Feeding Your Invalid in the 19th Century 12: Faux Fish

Il Pesce

The notion of not telling sick people the truth was not solely Victorian. Well into the 20th century, if you had cancer your doctor might not say the fatal word, for fear that you would just lie down and die in despair. However, the 19th century did bring deceiving invalids into high relief. Many ailments — STDs, insanity, epilepsy — were social anathema and could never be spoken of except in whispers. If a man had syphilis, a highly contagious and entirely incurable disease at the time, his doctor might treat him but not tell the wife. After all, it was the mister who was paying the bill, right?  The little woman might endure poor health for years before realizing what was going on.

I had not realized that deceiving the sick extended even into the kitchen! This is a recipe passed to me by Gillian Polack, who found it somewhere in her researches. It is translated from some Asian language and does not favor the precise measurements of Western recipes. I am not entirely clear what he’s trying to tell us to do, with those eggs. I would hope that the ‘gourd’ is something like a zucchini or vegetable marrow. If sufficiently spiced up with those ‘other things’ in the last sentence it probably was tasty enough. But what a disappointment if you were actually hoping for fish!

Recipe for a Dish of Gourd Resembling Fish, with which you may deceive the invalid who desires fish and the like.

Peel the gourd and clean it inside, then cut lengthwise for the width of two fingers or so; then boil and form a head and tail in the shape of a fish and leave for the water to drain away; then take a large dish and throw in it what eggs you need; add white flour, cinnamon and coriander seed and beat with the eggs; then place in the skillet on the fire with fresh oil, and when it is boiling, take the fish-shaped gourd and fry; then immerse in those eggs beaten with flour and spices and return to the pan; then go back and immerse in the eggs beaten with flour also. When you see that the eggs are set, return them several times until cloaked with egg and no trace of the gourd can be seen. Then turn out on the platter and sprinkle with vinegar and a little murri or juice of fresh coriander or other things.  From the Cook Book of Ibrahim b. al-Mahdi




Feeding Your Invalid in the 19th Century 12: Faux Fish — 3 Comments

  1. My Nana’s cookbook is like that. Whoever wrote down the recipe figured everyone else just “knew” what to do because household cooks had been cooking since they were in the nursery and and some kind of instinct. A pinch of this, a tad of that, substitute as necessary with whatever is on hand and will produce a similar result.


    • Every cookbook was like that until around the time of Fanny Farmer: written to explain how to do a specific dish for someone who knew how to cook.

      Fanny Farmer was part of the beginning home economics as a study movement and wrote on the assumption that she could not assume that you had ever boiled a pot of water before.

  2. That is both the charm and the bane of period recipes. If we had a time machine and could just pop back to actually taste the food, would we be horrified, or astonished? I would like to hope that people and their taste buds have always been the same. We can learn to enjoy all kinds of things.