English cuisine is rich in culinary delicacies with strange names. Bubble and squeak. Pigs in blankets. Angels on horseback. Spotted dick. The list goes on. To the uninitiated, these may seem unappealing at first, particularly to the American palate - but despite their interesting names, they are part and parcel of Britain's cultural heritage, and are beloved by Brits the world over. However, there is one English culinary treasure that takes the cake: and that is the toad in the hole. It's a quintessentially British staple made of pork sausages baked in crispy dough and served with gravy - and its etymology has always been a source of debate since the dish started appearing on many a table as far back as 200 years ago to this very day. So, what's in a name and from whence did it come? Let's have a look.
Toad in the hole has been served since the 18th century. While there is an ongoing debate as to how its name came about, it is widely accepted that the dish was developed by lower-income families as a way to get the most out of what was an expensive commodity back in the day: meat.
The Industrial Revolution, which started during the middle of the 18th century, changed the way people worked forever. New machinery transformed labor, hastened production and drove employment and profit. However, the Industrial Revolution also drove working conditions were unfair and exploitative for workers, and unscrupulous employers would pay them incommensurate wages for their work.
Not surprisingly, the rich became richer, and the poor became poorer. At a time when meat was expensive, it then became imperative for British families to extend their meager supply with cheaper and filling ingredients. This also led to the rising popularity of batter-based dishes such as the Yorkshire pudding, which became a common way to feed a family at a minimum expense.
It was at this time that families discovered that combining a batter-based dish with cheap, inexpensive cuts of meat, game (pigeons and other fowl), or offal (kidneys), as well as a hot, filling gravy made for cheap yet filling meals. This is how toad in the hole was thought to have come about.
The first appearance of toad in the hole in the English lexicon (or at least on the written record) was from 1787, in a tome written by Francis Grose called A Provincial Glossary. It was defined by Grose as basically any meat boiled inside a crust. However, the most important appearance by this humble food was from 1861, from the Book of Household Management by Mrs Beeton - which immortalized it the world over since as how it is now: the traditional English banger baked in a crispy dough, served with rich, savory gravy. Regardless of the unclear and varied origins of its etymology, one thing is for certain: this homely yet filling classic has stood the test of time.
The most commonly accepted explanation for its name is that the sausages resemble toads peeking from a crevice made of crisp batter. Another more imaginative theory as far as how the dish got its name comes from the scenic coastal village of Alnmouth in Northumberland, where it was invented to celebrate an infamous golf tournament. Here's how the story goes: a toad supposedly pushed out a golf player's ball from the 18th hole after the toad poked its head out from in it, leading to the consternation of the player and the laughter of those who saw the unfortunate incident. This account might make for a better story, particularly for the Northumbrians, but you might as well take it with a grain of salt, as there's no evidence that this incident actually happened.
Its thrifty origins made it a tasty, filling option for the workers as well as the middle class. While the affluent did not rate the new dish when it first emerged, the toad in the hole has since found its way in its rightful place as a British staple that is celebrated as a national treasure - a testament to how well-loved this dish has become. It has transcended cultural and social barriers from its origins as a humble workingman's dish that is beloved not just in the United Kingdom, but also to Anglophone countries and former colonies such as Hong Kong and Singapore - and the rest of the world.
Toad in the hole makes for a versatile dish. While the classic English banger has ensconced itself as the most commonly used meat that goes in it, recipes exist for toad in the hole that includes offcuts of beef, as well as mutton and lamb kidneys. Literally any meat can be used to make toad in the hole given its simple construction of batter with a protein source poking out at the middle. During World War II and immediately after it, the dish would feature the inexpensive meat that fed the Allied war effort: spam. However, it did not dislodge the English banger as the preferred and beloved protein source that goes with it to this very day.
The toad in the hole derives its enduring appeal from how ridiculously easy it is to make - all you have to do is to follow these four easy steps.
1) Make your own batter - it's as simple as a combination of eggs, milk, and a pinch of salt.
2) Roast sausages - You can either roast them in the oven as tradition dictates, or if you don’t like the smell of the dish you can prepare them on a grill outside for a little delightful twist and grilled flavor.
3) Cook batter - Cook until the batter is golden and has fully risen.
4) Make gravy - Serve with gravy and peas.
You can follow this simple recipe for toad in the hole if you want to impress your friends by cooking an English dish that has been served for over 200 years and counting. It's as English as hotdogs are to Americans - and it's a truly unique dish in the British canon.