is waiting for you! Go to Baghdad and know how to live!”
‘But I am not like you. I wouldn’t be such a fool and commit such a folly as to to travel from Cairo to Baghdad for a dream!’
‘However, I haven’t laughed so much in years so I’ll give you enough coin to make the journey home again as a thank you.’ The merchant was then escorted none to gently out of the city gates by the guards.
The man from Baghdad took the money he was given and travelled back as fast as he could, and when he reached his house, he called his family and household and they dug under the threshold of the kitchen quarters, and there was indeed a great fortune buried there. So he was able to pay his creditors and re-engage his household servants and start his business again and thrive with his family until the end of his days.
The name of this story is The Ruined Man Who Was Made Rich Again Through A Dream and versions of it appear all over the globe. We even have an English version in the Peddler of Swaffham.
I wanted to share it with you because I loved the idea of the beautiful courtyard home and the fountain which sounds magical during these hot, sticky days and the blessing for the kitchen as well as the happy ending. I can even picture the carving which I think resembles this wonderful piece from an Andalusian palace frieze which can be found in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Although the blessing in this story is in the form of prayer not a ritual, it made me think of all the ways in folklore that help to protect the kitchen and the food therein.
I should probably do this historically and start with the Romans who, as well as Vesta, the Goddess of the hearth flame, had household gods or spirits. The ones who protected the larder and the pantry were the Panes and Penates, they prevented food from spoilage as well as the way the family made money to pay for it. They were honoured in the form of statuettes or figures who were bought out and placed on the table when the family ate and then placed back in their own shrine.
In Ancient Greece, as well as honouring Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth and Home, it is said that Greeks also honoured the Goddess Hecate at the dark of the moon with Hecate’s Deipnon to appease her. As the Goddess of Boundaries and In-between Spaces she protected the home from restless spirits as well as having the power to ensurea prosperous and abundant life for the family. The Deipnon was a selection of food items that were sacred to Hecate as well as strong smelling items which were thought to appeal to the dead such as raw eggs, some type of small cake, garlic, leeks and/or onions, and fish as well as cheese, bread and wine. These were placed at the place where the family’s property met the street. This door between public and private spaces served as a three way crossroads, which were sacred to Hecate.
In a slightly more recent times, there is also the poppet known as the kitchen witch that was thought to prevent kitchen misfortunes such as curdled milk or uprisen dough, burned food and pots that boiled over. Germany, Sweden and Norway all claim to be the originator of the tradition. She resembles the crone version of the witch and may be dressed all in black and wear a pointy hat but equally can wear traditional dress of the elder woman of the country she is found in. She sometimes carries a spoon or other kitchen implement.
Although England isn’t particularly known for this tradition there is an often quoted piece of text from the will of John Croginton from Shropshire which dates from 1599 were he bequeathes his son Roger his kitchen witch:
“I give and bequeath to my sonne John and hys heyres forever to be heirloomes the things hereafter nexte of first mentyoned, that ys to saye, one witche in the kytchyn, one weeting fatte, one kneadynge knive[…]except the cubbard in the halle the witche in the kytchyn which I gyve and bequeathe to Roger my sonne.”
Lovely though this is, as he was also bequeathed a cupboard in the hall, it is possible that the ‘witche in the kytchyn’ might be a misspelling/misreading of a name for a piece of furniture. I think I like the idea of it being a poppet of such value that he left it to his younger son as his elder was getting pretty much everything else and the Roger needed all the household luck her could get.
There is also the tradition for wives whose household task was to mind the fire in the hearth, their final duty of the night was to smother the flames of the fire while not allowing the embers to fully go out. This custom “was strengthened by the belief that the good folk would be displeased if there were no fire for them through the night. This was nothing to the number of charms connected to churning milk. These are just a few examples: if you entered a kitchen whilst churning was in progress you would be invited to help to show that you only had good intentions to the home and the family within. There could also not be any quarrels, singing or drinking during churning and when the butter first started to form, a tiny ball of it should be smeared onto the wall or thrown on top of the dresser to bring fortune to the home.
I love this topic and I think we definitely need to revisit it especially if any of you have your own customs to share but for now I am just going to bring you this week’s historic recipe and remedy.
Have you ever had a particularly bad cramp and need to relieve it? I’m not going to say that it might be the heat of this cure which makes it effective and not the herbal ingredients but I’m no expert. This remedy is from The Lady's Companion: Or, an Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex in 1643.
On the other hand I really fancy this recipe for panperdy or more recognisably Pain Perdu, otherwise known as French Toast today. This is the luxury sweet version with extra sweet spices rather than what I generally eat which is savoury and goes by the name of Eggy Bread. Aside from the mace and cloves the recipe is very close to the modern one and only goes to show that we are not as far away from some of our ancestors, culinarily speaking at least. This recipe is from Gervase Markham, in his book The English Housewife of 1651:
So as I must read many fascinating articles before I write to you again, I must bring this letter to a close. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the comments or via any of my social media profiles/my website . If you have enjoyed this and would like to read further such nonsense and have not yet subscribed, please don’t hesitate to subscribe for free at the button below. You’d be very welcome and it would be a joy to write to you.