A Mess of Pottage and a Bite of Bitter Greens: A Brief Look at the Invisible Ethnicity of the English

And Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Genesis 25: 34

Pottage. Or if you prefer: Porridge. Potage. Stew. Gruel. Samp.

Meat, vegetables, grain = basic ingredients of pottage.

Whatever word you prefer, pottage signifies a dish of those foods in varying quantities. Sometimes this hodgepodge of ingredients is called a mess of lentils, “mess” being an Old French word, mes (now mets) – meaning, well what else, “food!” Think “mess hall!” The term entered the English language around 1300 C.E., according to The Oxford English Dictionary.

Pottage is an old “recipe,” found in some shape or form in nearly all world cultures. But in this post, let’s just lie back and think of England.

When it comes to English food history, I’ve been struck by a number of things recently. There‘s very little, nearly zilch, in-depth written analysis in regard to the English contribution to American culinary history. Yet, the evidence is quite strong, because of historical circumstances. Between 1620 and 1640, over 50,000 English people crossed the treacherous 3000 miles of ocean separating them from their homeland. This is rightfully called “The Great Migration” of the day, mostly religious-based, but nonetheless a massive movement of people from England to the New World. A second great influx of English immigrants occurred during the 1850s.  The English Diaspora is as real and compelling as that of any other: African, Italian, Jewish, Armenian, Irish. Why should the English be left out? Delving into this issue – why has there been so little investigation of the English Diaspora – is bound to bring up a lot of questions and turning-on-the-head conclusions.

I confess – my fascination with this invisible, hidden ethnicity is two-fold:

1. Nobody’s talking about the English, except to trash them historically, forgetting that in many ways the English essentially provided a majority of the administrative and cultural aspects that still form the basis of American life today.


2. My family history, some good and some not so good, indicates a strong English heritage. I’ve spent a great deal of time for over a twenty-year period trying to make some sense of that family history. With a paper trail of family dating back to 1618, it turns out that my DNA reveals nearly 95% English/UK with a few surprises (South Asian 2% and another small percentage hailing from the Iberian Peninsula). So far, it appears that none were indentured servants to speak of. And no handed-down stories to savor, although I am finding plenty of others. The England of the early seventeenth century disgorged a lot of my unsatisfied and adventurous relatives – mostly male – who stood to lose little by leaving the island of their birth, some going to Virginia, others to New England.

Quite naturally, then, my attention turns to questions of what these ancestors ate and cooked and how their habits influenced the cuisine of what later became the United States. There are no easy answers, although current food literature is filled with attempts to explain American culinary history solely in terms of just a few ethnic groups. I think this is wrong and short-sighted, especially since no real analysis is being done in regard to the antecedents of the cuisines in question and what many owe to English cuisine. While I grant that some of these cuisines added much overall to American culinary culture, I still maintain that English cuisine is the Founding-Mother Cuisine.

That’s why we’re beginning with pottage, the concept of it anyway, along with a few words about the use of greens in English cooking, a fact of life for centuries, nothing new, nothing added to the English diet by cooks from Africa or elsewhere. After all, until the Tudor period and later, pottages kept bellies warm and full all over England, and not just among the poorer classes. Pottage required little of the cook: a pot, a spoon, a fire, water, maybe a knife.

“Greenstuff, as we have already seen, was a basic ingredient in pottage … .” *

Bitter, stinging nettles showed up as one item in those pottages, the bitter taste similar to the greens found in African stews. Collard greens, another common green found in American cooking, grew in England, their origins European, not African.** In medieval England, people ate cabbage, kale, borage, and beet greens, as indicated in Forme of Cury (1390). English cooks preserved/pickled many of these greens, mentioned by Gervase Markham and John Evelyn; similar recipes also appeared in Martha Washington’s cookbook, the manuscript of which dates to the early seventeenth century. William Lawson provided a list of greens eaten in Yorkshire in The Country Housewife’s Garden (1617).

Beans and greens pottage
Beans and greens pottage (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

And just to show that greens were a long-time component of the English diet and part of various pottages, Peter Brears, in Cooking and Dining in Medieval England (Prospect Books, 2008), included a whole chapter on pottages and shared the following recipe, taken from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books – Long Worts of Meat [A Thick Stew with Greens] – thick with meat and greens (worts):

.j. Lange Wortys de chare.Take beeff and merybonys, and boyle yt in fayre water; þan take fayre wortys and wassche hem clene in water, and parboyle hem in clene water; þan take hem vp of þe water after þe fyrst boylyng, an cut þe leuys a-to or a-þre, and caste hem in-to þe beff, and boyle to gederys: þan take a lof of whyte brede and grate yt, an caste it on þe pot, an safron & salt, & let it boyle y-now, and serue forth.

Translation (from Brears):

Long Worts of Meat [A Thick Stew with Greens]

2 lb/900 g lean beef joint, trussed
A beef marrow bone
8 oz/225 g cabbage or spring greens
6 oz/100g white breadcrumbs
Pinch of saffron
1 tsp salt

Put the beef and the bone in a pan, just cover with boiling water, bring back to the boil, skim, then simmer gently for 1 ½- 2 hours until tender,

Parboil the cabbage or greens until just tender, then drain, chop coarsely and stir into the beef stock with breadcrumbs, saffron, and salt, simmer briefly, and then serve the beef joint with its stock all in the same dish.

Thus, I feel confident in saying that when the English had to substitute corn for their oatmeal or other grains, that they found that the combination of salted and vinegared greens with a grainy mush was not at all a new dish, but one that made absolute sense given their culinary history.

Another recipe that may be of interest, one that takes original English preservation methods into consideration –  think of John Evelyn’s greens – and one that still get people’s blood moving in parts of the American South:

Collard Kraut


5 gallons collards
1 cup canning or pickling salt

Procedure: Rinse collards, chop or shred to desired consistency. Layer about 1 gallon of collards and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons salt in large glass jars, food-approved plastic containers or stoneware crocks. Then add more layers of collards and salt until container is full, leaving approximately 4 to 5 inches of space at top of container. Add water until it covers the chopped collards. The collards should be completely submerged in the brine. Add plate and weights; cover container with a clean bath towel.

Store at 70 ºF for fermenting. At this temperature it will take approximately 3 to 4 weeks to ferment. If any scum forms above the plate or weight, remove it about 2 to 3 times a week. Taste in about two weeks. Allow collards to ferment until desired flavor is reached.


*Food in Early Modern England, by Joan Thirsk (Hambledon Continuum, London, 2007, p. 285)

**Although a cook in West Africa could conceivably forage over 150 species of wild greens, according to Lost Crops of Africa.

Large wooden mortar and pestle for pounding grain (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2016 C. Bertelsen



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