Food Fight?

Eventually most New Yorkers tire of the peacock fripperies of the gaudy cafes. There is something irritating to the true trencher­ man, about people who come to a restaurant to be seen more than to express a zest for food. Like that professional society party thrower who bounces from table to table, halooing across the room and otherwise trying to be the whole show! The practised gourmet studiously avoids such places. When he dines out you will find him at rendezvous rarely mentioned in society chit-chat. Dark-timbered sherry and beef havens with old prints, and perhaps a collection of steins racked around the wall. Instead of shrieking jazz, the clatter of knives and forks and the tinkle of glass. No roster of the “small hour” blades, but diners who know the cut of a steak and when a goblet of rare port or a tankard of nut brown ale are a help and not a refuge. These ancient, sturdy places keep their hold in the midst of eternal change.

The above was penned by Manhattan-based columnist O.O. McIntyre (1884-1938) in 1937, in the Endicott Daily Bulletin. McIntyre was Missouri-born and had a unique take on the Big Apple, never fully part of it, which accounted for his singular and appealing perspective.

The cultural references he is making pertain to my ongoing theme, which is the staying power of a certain idea of British eating and drinking place in North American life.

Even though in our day the steak house aka chop house goes in and out of fashion, the fundaments of what he is saying have a certain resonance. Think of the potency of the English/Irish/Scottish pub concept in the last 30 years. (To us it’s all the same thing really).

The dark timbers are still there, in other words. The nut-brown ale, too – it helped spawn craft beer by god. Both are frequently mass-produced somewhere, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the symbolism that counts.

Due to population changes the restaurant standbys of 2018 can include Chinese, Middle East, Thai, Italian, curry, diner. But apart from the culinary base expanding, does the true eater enjoy his/her “old reliables” more than the name chefs, the new trends, the hot addresses?

I’m not sure about the binary he puts forth. Demographic counts, for one thing. But even for his target reader, the big city “sophisticate”, is what he says true?  What do you think?

Obs. Note how McIntyre uses the compendious term “cafe” to describe the foreign and inauthentic in his eyes. As late as the 1940s the term still carried this connotation here.

Note re quotation: quotation above is drawn from the archived news sources identified and linked in the text (via New York State Historical newspapers). All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes, and fair comment. All feedback welcomed.

Britain’s Most Distinguished Licensee

In the 1930s, the “English Tavern” was a gauzy image in American eyes of comfort, homeyness, and gentility, rather discordant elements, in fact, but “it worked”. I’ll return to this soon with examples of newly-built English Taverns in the concrete canyons and urbanized beach resorts of 1930s New York, but for now draw attention to the kind of model the Yanks had in mind.

In truth of course, the tavern, inn, taproom, call it what you will, was as old as America. After all, the British founded the principal American colonies, or took them over early as Manhattan, and provided the major cultural impetus including the English language.

The comfy resort where one could relax and sip punch, flip, cider, or ale was therefore venerable and enduring, and co-existed somehow with the more nefarious notions of saloon and cocktail bar. This benign image never left the folk memory, but was less potent in certain periods.

In the late-1800s as I discussed recently, news coverage of English and American taverns tempered the old affection with more realism on the tavern’s dangers. This was the result of a long process of temperance campaigning, so that alcohol’s role in society changed to a kind of conditional status.

I’ll review soon as well perspectives of the English pub in another period, the years leading up to WW I – height of prohibitionist sentiment. The Gothenburg experiment came in for a close look, as did schemes in Britain favouring alcohol-free pubs.

By the 1930s though, the English inn/hostelry/tavern/alehouse (all confounded happily in the American mind) rebounded in prestige. Suddenly, English taverns were everywhere, in the major cities, in the basements of plush suburban homes.

The fashion was rivalled perhaps only by the Irish pub craze of the last 30 years.

Stories in the press burnished and consecrated the old image, and what better model than “Britain’s most distinguished licensee”. She was no less a Prime Minister’s socially prominent daughter, Ishbel MacDonald.

This Pathe clip explains crisply what she did – she bought an inn in Speen, Buckinghamshire, The Plow, and married a local villager to boot.

He died 15 years later and she remarried. Sadly, the second husband died only three years after. MacDonald finally returned to Scotland, passing away in 1982.

By all reports she was a remarkable woman, and must indeed have been the perfect pub landlady. Her mother had died young and Ishbel became chatelaine for her father, honing what seems innate social skills to the max. She had the personal touch long before the current crop of commoners who married into royalty.

This 1938 press story in the Philadelphia Inquirer dished the details of running the pub and marrying Norman Ridgely. It dazzled American readers with an upstairs-downstairs scenario. Villagers fretted that Ishbel’s “breeding” would alter the tone of Saturday nights in the pub, but were converted by her winning manner.

In fact, Ramsay MacDonald was born to humble origins, which he overcame in social terms but not materially. Ishbel’s management skills as publican/hotelier in part came from savvy economizing as hostess at 10 Downing Street, as Ramsay had no independent fortune to spend.

The Plow endured for years after Ishbel retired to the MacDonald seat in Lossiemouth. In the last generation the pub functioned mainly as a stylish restaurant, serving a chic clientèle in the Chilterns. Today it is a private residence.

The image shown above is from a second Pathe clip, picturing the good-looking hostess with handsome townsman Ridgley.

Note re image: Image above was sourced as noted and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes, and for fair comment. All feedback welcomed.

The Butter Tarts of Ginger Farm

The “Ginger Farm Special”

What is or was Ginger Farm? And wherefore its butter tart?

Ginger Farm today lies under tons of concrete, asphalt, and steel. From 1924-1958 it was a working farm near Milton, ON. Milton is about a 50-minute drive west of Toronto along Highway 401, the broad ribbon vital to Ontario commerce. From Milton you can wend to Guelph, Cambridge, Kitchener, London, Chatham, and finally Windsor just before the bridge to Detroit.

In the late 1950s when the “401” was being planned, 100-acre Ginger Farm was expropriated by the Ontario government. Part of it now lies under a clover-leaf linking Highways 25 and 401. The other part sits under the Maplehurst Correctional Facility, a prison built in the early 1970s (known to initiates I hear as the Milton Hilton).

Ginger Farm, as the 2009 book Chronicles of Ginger Farm explains, was owned by Lancelot and Gwendoline Clarke, a couple who purchased it in 1924. Gwendoline, nee Fitz-Gerald, was born in Sudbury, Suffolk (England). She married Lancelot in England while he was on leave from the Canadian Army.

Lancelot was also from Suffolk but had emigrated to Canada in his teens. He worked in farming near Milton and held other occupations before returning to Britain with the army.

Once arrived in Canada Gwendoline and Lancelot went out west to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to try farming. After some years they moved with their two children to Ontario and purchased the plot near Milton, where they remained for life. Gwendoline died in 1966.

In her spare time Gwendoline authored a great many newspaper columns on farm and rural life in Ontario, called “Chronicles of Ginger Farm”. David Mitchell-Evans, a grandchild of the Clarkes, collected many of these for the book Chronicles.

The farm was dubbed ginger not because the plant was cultivated there, but for reasons that combine whimsy, a literary sense, and knowledge of life’s hard knocks.

As set out in Chronicles, Gwendoline explained in 1929:

…let me tell you, right here and now, in case there are any who don’t know it, that besides brain and brawn, it requires ginger of the highest quality and spiciest order to come anywhere near success [in farming], and the smaller the capital, the more ginger required.

It is a sign of how much society has changed that “ginger” in this sense sounds old-fashioned.

Gwendoline and Ginger Farm became well-known in Ontario via her regular column. It appeared in nearby Acton’s Free Press and was reprinted in other newspapers in Ontario.

Her writing also appeared in England, perhaps through the Women’s Institute, of which she was a member via its Scotch Block chapter.

Many columns were reprinted in The Flesherton Advance, a newspaper in the Grey Highlands region. Flesherton is a 2.5-3 hour drive north of Toronto. Gwendoline’s writing in the Advance covered the war years, describing the challenges of rising retail prices and falling crop revenues. She also recounted shortages of staples such as fruits, nuts, tobacco, and coffee.

Her writing limns daily occurrences – raising crops, calving and other livestock management, the change of the seasons, and always the weather factor. Occasionally attractions were sought nearby, usually a movie.

Gwendoline showed a lively and intuitive intelligence, always practical but with a questing bent, as seen by her interest in the past, or desire to read more than time afforded her. In fact, she wrote on local history in separate publications. She was perceptive about both animal and human natures, and in general expressed a live-and-let-live philosophy.

The Special Butter Tart

In a 1941 column she describes a makeshift butter tart she made. Due to wartime conditions “currants and raisins” were not available to add to the basic egg/sugar/butter filling. So she hit on adding mincemeat, meaning of course the sweetened, preserved fruit mixture laid down from time immemorial for Christmas.

It proved a clear success, to the point her taciturn husband, always dubbed “Partner”, was moved to praise its qualities albeit “not solicited”.

Gwendoline starts by explaining that generally she doesn’t do recipes, to use our 2018 vernacular. There is a mild sense of dismissal, I think, for more leisured women who have time to ponder and compile recipes.

As a busy farm-wife proudly asserting her role in running a parlous communal business, she had little time for what she possibly viewed as a (relative) frivolity. Still, this dish was so good she had to pass it on.

When writing recently of butter tarts history, I concluded the U.K. butter and border tarts seem more complex in construction than our Canadian butter tarts. Similar ingredients are used, but more of them in one recipe than we do. See for example this U.K. website’s (Mary Mary Quite Contrary’s) recipe for the Ecclefechan butter tart.

Our butter tarts typically contain walnut, pecan, raisins, or currants (or none of these), but rarely all of them, or three, or even two together. And rarely or never have I seen glacé cherry or candied citrus, whereas the U.K. analogues often feature them.

(I’m endeavouring to describe what one might expect in the classic tradition).

Maybe the multi-fruit explosion of a mincemeat-goosed butter tart reminded the Clarkes of their younger days in England, eating similar-tasting pies at festivities.

Gwendoline Clarke expressed the wish that her version, should it find general approval, be known as the Ginger Farm Special. This never happened as far as I know, but it’s not too late. Let’s spread the word for what sounds a fine dessert, and one with an engaging backstory.* I haven’t tried the recipe but I don’t doubt the Clarkes are good guides.

Readers of a cookery bent: fetch up the mincemeat and give it a try, especially with Noel not distant. If enough do, the toothsome phoenix will rise again.**

Note re images and quotation: The first image is in the public domain and appears in the Wikipedia entry for Milton, ON, here.  The second image is drawn from the 1941 article in the Flesherton Advance linked in the text. The quotation is from the book Chronicles of Ginger Farm (2009, published by Bastian Publishing) as identified and linked in the text (via Google Books). All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Said material is used for educational and historical purposes, and for fair comment. All feedback welcomed.


*The mincemeat-butter tarts recipe is not mentioned in the 2009 Chronicles book.

**It may be noted also that Gwendoline’s butter tart is a whole pie, not baked in tartlets that is. See in our previous post, under “Proximate Origins of the Canadian Butter Tart”, my discussion of the shape issue. In addition, as mincemeat frequently contains candied ginger, the Ginger Farm Special can be said plausibly to contain ginger, notwithstanding that the plant was not the reason for the farm’s name. This entry finally of real ginger to a product of Ginger Farm must have pleased Gwendoline secretly.


Butter Tarts in North America

[Note: The original version of the post below was published on November 6, 2018 and the text now reflects numerous edits made to and including November 29, 2018. A version of this essay is being finalized for journal publication early next year].


Below, I discuss both the Canadian and U.S. histories pertaining to the butter tart.*

To my knowledge, the U.S. history has not been previously canvassed. While I have utilized many sources, the U.S. references were selected mainly from digitized, historical archives of northeast U.S. newspapers. Despite the regional tilt, I believe my survey and conclusions have more general application.

In addition, this tour d’horizon provides an interesting “compare and contrast” with Canadian butter tart history.

Summary of Canadian History

The Canadian history has been discussed in general and specialist culinary books, articles, papers, encyclopedias, and blogs. The relevant earlier sources are spread among a number of these resources from our survey.

This account written by the County of Simcoe, Ontario explains well that a “filling for tarts” recipe appeared in the Royal Victoria Cook Book published in Barrie in 1900 by the Royal Victoria Hospital’s Woman’s Auxiliary. The recipe was contributed by a Mrs. Malcolm MacLeod of that city. Her own first name was Mary, all as explained in the link. She did not employ the term butter tarts, but her recipe is clearly that, sans the name.

Her filling of sugar, eggs, butter, and currants baked in pastry shells makes a classic Canadian butter tart albeit countless variations exist. Some use vinegar or lemon juice, some add nuts of some kind, the sucrose content can be from different types of sugars and syrups, and vanilla or other flavouring can be added.

A Toronto “Breakfast TV” journalist recreated this Ur-recipe earlier this year. The result (efficiently produced by the unflappable chef!) is clearly the modern butter tart, as earlier researchers have attested. Still, Mary MacLeod did not use the name.

Which is the first print source to do so?

It may be the Vogue Cook Book, which you can read here in fully digitized form. It was published by The News, an evening Toronto newspaper. See pp. 91 and 105 for two butter tart recipes.

Although a copyright or publication year is not stated in the book, the publication month and year are December 1908 according to the analysis of bibliographer Elizabeth Driver in her 2008 Culinary Landmarks: a Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949, see here.  

The recipe contributed by “Mrs. G.M.B.” in Toronto is often cited as influential as it sets out, like the 1900 Barrie recipe, the “core” recipe used to this day. The other, from “Clarice” in Plattsville, ON seems eccentric at least in retrospect. Her filling has no egg and a lump of butter is placed over a dry mixture of flour and sugar before baking (a clue to another possible derivation  of “butter” in butter tart?).

Still, both recipes use similar albeit not identical ingredients, and both are baked dishes.

A “sugar tarts” recipe from the same Clarice appears on the same page. In effect it is a butterscotch tart, different from the typical butter tart in that the filling, otherwise similar to the other’s, is boiled on the stove and poured into baked shells to cool; there is no baking in the shells. I will revisit this form of tart below in connection with similar American and Canadian versions, some of which are termed butter tarts.

Further, in the undated, second edition of The Beaver Valley Collection of Latest and Best Recipes that appeared sometime between 1907 (first edition) and 1912 (third edition), a Mrs. S. Hooey contributed a recipe for butter tarts. See again E. Driver’s discussion, here.

It is unclear which book holds precedence since the second edition of The Beaver Valley book could have been published before December 1908, although given that the third edition appeared in 1912, it seems more probable the second edition of Beaver Valley appeared after the Vogue Cook Book.

In any case, both are key early texts appearing about the same time. Taken too with the earlier Barrie recipe, E. Driver’s statement that Ontario butter tarts emerged at the turn of the century seems reasonable.

Of course usage was likely older on an oral or unpublished basis, as frequently occurs before someone thinks to write down a recipe.

Next, there is the Canadian Farm Cook Book published in 1911, which set out six recipes seriatum. Each uses sugar, egg, and butter for the filling, and all but one adds currants, a common ingredient in modern butter tarts.

All are from different centres in Ontario. You can read them in the fully-digitized Canadian Farm Cook Book, here.

The Five Roses Cookbook, of which the first two editions appeared in 1913 and 1915, published by an industrial miller on Lake of the Woods, also contains a butter tart recipe. See, in the digitized 1915 edition, pg. 79. This book helped popularize the dish nationally due to the book’s cross-country distribution. This recent article by Julie Van Rosendaal in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail offers useful background in this regard.

Canadian food authority Elizabeth Baird sets out a recipe for butter tarts on the website of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, here, adapted from the 1913 edition. This version blends some maple syrup in and uses chips of walnut.

After WW I the dish became a mainstay of Ontario baking and, if not a quite a national Canadian specialty, something considerably more than just Ontario’s.

Proximate Origins of the Canadian Butter Tart

As some food writers concur, the Scots Ecclefechan butter tart, aka the Ecclefechan tart, and their boon companion the Border tart, are surely the immediate ancestors to Canada’s butter tart.

Some observers however take a different, or at least more nuanced, view of origin, suggesting for example that Quebec’s sugar pie has had some influence on Ontario’s butter tart.

Caitlin Coleman of Toronto studied aspects of butter tart history in 2009 while in graduate studies at University of Toronto. In a personal communication to us recently she made the interesting point that vinegar pie, while likely not a direct predecessor of butter tarts, may have influenced butter tarts given vinegar is a frequent ingredient and may be a leftover element from that forgotten dessert. (We thank members of the Culinary Historians of Canada (CHC) and Ms. Coleman for providing information on a presentation she made on butter tarts in 2009 to a CHC conference that honoured the work of Canadian cookbook bibliographer Elizabeth Driver).

For the two U.K. types butter seems a constant in the doughs. The fillings usually share a base of eggs, sugar or other sweetening, and butter, with various dried fruits or nuts added for a relish. An acid element seems optional (vinegar, lemon juice), ditto for a spice such as cinnamon.

The Scots cookery authority Catherine Brown gives a recipe for Ecclefechan’s tart in her 2011 book Classic Scots Cookery, here.  She also describes the Border tart and states the Ecclefechan butter tart is a variation.

These British forms are known it seems primarily in Scotland but also parts of England. A 1937 recipe in the Australian newspaper Truth for “Old English Butter Tarts” is similar to Ecclefechan’s but more simplified. This modern English butter tarts recipe, from the All Recipes site, is similar to the Australian, and both resemble the Ontario one closely. Further below we cite similar tarts in the U.S., described as English or Welsh, going back to the mid-1900s and possibly earlier.

The line (sorry!) between Border tart and Ecclefechan butter tart seems vague. The London Eats site attempts to draw it, while stating with self-deprecation that the attempt is questionable. The Border tart seems often iced, while the other is not usually although a touch of meringue may be added, or whipped cream as Ms. Brown advises. And the Ecclefechan can, as London Eats confirms, be in tartlet shape while the Border tart seems rarely to be so.

The shortcrust of the Border tart – it seems typically a shortcrust – often incorporates almonds. The Ecclefechan generally does not, in line with practice in Ontario.

In general, both Border and Ecclefechan tarts when compared to the 1857 description of butter tart mentioned below (in turn it references a 1709 recipe) reflect the same kind of dish: a pastry meant to hold an egg-enriched sugar and butter blend further enhanced with nuts or preserved fruit. This goes some way in our view to showing the butter tart – that terminology – came first.

By virtue of using typically both nuts and fruit, and mixed fruit at that, the Ecclefechan tart seems “busier” than the typical butter tart of Canada. Many Ecclefechan recipes also describe a flattish, flan-shape. The commonly used shortcrust for this has a different texture than some Canadian butter tarts that employ a shortbread crust (cookie-style).

But Ecclefechan tarts are also made in small, “tartlet” quantities, where the result looks very close to Ontario’s. See e.g. here, from the All Recipes site again, or the Walker’s commercial line of boxed Ecclefechan tarts. And pastry shells would have varied in composition surely (pie crust, shortbread, etc.) depending on the family, local practice, and quality; at least in Canada that has occurred and we suspect no less in Scotland.

The 1937 Australian example calls for using a “patty tin“, which produces small tarts via the rounded or fluted indentations. Occasionally too in Canada whole pies, or square pies, are made that otherwise use standard butter tart ingredients. This Alberta recipe for a pan of square butter tarts, from the site “A Pretty Life in the Suburbs”, uses a shortbread crust instead of the typical pie crust. Many Toronto bakers sell a form of square butter tart, as well.

Another recipe for the Ecclefechan tart, sourced by U.K. travel author Bruce Stannard from a noted hotel, is similar to Ms. Brown’s except using the tartlet shape.

Hence, shape or size are not of themselves a reliable demarcation between the U.K. and Canadian butter tarts, and neither is crust type in our view.

The attractive “Cook’s Info” culinary site, in useful historical notes, argues that our butter tart and American pecan pie both derive from the U.K. butter tart. It further makes the point that some examples of the Scots and Canadian traditions are indistinguishable, which to my mind is decisive.

There is yet more. A strong Scottish and English emigration to Ontario followed the initial influx of American Loyalists, including to Barrie. And the surnames MacLeod and Hooey seem Scots or at least Gaelic.

The British influence on the Ontario butter tart seems inevitable even as the latter represents a particularly toothsome form.

A New Idea Regarding the Ultimate Origins of the U.K. Butter and Border Tarts

In preliminary notes in 2016 I discussed the entry for “butter-tart” in the Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English by Thomas Wright, first edition issued in 1857. Wright cited The Queen’s Royal Cookery’s recipe for butter-tart, which dates from 1709 per this British Library notation.

The author was T. Hall, described on the frontispiece as a “free London cook”. In the second edition of Hall’s book issued in 1713, see the digitized copy in the Library of Congress collection, here, the recipe as Wright described it appears at pg. 140, save that it is termed simply Butter Tart (no hyphen):

The “mackrooms” mentioned are macaroons in our view (not macarons), which were made with almonds, egg, and sugar, and later sometimes coconut. A modern Border tart from the artisan bakery Alex Dalgetty in the Scots Border country claims its recipe is the original form. See the photograph included, the tart features a double-crusted, “sponge” filling of sugar, almond and coconut.

It is remarkably similar to T. Hall’s recipe above, and an example of living history.

We have not been able to trace a butter tart before Hall although he was known to have liberally borrowed some recipes from other books, as common at the time.

The recipe advised to “bard” with “paste” (pastry) a filling composed in the main of beaten egg, mackrooms, and butter, so that the tart is not open-face in other words.

Despite no prior citations to our knowledge, the recipe appears to us older than c.1700, perhaps Middle Ages or earlier, and is in any case recognizable as an ancestor of the modern butter tart, albeit more elaborate, given too of course it bears the name. The sugar component of the macaroons would have sweetened the filling – perhaps honey was used in some cases – and the nutty taste of the almonds continued in the frequent use of nuts in the later U.K. and Ontario butter tarts.

The fact that Wright referenced the butter tart in 1857 is not simply a surplus later citation, as it shows perhaps the term was in use in his day as a provincialism – one of the provinces of his book, so to speak.

If in use in Wright’s day, it reinforces a direct U.K. lineage for Ontario’s butter tart.

I hypothesize that at least from Queen Anne’s time, but probably earlier, cooks called a tart “barded” where a top layer of pastry was used, and by corruption of pronunciation over time, barded became butter and Border in tarts so named, even though the double-layer of pastry was finally dispensed with. The suggestion is novel to my knowledge, but warrants at a minimum further consideration.

A theory current in food history circles for some years is that U.K. butter tarts and the similar Border tarts originated in the Borders country that straddles the boundary of Scotland and England, and that butter is a corruption of Border, as butter is no more important in these tarts than in much other confectionary. This of course could take in Hall’s butter tart.

This theory is attractive, but all avenues need further exploration to aim at more conclusiveness on the questions.

For example, unlike for the butter tart, it appears there is no documentation for the Border tart before 1900, which suggests to me the butter tart came first and inspired the other, presumably by corruption of the distinguishing term. That the dish survived better, it appears, in the Borders country may be the happy coincidence of the geographical name suggesting a connection.

United States References to Butter Tarts – General

It turns out there is a great number of references in the U.S. press to butter tarts, some of which precede the first Canadian citations.

I consider below a representative number, and whether these tarts are the same as the Canadian one. In brief, many clearly are not, some clearly are but were borrowed from Canada due to cross-border contact, and others are more ambiguous. It is likely the same kind of tart as in Canada existed episodically in the U.S., but directly from a U.K. influence.

References to Butter Torte and Butter Tart in that connection

What is a butter torte, and why is it relevant to this discussion? A butter torte, sometimes called buttercream torte, is a German or Central European cake, generally multiple layers interleaved with buttercream or another butter-and-sugar-based filling. The Canadian website Dairy Goodness offers a good recipe for a mocha version.

A butter torte was also sometimes a puff pastry-based confection in which a fruit filling provided a signature flavour.

For good historical background on the German and Austrian tortes, see Michael Krondl at pp. 280-283 of his 2011 Sweet Inventions: a History of Dessert.

The United States Cookbook by William Vollmer was published in numerous editions in Philadelphia including in 1865. It was reissued in 1893, and you can read a number of butter torte/butter tart recipes in that version, i.e., appearing alternately in German and English.

Vollmer wrote the book in German and a translator (see title page) rendered each page successively in English. That is, the English version of butter torte is rendered as butter tart.

See Vollmer’s recipes for these at pp. 149-150, here. The fruits specified included apple, raspberry, and currants. In other words: a simple fruit-filled tart known to a number of European cuisines and popularized internationally early.

In Jessup Whitehead’s seventh edition (1894) of his The American Pastry Cookno reference can be found to the butter torte or butter tart. Whiteheads’ book was directed in part (see title page) to commercial bakeries.

This suggests Vollmer’s version, as his original German text implies, was ethnic in character, not a mainstream type of food.

While clearly different from the British and Canadian butter tarts we mention Vollmer’s “faux” 19th-century version, since subsequent U.S. news ads for “butter tarts” may in some cases be this German specialty, the cake or fruit-in-puff paste tart, especially where German immigrants were the bakers.

Reference to Butter Tart in a French Norman Context

In 1889 a short fictional story appeared in New York’s The Epoch, a topical magazine and journal. It was called “The Uncle From America”, adapted from the French of Emil Souvestre by Isabel Smithson. It states that a “butter-tart” was served to a long-absent uncle visiting relations in Normandy, somewhere near Dieppe. Cider accompanied a sumptuous repast in which the tart figured.

It is clear from the context that this is some type of French pastry tart, probably “au beurre“, even as we cannot trace a contemporary Norman or other French one called “tarte au beurre“. The term clearly has nothing to do with the British and Canadian butter tarts, but I mention it for completeness, especially as the story, a homily, was reprinted many times in the U.S. press. (The uncle is welcomed, as a presumably rich benefactor-to-be, with the best hospitality the hosts can muster, when it turns out he is without resources, however it all ends well).

The Butterscotch Tart

On July 21, 1914 in the Brooklyn, NY Daily Star, a recipe appeared for “butter tarts”:

One egg, one cup of granulated sugar, butter size of an egg, one-fourth cup of milk, one cup currants. Put all ingredients together and boil until like soft custard: flavor and cool. When cool, put in tart shells and serve.

This recipe appeared the same year in different parts of the northeast, including in Buffalo, NY. In a recipe in the Brooklyn Daily Star in April 1914 for the same butter tart, it was attributed to the Los Angeles Express. This dish, while using similar ingredients to the ordinary butter tart, clearly is a different confection – the different cooking treatment ensures that – yet the fact of sharing the same name with the more familiar butter tart suggests a relationship.

Perhaps the Canadian and U.K. butter tarts were all prepared originally as a butterscotch tart still is, before ovens became common household equipment.

In Flesherton, ON’s The Flesherton Advance on January 6, 1937 two recipes for butter tarts appeared, the classic baked one, and a second similar to the boiled version above but sans the egg. The second was contributed by a resident of Delia, Alberta, the first was local.

Modern recipes for butterscotch tart are easy to find on both sides of the Atlantic, here is one from Nigella Lawson’s website.

Perhaps at some point the butter tart term for simplicity and clarity became associated with the baked butter tart, while the other is called now exclusively butterscotch tart. A search of these respective terms seems to confirm this, but it remains a matter of impression.

I don’t think the butterscotch tarts of America were influenced by the butter tart of Canada, they are too dispersed geographically for that and are documented at about the same time the Canadian butter tart emerged. Why the baked version did not become as popular in the U.S. as Canada is hard to say. I suppose, to mix metaphors, the Americans had other fish to fry.

References to Butter Tarts in Niagara Frontier that Salute Canadian Influence

Throughout the mid- and later-20th century, many recipes for a Canadian-style butter tart appear in Buffalo, NY newspapers or elsewhere in what Empire State residents call, or used to, the Niagara Frontier. Many of these acknowledge Canadian influence, as this one of September 29, 1959 in the Buffalo Courier-Express (it has an interesting feature of a teaspoon of instant coffee).

Others are not attributed this way, but can be presumed to have been inspired by cross-border contact. I say this due not just to the proximity of that part of New York to Ontario, but the fact that baked butter tart recipes appear not to have proliferated in the state until after they became well-established in Ontario.

At the same time, other references to butter tarts in New York’s press, and outside New York, cannot be so easily explained.

U.S. References to Butter Tarts That are Arguably Ambiguous

Consider a 1962 article from the (American) Niagara Falls Gazette, in which the following appears:

Mrs. Stewart makes elaborate preparations for holiday festivities and has an imposing array of Welsh desserts. Clockwise are her Teisen Lychwan or Welsh cakes; Bara Brith, (fruit bread); English Trifle; and a platter of butter tarts, lemon tarts and small fruit cakes in paper cups. Her plum pudding, topped with holly, is in the center.

The very clear photo shows Mrs. Stewart in traditional Welsh costume and her array of treats mentioned. The butter tarts look just like ours. Yet there is no reference to Canada, they are described, evidently via Mrs. Stewart, as Welsh as for the other foods. Could it be she discovered the butter tarts across the bridge, and simply assumed (correctly) they had a distant Britannic inspiration, and just called them Welsh from convenience?

It’s possible. I cannot find an example in current culinary literature of a Welsh butter tart or border tart. Interestingly, a 2011 detective book called A Killer’s Christmas in Wales written by Elizabeth Duncan, part of her Penny Brannigan series, includes a reference to “brandy butter tarts“, but Elizabeth Duncan is Canadian! Perhaps though she did notice such tarts in a Welsh bakery at one point.

In The Hamburg Sun in May 1963, a bake sale for the Unitarian Church offered “‘Molly Jones’ English butter tarts”:

Home baked goods will feature fruit breads, home baked beans and brown bread, coffee cakes, home made bread, “Molly Jones” English butter tarts and cookies.

Hamburg is just west of Buffalo, not far again from Canada. A similar example, with recipe, in 1929 in more distant Schenectady, NY is called simply English Tart, and virtually identical to the basic butter tart recipe of Ontario.

There is no reference to Canada, or details of the Molly Jones, for Hamburg’s butter tart. Butter tarts can indeed be English as we know, so could these dishes, as perhaps Mrs. Stewart’s, have entered the local baking scene directly via a U.K. influence? We think this rather likely.

In 1958, an American who married a man of Scottish background made “Scotch butter tarts”, see this interesting account in the Buffalo Courier-Express.

She states she got the small metal tins from “commercial” examples of butter tarts sold in Canada – all Ontarians reading know those tins! – but otherwise the cultural reference here is Scotland, no differently than for the other Scots dishes she made for her family.

Her recipe (partly obscured by the shield of the uploader) appears to be the Ecclefechan/Ontario type. The only difference I see is cake crumbs are used to bulk out the filling. A vestige of the crumbly filling in T. Hall’s 1709/1713 recipe…?

In January 1950 in the Wilton Bulletin in Wilton, CT, rather remote from the Niagara Frontier, a Beata Fortune advertises “butter tarts”, Britannic-sounding shortbread, and brandy snaps: no apparent German connection.

See also this Mississippi survival of butter tarts, presumably implanted long ago by Scots-Irish or Scots settlers.

All this to say, the butter tart of the U.K. almost certainly has had a long implantation in the U.S. for which Canada cannot be credited. Unlike Canada though, the dish never flourished there, never became marked for culinary distinction as one might say for apple pie, or the milkshake.

U.S. Butter Tarts Advertisements Circa-1900 and More Recently, in Greenfield, MA

One of the most interesting cases concerns Charles Voetsch, a German immigrant baker from Thuringen. He came to Greenfield, MA, in the north of the state, an area certainly well-insulated from Canada. This 1909 sketch of his career in the Greenfield Recorder explains he came in 1896, set up a bakery, and sold it in 1909 after 13 successful years in business.

He had numerous ads in the Greenfield Recorder that included butter tarts. They appeared between 1900 and 1908 with (in different combinations) eclairs, Charlotte Russe, cream puffs, whipped cream cakes, and frozen pudding as companion offerings. These are vaguely French or Anglo-American-type preparations, not really typical of German or Viennese baking.

The earliest ad I found, via the Fulton Historical Newspapers archive as for most of the news references herein, is from December 5, 1900:

I suspect similar Voetsch ads appeared before 1900 but the archives mentioned appear to start in 1900 for this newspaper.

Was this a Scots-style butter tart, implanted in Greenfield in a fashion similar to its (presumed) implantation in Ontario? Or was it perhaps the German fruit-laced puff pastry William Vollmer wrote about both in German and English and a successful (German-American) baker such as Voetsch can be presumed to have known about?

We cannot say, except that the item was popular enough to have appeared in numerous ads by his bakery in the same paper mentioned. Here is one more, from December 14, 1904.

Holtermann’s is a surviving family bakery in Staten Island, NY, founded by a German ancestor in the late-1800s who must have been much like Voetsch. The Holtermann website describes numerous specialties that were also advertised by Voetsch in the early 1900s, and more modern ones, but not butter tarts. Perhaps Holtermann carried them in 1900.

Let’s return to modern Greenfield, MA, though. Foster’s, a family-owned supermarket in the city founded in 1941, may still sell butter tarts as the current website includes an image of a butter tart, the pecan-type familiar to Ontarians, with accompanying recipe (the Scots-Canadian type).

A legend under the image states the latter originated with a canola oil manufacturer, so the image and perhaps the recipe may not represent any butter tarts currently sold by Foster’s, or may not represent the type it sold earlier in the 1900s (see below). Foster’s current bakery product list, here, does not reference butter tarts, so we are unclear if any are still sold. It appears the bakery list was recently changed as earlier this month when we first examined it, butter tarts were listed.

In a 1988 Foster’s supermarket ad, butter tarts were clearly available. The ad was placed in the same newspaper in which Voetsch advertised his butter tarts three generations earlier:

This ad supplies a possible clue that what Voetsch sold c.1900 was the fruited, German puff-pastry version. One way to interpret the ad is two types of butter tart are sold, a raspberry one and pecan one. I suppose one can argue that it meant, raspberry tart, pecan tart, and butter tart, three types all different, in which case it is still an open question what “butter tart” meant.

A raspberry, Ontario-style butter tart sounds atypical to say the least. Such a Greenfield butter tart (if it is that) has a hint of William Vollmer, and perhaps too shows what Voetsch sold under that name. A puff pastry flavoured with pecan is also still current, a quick search discloses many recipes.

Other Early-1900s U.S. Bakery Ads for Butter Tarts Outside Upstate New York

The Voetsch butter tart was probably similar to some butter tarts advertised in the same era elsewhere in the northeast (at least). On September 24, 1901 in Wilmington, Del., a deluxe grocery store, Hanscom’s, sold butter tarts together with vanilla jumble and marshmallow and jam sandwiches, for one price by the pound.

The jumble was a type of cookie, and the “sandwiches” perhaps were like the dome-shaped, chocolate-coated jam and marshmallow cookies still sold today. All these items seemingly formed an assortment, see the wording of the ad.

The Philadelphia Inquirer on August 2, 1904 advertised butter tarts as part of an assortment that included “diamond figs, [n?]ice assorted fruits, pineapple turnovers, and cocoanut combination bars”:

The grocery store Siegel Cooper in New York, in the World on May 28, 1906, advertised butter tarts in an assortment that also featured a fruit sandwich, vanilla jelly, and date fingers. See here another example from the same retailer earlier in the same month.

A newspaper ad by the Star Bakery in Michigan on April 7, 1917 offered butter tarts along with cream puffs and angel food cake – seemingly no German context.

(In Toronto today, some grocery stores sell an in-house biscuit tray that may be similar to these assortments. Here is an example from Longo’s, and it includes clearly butter tarts, the usual Ontario type of course. These are smaller than usual-size, for “two-bites”).

And so, which tart in these cases? The Scots butter tart? The German fruited one? The butterscotch tart? Maybe sometimes it was one or another although we incline it may well have been the Scots type, given grocery assortments of biscuits are still sold, at least in Toronto, that contain “our” butter tart.

An Ontario influence would seem too early for the cases mentioned between 1901 and 1906 but the Michigan case may be different, as the town in question, Crystal Falls, is just below Lake Superior. Perhaps by 1917 the Five Roses Cookbook had penetrated there given ship navigation around the Great Lakes.


The butter tart is deservedly Ontario’s pet snack, a word that seems too derisory to describe it at its best. Its distinction comes from the few ingredients used vs. a more complex (in general) construction overseas; the purity and full flavour are best expressed in the simple way we make it. Anyway, we perfected it.

At the same time, the butter tart has had an American career. In some cases it was our’s transplanted, in others it was Scotland’s or Albion’s brought direct to the U.S. but never becoming a thing there as it did here. Yet in other cases, it was a German-type butter torte or indeed Britannic but the line of confections known as the butterscotch tart, which at bottom is a different pastry.

Canadian entrepreneurs have attempted periodically to introduce butter tarts to Americans. The actress Suzanne Sommers and her Canadian-born husband tried a few decades ago but it didn’t work.** An entrepreneur, Asher Weiss, is currently trying in New York as reported in the city’s Daily News, and we wish him well.*** The headline stated butter tarts have “arrive[d] in New York”. But not for the first time.

Note re images: the images and quotations above are all drawn from sources identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes, and for fair comment. All feedback welcomed.

[See also our post following on the Ginger Farm Butter Tart].


*All consideration of apple butter tarts, made that is with the product apple butter, and lemon or orange butter tarts, has been excluded as the dominance of the fresh fruit flavour seems to take these out of the basic Scots-Anglo-Canadian butter tart family. The peanut butter, or peanut butter-and-chocolate, tart likewise seems of a different order to us. Incidentally, chocolate butter tarts simpliciter are quite popular in Ontario now but we think these quite wrongheaded – I’ve never had one that seems “right”. Our preference in classic butter tarts is the plain Jane type, or with currants. More is superfluous and can detract from the purity and intensity of taste.

**The investment was referred to in this L.A. Times obituary of their business partner, Mr. A. J. Maxwell.

***See his company’s lively website, Btarts, here.










The English pub in 1886

In the Pubs the Pundits Come and Go, Talking of …

A compact, 1886 portrait of the English public house appeared in numerous American newspapers, including this one in Owego, NY. The piece is credited to the London correspondent of the Chicago Herald and was evidently syndicated.

It reads:

There is a great deal more sociability in the English public house than in the Ameri­can sample room. In the lanes and side streets of the fashionable part of London may be found the same character of old-fashioned public as in the city. Every one of these has its regular customers, and its ” snuggery” in the evening is generally full of its patrons who are, for the most part, the coachman, grooms, and “gentlemen’s gentlemen,” otherwise valets of the “classes” who reside in the neighboring Belgravia. Here the Jeameses canvass the characters of their various lords, and ladies, and more true scandal is talked in these public house snuggeries than in any of their ladies’ boudoirs.

The village public is quite an institution by itself, and is as distinct in character from its London brother as chalk is from cheese. Here the landlord still retains some of the qualities and bearings of “mine host” of former days. The public is the headquarters of the political lights of the village, and doctor, lawyer and farmer meet together in the snuggery to discuss the merits of a popular race horse or a popular statesman just as frequently now as they did in days gone by. The railroad and telegraph have had wonderfully little effect in some of the rural parts of England, and Hodge, in the village public, is just as densely ignorant of anything that goes on beyond his own immediate kin as ever he was. To him “t’sqoir” and the “big house” are the epitomes of all that is great and noble, and the opinions of the lord of the manor give a coloring to everything discussed in the “snuggery.”

The interesting term sample room for bar or saloon may have a Windy City origin – how apposite – and is explained in this entry of the online Encyclopedia of Chicago History.

Some condescension apart, The Chicago Herald usefully sketches the Victorian pub including the distinction between village and urban versions.

The country pub retained vestiges of an earlier time, when deference was paid to local notables. These could include the landlord himself as we saw in this posting. 

Here, the high-ranking still exercised a powerful hold on the pub denizens. This was not just from tradition and habit I think, but the likelihood the squire held the freehold in the pub, or employed part of the village in some way.

In the country, professional classes might frequent the snug in the pub to socialize. In Belgravia, one of the best parts of London then or now, that aerie was used by the retinues of gentry and other monied people.

Those who know The Star Tavern in Belgrave Mews, Belgravia can imagine it was exactly the kind of place described by the Herald for that quarter.

The snug, or snug-room, or snuggery, was a small chamber closed off in some way from the main bar, sometimes with frosted glass. It tended to house women, or prominent persons of some kind or be used for official purposes (inquests, vote-count).

Victorian pubs in tony districts could evidently see the snugs dominated by elite employees of prominent families or other poo-bahs. I can’t thing off-hand of the right sociological term for this but I’m sure some readers can. (Inverted something or other?).

All in all, not much has changed seemingly in terms of how the English pubs are used, after work, for chatting and down-time, with each having its regulars, etc.

It’s as if life has gone on in the pub for hundreds of years more or less autonymously while the social scientists, writers and artists, and journalists who study them assiduously, come and go.

With apologies to Eliot, the mermaids sing, each to each, but not to the public house – for which it is doubtless grateful.




An Even-Tempered Look at the English Pub, 1870s

New York’s The Sun in 1877 covered the English pub, one of many articles in the American press between the post-Civil War period and the 1950s dealing with the topic.

The pub exercised a certain fascination on the American public, and this continued for a long time. It manifested itself in different ways, including the building of American restaurants and bars that sought to emulate the tap-house/pub/tavern/inn (largely undifferentiated in American eyes) or the Americans’ conception of it.

Some lines from The Sun’s article:

LONDON, Nov. 1.—In Great Britain, everybody, approximately speaking, drinks wine, ale, or beer—women and children not excepted. A very large majority of the English people look upon ale and beer as being quite as necessary a part of of their living as tea and coffee—and as being quite as legitimate, too. …. In England, a man who does not drink is something of an oddity. Abstinence is looked upon as a whim; few can detect in it a real principle. … Nearly all families keep a jug of beer or ale in the house, and all partake of it daily. When the jug is empty, the wife or daughter thinks nothing of running into the public house for a new supply.

…. The English public house is comparatively respectable. The occupation itself is considered reputable, and the most attractive house-fronts in almost any business street, are those of the public houses. Within, they contrast very favorably with other places of business … When people all drink beer, the places where beer is sold cannot well be other than reasonably decent. I would not be understood as saying that the average English public house is a thoroughly reputable place, but it is less objectionable than our American saloon.

In most public houses girls wait upon the bar, and, so far as I can see, they are generally quite as intelligent and well behaved as those who wait upon customers in other branches of business. At any busy part of the day you would not often look into a public house without seeing a fair sprinkling of women present.

…. drunkenness is not of the most violent kind, but it is very general.

The assessment was rendered about the same time as the dyspeptic article by a fellow-American I discussed here. The Sun article is certainly more even-tempered and reasonable in tone, and seems to want to understand the true facts without a distorting agenda.

The normality of the pub as a business enterprise is stressed. The staff acts in a manner similar to that in other shops, the owners are for the most part reputable, and (evidently) the pubs cater to a real, widespread demand in the population. In other words, the daily imbibing of alcohol is a cultural trait, not something created by a cynical syndicate of brewers or out-of-control licensing system.

Yes there is drunkenness, but the writer doesn’t define most of its manifestations and it is hard to know if on a net basis society is worse or better off; the writer is non-committal in any event.

The factor of women being regularly present in London pubs is interesting. There is no reference to “hidden” compartments such as the snug, or any kind of particular case in this regard such as arriving to fetch beer for home, but a general statement that if you looked in the bar day in day out women would be seen.

Other evidence suggests similar, including this interesting paper that compares pubs in Liverpool and Manchester berween 1840 and 1914 by Alistair Mutch (see especially p. 27).

Practice may have varied too depending on the type of pub, the city, the licensing regime.

Fragmentary as these press reports are, taken together they are a kind of Mass Observation social study before its time. One advantage of journalistic coverage is, unless coming from a strong ideological base such as a temperance newspaper, the depiction of social reality tends to be relatively objective, even as no one observer is perfectly objective or has all the facts.

An old expression says, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and perhaps that’s true of the public house issue for Victorian Britain. It was never as wicked as the temperance advocates argued, never as innocent and benign as its ardent defenders wished.

Note re sources: The quotation above is drawn from the press report linked in the press, archived in the Fulton History newspapers. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Quotation used for educational and historical purposes, and for fair comment. All feedback welcomed.






The Brewers Association’s Craft Brewer Definition

Beer commenters are examining changes seemingly afoot to alter the current (U.S.) Brewers Association’s definition of craft brewer. The lowdown is in this report by Phoebe French from The Drinks Business. A quote:

… the group is considering dropping the ‘traditional’ requirement from its current definition.

…. The current guidelines stipulate that the brewer must be ‘small’ (annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less), ‘independent’ (less than 25% of the brewery is owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member which is not itself a craft brewer), and traditional (has a majority of its total volume in beers with flavours derived from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.)

As such, the BA does not consider flavoured malt beverages or alcoholic seltzers (a growing category in the US) to fit the brief.

… the reasoning behind the move was linked to the rise of cannabis and cannabis derivative-infused products. A number of the group’s members have expressed interest in creating products infused with THC and CBD, Wallace found after surveying 1,000 registered brewers.

Some history regarding earlier definitions of craft brewer by the Brewers Association (BA) can be found here, at the Craft Brewing Business site.

At bottom are issues such as, should large craft brewers potentially be excluded from membership in America’s organization for craft brewers if their non-beer production (e.g., cider, malt-based or other flavoured drinks that aren’t beer) rises to > 50% of their total production? It appears Boston Beer Company, a pioneering craft brewer, may soon be in this position. Sales of its cider and fizzy flavoured beverages have grown in relation to the beer sales.

The interest of many brewers to use cannabis’ active ingredients in a beverage line raises a further question whether the BA’s existing definition of craft beer covers that. A non-alcoholic cannabis beer would seem outside the current definition as there is no fermentation (unless possibly the drink is fermented first and the alcohol taken out after?).

The BA is a trade group for the nation’s craft brewers. In our view it is best placed to decide the definition for its membership, which it clearly does keeping a close ear on what members want or at least, that most can live with.

My view is the “traditional/innovative” part of the definition has outlived its usefulness and should be dropped in its entirety. Given the evolution of craft beer and the production landscape since the early days of craft brewing, it makes sense not to dictate the types of beers that can be made.

This is a process already underway for some years, as seen by the earlier update that allowed malt adjuncts to be used in the bulk of a brewery’s production.

Let those who call themselves brewers decide what to brew, which allows them to remain flexible in a constantly changing market.

Craft beer in its original, “microbrew” sense meant a strong-flavoured, often all-malt, often well hopped beer. Today these are also made by mass-market brewers, a direct result of the success of the decades-long craft brewing movement. If mega-brewers make similar products, and they do, both directly and having purchased what are now ex-craft breweries, the criterion of product regulation really has become superfluous.

So is there still a rationale for a “craft beer” association? There is, and it should be based on size and not being controlled by a non-craft brewer. The current 6,000,000 bbl limited is reasonable in light of the small percentage it represents for total beer barrel shipments annually.

The maximum 25% ownership limit by a non-craft brewer makes sense as that avenue can provide needed investment and sometimes an avenue to better distribution.

In many industries, size is an important determinant of member interests. Smaller brewers have different interests to large ones, e.g., preserving/enhancing tax advantages, obtaining technological guidance and updates, sourcing raw materials more effectively, and marketing advice.

Their industry group can help lobby for this more effectively than a group that represents mega-producers with commensurately different interests and challenges. Even in the pre-craft era there was a national small brewers association, Brewers’ Association of America (later absorbed in BA), vs. the main national group that still exists today as the Beer Institute.

It’s the very success of the steady, 40-year march of craft brewing that has lead to these issues; that’s a good thing.

N.B. All the above said, I will aver to a sentimental feeling about Boston Beer Company. Having seen them grow since inception and do so much to create the modern craft brewing landscape, it is unreasonable IMO if they will be excluded from membership in the BA.

Even if the craft beer rules will remain as currently written, Boston Beer Company should (i.e., if need be) be offered a special exemption to maintain its membership. Net-net, the interests of small brewers are far more closely aligned to a Boston Beer Company than an international mega-brewer. It will be in everyone’s interest, in other words, who is concerned with the taste of great beer and its authentic traditions.



Clueless in Yorkshire

A Visiting Yankee Goes Postal

We’ve examined in recent essays attitudes to the pub from the 1930s-1970s, coming from Irish, Irish-American, and English quarters. The general picture, the odd dissenting note apart, is of a venerable and benign institution, entirely characteristic of its native lands, fostering community, mirth, and maybe song.

Pubs were noted as well for architectural and historical features, and for accommodating a wider demographic than before WW I, especially women. Increasingly too the drinks typical of the pub came in for attention, beer of course but also cider.

By the mid-1950s, the pubs and the way people wrote about them are recognizably modern. Soon, university scholars would follow to add their ponderings.

I’m setting aside periodic reports of health departments and recurring news campaigns about the dangers of drinking. These spring from a wider concern, with alcohol’s abuse in general. The pub is one facet, but hardly exhaustive.

Writ large, the picture is sylvan, reassuring. There’s a tavern in the town, there’s a place where everybody knows your name, and (often) one more for the road. What’s not to like?

Except, it wasn’t that way before WW I, as discussed in my earlier posts, not in official or polite society, call it what you will. Even the first modern writer on the pub, Ernest Selley, born in the 1880s, was warned by his parents against entering such establishments according to Ben Clarke’s article I discussed recently.

Much evidence abounds on the (at best) equivocal image the pub evoked in Victorian opinion, as analyzed too by scholars such as David Gutzke and Paul Jennings.

(In saying this, I take no position for or against. I’m outlining various historical positions, from different quarters, so people can think about where the truth lies, as I do continually).

If we look at writing in the U.S. press on the British pub between Reconstruction and the 1930s, broadly a similar pattern emerges. Early stories are often carping, as were similar accounts of the American barroom. At most American writers were guarded, considering the pub not quite of social repute although run by respectable people for the most part.

By the 1920s and especially with the expiry of National Prohibition, the Stateside tone changes to one of frank admiration. The pub adopts a gilded aspect, hallowed by age, tradition, and (oddly) British gentility.

I’ll look at a number of these accounts, starting with this one of July 27, 1880, from the Watertown Times in Watertown, NY. It is a letter to the editor although longer than most such pennings.

The story at least today rings uneasily to our ears due to its strident tone. It is anti-pub, anti-drink, anti-Yorkshire, anti-British. In a word, full of bile motivated by some obscure discontent.

Still, it’s a picture of one small-town Victorian pub by one visitor, an inn but of no elevated distinction. In fact, the (anonymous) writer uses the term pub except placing it in quotes.

Of interest is his description of three separate rooms, meant he said to attract respectively, the average tippler; moderate drinkers who wanted amenities such as cushioned seating and wall decor; and young men and women with a piano for entertainment.

Landlord Gott is portrayed as self-important and prolix on politics, with his customers as awe-struck audience. His wife, Mrs. Gott, fusses over and is familiar with customers including the priggish writer, to his annoyance.

This quotation will give some sense of the tone:

The walls [of the second room] are hung with dull smoky-looking oil paintings of mail-clad knights and convivial scenes, and perhaps here and there a faded, a very faded view of some moonlight with a background of weird ruins. The third room is across the corridor at the end of a very long passage, and by a merciful dispensation of providence, the piano is placed off in there. This room is frequented mostly by young sprigs and their girls, and the contortions that the piano goes through and the shrieks that issue from it are heartrending. Let me be bored to death by listening to discussions upon the subject of “Owd Billy Filigree’s eccen­tricities,” or the drunken exploits of a warlike Briton with the stiletto, and my endurance is great. Let me breathe sec­ond-handed the perfume of beer and be turned to a herring tint by tobacco smoke, and I survive. Let me be any­thing, but, 0 don’t condemn me to “The Maiden’s Prayer,” or H.M.S. Pinafore, or any of those rare old gems of song, those pearls of minstrelsy. Let me die in peace.

The vitriol is hard to take, certainly. The writer seems actuated, not by religious motives, but simply the sense that drinking was a waste of time and prevented resources from going to more useful purposes. He mentions in particular the lack of free schooling in England (although I believe it existed by then in Scotland).

The link between these two situations is surely questionable though, and in any case his opinion is elitist. The more prosperous classes have never abjured alcohol in the service of yet further elevated goals in life.

He sardonically comments on the books used in the (non-free, he says) state schools which included a manual on surgeons. He comments on the utility of the latter given all the wars Britain fights. A strange thing to read with the calamitous American Civil War only 15 years behind and the nasty Spanish-American War, not too far ahead.

So, a piece of limited but decided interest. And it must be said the portrait of a young inebriate in the bar is not pleasant to contemplate: a scene of Dickensian grimness if there was one. The tone was slanted, very, but such accounts should not be dismissed for all that.

Nota bene. Of three notable things about this article, the pub, the newspaper it appeared in, and the writer, two still exist: the paper and pub. The Unicorn is still going strong in Skipton, as its website and other sources confirm. And images on the site show that the Gotts did run the establishment in the late-1800s.

Due to the widening of Keighley Road on which the original building stood, the pub was rebuilt near to the original site. Today it is a hotel only, the pub on the ground floor was given up although not all that long ago, within the last generation. (The image above was drawn from the current website).

Hence, the institutions that hosted the dyspeptic American long outlasted him, and no less the small-minded attitudes he incarnated.

Finally, I proffer an affecting bluegrass performance of The Maiden’s Prayer. By Americans.








Charles Duff Eulogizes the English Pub – Part II

The best way to introduce Duff to you viz. English pubs is to read him for yourself. I’ll keep the comments to a minimum.

Probably strategically he chose the regional-based cider as a gastronomic subject vs. the ubiquitous beer, and devotes three pages to the Devon variety. Unlike many today, he did not fancy the “rough” (probably Brettanomyces-tinged) darkish farmhouse type and preferred a light sweet cider.

In this period, early-1950s, cider was, or so he says, untaxed, therefore variable in alcohol strength – it sounds the picture of the artisan product but available in different qualities.

Contrary to intuition, he quotes a local as saying cider is better now than it used to be – no misty Celtic romance here. We are not quite in the craft mindset yet, in other words.

He was impressed with how locals drank it – wisely, not getting off their head. It’s part of a picture of sane usage of drink encoded in the folk ethos, and quite different from the typical Victorian portrait as I discussed in the previous essay.

Hence, for cider with Charlie, see pp. 276-278.

For beer, he focus on pubs north of London and somewhat easterly (Herts and adjoining areas), you can read the account at pp. 310-312. Although focusing on this geographical area he states that pubs in most parts of England are similar.

He remarks mainly on architectural and historical features although in one instance mentioning the high quality of a tenant’s beer.

The main emphasis is on fellowship, community,  and tradition – values numerous mid-century writers found in pub culture albeit invisible to most of their 19th-century counterparts, again.

He speaks of the pub as a valued centre for local people, in effect the common man’s club Ben Clarke wrote about as I discussed in Part I. He eulogizes the pub as perhaps the most characteristic institution of the English, high praise indeed, and an insight beer author Michael Jackson also expressed in his 1976 The English Pub.

Duff also foresees, in effect campaigns for, the full opening of the pub to women, including the country pub. He deprecates the old tradition of keeping them out of drinking places, “Puritan” he calls it. Here he shows the progressive nature of post-1920s British social studies, a trend only accelerated since in society.

Perhaps he lacks quite the feel for English pubs than he demonstrated for Irish ones, but that would be natural given his birthplace and upbringing.

All in all, the way he writes about pubs and drink could be published today, almost as is.

In the main, after 1945 the pub had arrived.


Charles Duff Eulogises the English Pub – Part I

The Appeal of Authentic Community

How could Ulster-born Charles Duff write the engaging passages he did on Irish and English pubs in the 1950s? I discussed the Irish observations here. His English notes are set out in his book England and English (1954), which I’ll discuss presently.

By “how could he”, I mean, given the 19th-century and Edwardian stance on the evils or at best dubious value of public houses, how could a sophisticated writer such as Duff expatiate benignly c.1950?

Just to be clear about how the general culture viewed pubs into the mid-1900s, scholar David Gutzke wrote in 1994 in “Gender, Class, and Public Drinking in Britain During the First World War”:

By the early Victorian period … inns and pubs lost not only their respectable clientele but their own respectability. Their limited but loyal clientele was primarily working class in composition, supplemented by a small, lower middle-class contingent.

As a contemporary illustration of this view, one of hundreds I could offer, take Charles Black, another, but earlier, guide book writer. In 1861 in a guide to England’s southeastern counties he refers to “public houses” and “beer shops” in a way to associate them with “squalid” and “miry” districts.

He certainly does not recommend a pub to visit, or with rare exceptions note approvingly details of pub history or its other attractions – and never the beer! See p. 644.

True, Black speaks of the inn differently but we must remember the inn was what the name suggests – it offered accommodation to travellers. Hence, it was a necessity for the traveller – Black’s prime audience – and had a higher status at the time than the alehouse turned beer house turned public house. See Boak and Bailey’s 2017 study, 20th Century Pub, pp. 1119, for a conspectus of the terms pub, tavern, and inn viewed historically.

In this respect too I am speaking, not about learned historical studies of taverns, inns, pubs, or beer, or trade or legal treatments (i.e., for a specialized audience), but of writing meant for a broad readership.

Popular history and guidebooks are perfect examples of general interest writing. Both Duff and Black excelled in these genres.

In his 2016 A History of Drink and the English, 1500-2000 Paul Jennings explains the wellsprings of world-views such as Charles Black’s. Jennings chronicles the Victorian rise of the notion of “respectability” both in middle class and working class populations.

This entailed a deep mistrust of the public house, itself founded on a concern that excess alcohol use invited dissipation, violence, and family dissolution.

The pub’s parlous status in public opinion contributed to a long-term decline in the number of pubs in the 1900s. This was exacerbated by the sharp price increases and reduced quality of beer during WW I.

Even the pubs’ natural constituency, working people, devised another communal drinking option: the workingmens’ clubs. It arose to palliate what was seen as the very same “respectability” problem. As Jennings explains, the club concept ensured that strangers and passers-by could be kept out and the level of peace and civility desired by initiates, preserved.

The trend was partly arrested by the “pub improvement” scheme of the inter-war years, to which both brewers and social planners were committed, and by WW II itself. In contrast to WW I, WW II was viewed as justifying the reasonable use of pubs. (The fact of London being blitzed probably helped this trend along: the civilian’s counterpart to the trench soldier’s rum keg of WW I*).

The second war also expanded use of pubs by women, otherwise quite limited before. See again Boak and Bailey on these topics.

Then too, mores evolve. Public morality after WW I had undergone significant changes due to the onset of industrial capitalism, modern warfare and its profound social toll, and mass entertainment such as film, radio, and finally television.

This is the general background – to simplify a complex topic – against which Charles Duff wrote indulgently of pubs in the mid-1950s. Duff wasn’t the first person to write this way, to be sure. Fellow Irishman Maurice Gorham wrote in 1939, The Local, a book-length study of the London pub in all its diversity from soup to nuts.

Briton Ernest Selley in 1927 wrote The English Public House as it Is. One thinks too of George Orwell’s famous 1946 reverie on the ideal pub, The Moon Under Water.

These popular writings portrayed the pub, quotidian as it seemed to some and quasi-licit as many still viewed it (especially the Church), as a valid subject for popular interest. Notably, this writing eschewed the moral overtones that characterized pub commentary in the 1800s.

Clearly a new tone had entered public discourse. In a Spectator review of Selley’s book, the reviewer wrote that before Selley “no one …had made a comprehensive survey of English public-houses”. The reviewer pointed out the popular nature of Selley’s inquiry, that he visited the pubs he wrote about as “an ordinary customer”.

Is that what we have then to explain how Gorham, Duff et al. could write about pubs in a way very different to Victorians – in a way quite similar, in fact, to today?

I felt it wasn’t that simple, but had difficulty identifying the key missing factor(s).

At first I thought that 20th-century London, and modern urbanization in general, marked the bright line from the Victorian period. The argument would run that by 1939 the public house was fundamentally different in Dublin, London, Edinburgh, New York, and Toronto, say, to each country’s pubs in country, town, and village.

For one thing, patronizing a pub was hardly an anonymous matter in the country, vs. the increasingly anonymous city. Modern transport made it easier to have a quick one, as simply the large number of bars in the biggest cities did.

In this way of looking at it, the pub in country and town remained a male redoubt, of continued working class/artisan/farmer patronage, while the big city pub became a different institution: frequented by a greater variety of social classes, offering a choice of meals at least at daytime, and increasingly open to women.

The widening urban-rural divide was probably a factor, with the others noted, in the “moral” normalization of the pub, but as a vital factor seems simplistic. There is continual movement from province to metropole, and the other way ’round, then and now.

Many people live in bedroom suburbs but work in large cities, so have a hand in both worlds. Commuter suburbs were well-established by the 1930s. Anyway, national social and cultural traits – Britishness in this case – evolve over centuries and don’t turn on a dime.

Finding Ben Clarke’s 2012 article, “‘The Poor Man’s Club’: The Middle Classes, the Public House, and the Idea of Community in the Nineteen-Thirties” provided the flash of insight I needed.

The article was published in the University of Manitoba’s journal Mosaic: an Interdisciplinary Critical Journal. It is behind a paywall at this time but is available on JSTOR for those who have access.

Clarke is Associate Professor of 20th century British literature and critical theory at University of North Carolina. He holds both doctoral and undergraduate degrees from Oxford University (and is, I am almost certain, English-born).

Clarke argues that a group of mid-1900s writers, to whom we must add Gorham and Duff in my view, idealized the pub, indeed created “myths and fantasies”. It beckoned to them as an alternative to the fragmented, self-interested existence modern capitalism demands of its (successful) participants. The writers he profiled posited a desirable working class community exemplified by the everyman’s pub, a quality the middle classes had tragically lost.

Clarke writes (p.40):

For many middle-class writers and intellectuals in the nineteen-thirties, such as George Orwell and those who worked for the radical social research organization Mass-Observation, the pub seemed to provide a point of contact with the class which, Marx and Engels famously insisted in the “manifesto of the Communist Party”, “holds the future in its hands” (10), a place to, as Cecil Day argued in his “Letter to a Young Revolutionary”, investigate the “temper of the people”. (41). At least as importantly, it promised entrance to communities that offered a positive alternative to fragmented, anonymous middle-class life under advanced capitalism … It was the site of independent working class organizations from political groups to saving clubs, but also of less formal relationships sustained though communal practices, from singing to the buying of rounds, which reinforced broader solidarities. In a society which, Marx and Engels insisted, recognizes “no other bond between one man and another than naked self-interest, unfeeling ‘hard cash’” (3), public houses seemed to support authentic communities that could not be reduced to expressions of rational self-interest, though in practice access to them often depended upon having at least the price of a drink. In order to focus on this social function, writers challenged images of the pub as the site of drunkenness, dissipation, and violence that had gathered force in the late nineteenth century and persisted into twentieth.

The Abstract to Clarke’s article puts the argument this way:

[Clarke’s] … essay analyzes the ways in which interwar writers such as Hamilton, Hampson, Massingham, Orwell, and those involved with Mass-Observation rewrote Victorian ideas of pubs as the products of personal failure, figuring them instead as communal centres. It explores images of the public house as a refuge from advanced capitalism and the social functions it actually served.

Clarke explains, by discussing various interwar fictional representations of the pub, how protagonists and by extension the authors (especially Orwell) sought this community to counter the anomie of middle class living and a competitive economic environment. He explains they were continually disappointed, not so much by the sought-after community being illusory, but by its exclusion of those foreign to its codes and manners.

Clarke also makes the point that cohesive-seeming pubs were as much a part of capitalist organization as a response to it, a “negotiated” position in the system, he calls it.

These are superb insights on his part, and I say that knowing something of Orwell’s, Duff’s, and Gorham’s general careers. Orwell and Duff in particular exhibited an anti-fascist spirit and independence of thinking that reflected some sympathy with left-wing ideals. It led them to consider persons and resorts not typical of their social class, but arguably some romanticization set in.

Clarke recounts episodes how Orwell comported himself in the worker’s pub, always insisting for example on the darkest beer, yet never really fitting in. Clarke states for example Orwell was never called by his first name in any pub he frequented (Eric, his real Christian name, or George, a pseudonym).

Clarke considers the social research group Mass Observation and their publications on the pub to be actuated by the same motives as the writers he profiles.

Orwell yearned for a sense of community he viewed as declining in Britain. In 1943 he reviewed the book The pub and the People issued by Mass Observation, and recorded his view that people were withdrawing from community due to the drug-like blandishments of modern entertainments.

Orwell’s The Moon Under Water posits the ideal pub, which we can take he never encountered in reality and represents for him an acme of the community experience.

Viz. now Charles Duff, one thinks of his preference for the Irish working man’s pub vs. the more inhibited environment and fancy decor of pubs with a posher clientele. This fits Clarke’s thesis even though Clarke does not consider Duff or Maurice Gorham – he does however cite Ernest Selley’s book. Clarke was concerned with a different kind of literature but I consider that early consumer writing on beer and pubs illustrates his thesis well.

Of course as for any theory, limitations suggest themselves. At the end of the day, it is mother wit that a glass of beer with friends or equable companions, in informal surroundings, can be a pleasant diversion from the frazzles of modern life.

Also, artists and writers typically are not big earners and regardless of social class, will seek diversion in establishments they can afford.

One thinks of Sigmund Freud’s dictum (apocryphal?) that sometimes a good cigar is just a cigar.

Still, Ben Clarke goes a long way to explaining the novel attraction of the pub to a small group of influential, mid-20th century writers and journalists. By implication again this helps us understand how modern consumer beer and pub writing arose, and in turn why the pub became newly popular in quarters that viewed it balefully a mere generation or two before.**

In Geoff P. Hunt’s and S. Saterlee’s “The Pub, the Village and the People”, a paper published in 1986 in the journal Human Organization, the authors wrote:

This notion of the centrality of the English pub has been shared by many popular writers who have written at length on such topics as pub signs, pub entertainment, pub food, pub beer and pub architecture. In discussing these diverse aspects, many writers have noted the uniqueness and peculiarity of this English institution.

Hunt and Saterlee, both academics, then quote beer critic Michael Jackson (1942-2007), who wrote in his 1976 The English Pub that the pub is unique because “it is an organic part of the growth of English life”.

(Not a bad tribute to a popular writer who left school at 16).

By 1986, pub appreciation had evidently gained a permanent, general audience. The pub had entered a different phase: one of modern leisure pursuit. The pub, whatever the reality of its stock-in-trade and whatever view one took of its net contribution to society, became, and remains, respectable.

But looking back to writers such as George Orwell and the others considered by Ben Clarke – and as well in my estimation Charles Duff and Maurice Gorham – Clarke has provided a key explanation how the latter two could write what they did, when they did.

N.B. In Hunt’s and Saterlee’s article they write with self-deprecation:

… in spite of the pub’s long tradition as an important component of social life in England, it would appear that contemporary social science research in Britain has to a large extent neglected to investigate its present role. This lack of interest both by sociology and anthropology is even more surprising, given the interest in community studies in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s and the development of leisure studies as an important area of investigation in the 1970s.

Whatever the reasons are for this neglect – and one writer has even suggested that one of the reasons may be that sociologists, like temperance men, are seldom pub-goers – we are nevertheless left with a tiny collection of social science literature which deals with the pub and its role within the community.

We see here, as late as 30 years ago, a murmur surely of the old establishment disapproval of the public house.

Now, on to Duff and the English pub in 1954. In Part II to come.

Note re article extracts: the quotations above are drawn from the articles identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owners, as applicable. Extracts are used for educational and historical purposes and as fair comment. All feedback welcomed.


*See a contemporary, journalistic validation of this view, discussed here.

**I don’t claim that selling even tens of thousands of books worked a social revolution of itself. Yet, it is good to remember Shelley’s dictum that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Gorham and Duff, and Orwell and the other writers profiled by Clarke, portrayed the familiar old pub, at least at its best, as an inviting resort for all – in a word an institution. Those who read the books, or reviews of the books, would have been influenced accordingly, or they “told their friends”. The huge influence a Michael Jackson had on the early years of the modern beer revival was an analogue for his time. Put differently, successful writers punch above their weight, in such matters as countless others.