Moonshine

Photo credit: Jeremy Stanley
Photo credit: Jeremy Stanley
Old Still for Making Moonshine (Photo credit: Ann Blair)
Old Still for Making Moonshine (Photo credit: Ann Blair)

Living as I do in the heart of moonshine [white lightning] country, I just about dropped the cookbook when I saw the word “Moonshine.” If it had been a Southern cookbook or a Foxfire book, I would have turned the page without a second thought and been done with it.

Moonshine
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

But this reference to “Moonshine” came from English food writer Elizabeth David’s book, Summer Cooking (pages 65-66). And when my eye darted from the title of the recipe to the recipe credit and attribution below, the real shock hit me: the recipe first appeared in The Accomplisht Cook, by Robert May. In 1660.

Greek Yarrow (Photo credit: Henry Heatly)
Greek Yarrow (Photo credit: Henry Heatly)

Astounding, the word, meaning very different things. After all, “moonshine” DOES mean the light of the moon. And Greek yarrow, if botany is your thing.

MOONSHINE

Break them in a dish, upon some butter and oyl, melted or cold ; throw on them a little salt, and set them on a chafing-dish of coals ; make not the yolks too hard, and in the doing cover them, and make a sauce for them of an onion cut into round slices, and fried in sweet oyl or butter ; then put to them Verjuice, grated nutmeg, a little salt, and so serve them.

Omitting the Verjuice (the juice of white grapes), Moonshine is an admirable way of cooking eggs au plat. In those days, the dish would have been a pewter plate.

The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May. 1660.

Moonshine baked eggsTruth be told, a much more palatable way to enjoy “Moonshine.” (And you’ll feel a lot better in the morning, too!)

But why call this egg dish “Moonshine?” The roundness of the eggs, the onion slices, the color?

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Yes, isn’t that something? What I wouldn’t give to find such a treasure!

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  2. Hels says:

    I love the idea of a complete cookbook, published so soon after the restoration of the crown. Sometimes historians and collectors just have dumb luck and find a treasure that has been hidden away for centuries :)

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  3. cbertel says:

    Nothing’s wrong with verjus. Elizabeth David might not have liked the taste. It might be worth investigating this more. Good question. I’m going to take a look at your site; it sounds interesting.

    Thanks for writing.

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  4. Susan Fox says:

    So what’s wrong with verjus? I find it at Middle Eastern groceries as ‘sour grape juice’ and it’s a very nice alternative to vinegar in salad dressings and other foods. Provides a pleasant tart “hit”.

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  5. cbertel says:

    Thanks, William, for your comments. The picture of the eggs — not exactly right, but close enough to set the mood. Elizabeth David didn’t go into all the history, but she is the one who said that about the pewter. Surprisingly. The English owe a lot to the French, and so do we all. This is all quite lovely to ponder.

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  6. In the seventeenth-century English translation of La Varenne’s “French Cook” there is a recipe titled “Eggs in the Moon Shine with Cream.”

    In the 1704 humorous verse, “The Fairy Feast,” by William King one finds the following:

    Sir,
    A roasted ant, that’s nicely done,
    By one Small atom of the sun.
    These are flies’ eggs, in moon-shine poach’d;
    this a flea’s thigh in collops scotch’d…..

    I don’t have time today, but most of Robert May’s egg recipes derive from French sources and so I would look to French sources, including La Varenne, to see what the French was. Of course, there nothing more romantic than the idea of eggs in moonshine.

    The La Varenne 1653 translation offers a recipe in which the yolk peeks through moonshine:

    Eggs in the Moon Shine with Cream
    Make a bed of butter in your dish, and break your eggs over it; after they are broken season them with salt. Then put some cream to them until they be hidden, or some milk so that it be good. Seethe them, and give them colour with the fire-shovell red, then serve.

    The moonshine part to your Robert May recipe may be an “over easy” instruction — in other words, veil the yolk with a just whitened film of albumen thorugh use of a heated fire shovel. I don’t think that bright yolk sitting in the center of a field of white is necessarily the right interpretation for the recipe.

    There are also sweet versions that fall under the moonshine name.

    Verjuice is unripened grape juice with a very particular taste. You an buy it — but all “verjuice” is not verjuice. I find French sources to be more likely to offer the real thing. Are you certain that everyone being served from Robert May’s cookbook would have been served on pewter? The plethora of egg dishes in Robert May suggest its use by Catholics. No silver plates? No ceramic?

    For Tracy, who is now researching Robert May egg recipes, you will notice that English sourced recipes, e.g. collops and eggs are in a different part of the cookbook from the main section on eggs, which are French sourced.

    All my best,

    William Rubel

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  7. cbertel says:

    Love that explanation of the “why” about the name of the egg dish!

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  8. Tracy Garcia says:

    What a great article! I thought the Upstate of South Carolina was “moonshine country”:) I have been studying the egg dish and to me it could be called “Moonshine” due to the white part of the egg (moon)and the yoke could be the sun (sunshine)???
    I will also reading and researching more on Robert May and Elizabeth David. Keep the articles on these two coming.

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