Blood, Controversy, and Puddings in the Early English Atlantic

By Carla Cevasco

How to follow the Word of the Bible and still tuck into a nice blood pudding? This question inspired the Massachusetts Puritan minister Increase Mather to publish a brief pamphlet in 1697 entitled “A Case of Conscience Concerning Eating of Blood, Considered and Answered.” The conundrum, Mather wrote, lay in the injunction from Leviticus 11:14: “Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof.”

Portrait of Increase Mather. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Portrait of Increase Mather.
Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Massachusetts Puritans had left the Old World in order to found a separatist religious colony in the New. Like many believers, the Puritans worked to interpret their sacred texts into best practices for everyday life. This task meant reckoning with blood-eating, because on both sides of the Atlantic, the early modern English kitchen dripped with blood. A search for “blood” in this site’s archives turns up over seventeen pages of results, including a recipe for pigeon’s blood eye wash!

Blood began with animal flesh. The English prided themselves on meat consumption that visitors found excessive.[1] The wealthy ate numerous kinds and large quantities of meat, and recipes often assumed that cooks would begin with freshly slaughtered but not butchered animals. As Hannah Woolley instructed in a recipe “To Stew Chickens” in The Cook’s Guide in 1664, cooks had to “pull” (defeather) and “quarter” their chickens before washing them clean of blood (57). All this meat-eating meant a lot of blood, and in the kitchen, waste not, want not, which meant that blood played a starring role in some dishes.

English breakfast with black pudding. Photo credit: Ewan Munro, via Wikimedia Commons.
Full English breakfast with black pudding. Image Credit: Ewan Munro, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mather’s pamphlet did not mention any specific foods containing blood, but many English cookbooks of the era contained one or more recipes for “black” or blood puddings—a dish that today is much more popular in the UK than the US. Gervase Markham’s version, first published in 1615, called for the cook to soak oat groats in “the blood of an Hogge whilest it is warme,” then after three days, “with your hands take the Groats out of the bloud” and drain them.[2] These gory steps completed, the cook mixed the groats with cream and chopped suet, seasoned with herbs and spices, stuffed the mixture into intestines, and boiled it until solid. (Modern black pudding recipes remain much the same.) While Markham and many others recommended hog’s blood for this purpose, Robert May’s 1660 The Accomplish’t Cook (which reprinted Markham’s recipe) noted that one could adapt it to “sheeps blood, calves, lambs, or fawns blood” as well.

Even foods that did not contain actual blood still made reference to blood. One popular red wine based beverage in eighteenth-century America originated in Spanish colonization of the Caribbean. The combination of wine, spirits, sugar, and fruit resembled many other punches of the era. The English called it Sangaree, a corruption of the Spanish word for “bloody,” sangria.[3]

Sangria. Image credit: Flickr user ilker ender, via Wikimedia Commons.
Sangria. Image Credit: Flickr user ilker ender, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite (or because of) its popularity, cooking with or eating blood became the site of debate among some American colonists. It is unclear exactly what controversy inspired Mather to write his pamphlet, but somehow the everyday consumption of blood had come under scrutiny.

Deeply invested in following the Word of the Bible, Massachusetts Puritans struggled to reconcile their culinary tastes for blood with biblical law.  To defend culinary blood consumption, Mather noted that other English food preparation methods did not follow biblical prescriptions to the letter. “If it be Lawful to Eat things Strangled,” he reasoned, naming the way that kitchen workers often dispatched fowl, explicitly banned in Acts 15:20, “then it is Lawful to Eat Blood” (4).

But most importantly, Mather took the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as evidence for his case. Mather claimed that the consumption of blood outside of communion did not have ritual significance, precisely because Christ’s blood held such power: “since Christ has shed his Blood, there is no Sacredness in any other Blood,” he concluded (5). The metaphorical consumption of Christ’s blood in the Lord’s Supper rendered acceptable the actual consumption of more mundane blood at dinnertime.

Under Mather’s interpretation, blood puddings and other blood-based dishes would have been allowed at the Massachusetts Puritan table. This food historian wonders when black pudding died out in New England, while it remained so popular across the Atlantic.

 

[1] Harriet Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 194-197.

[2] Gervase Markham, The English House-Wife, 5th ed. (London: Anne Griffin, 1637), 77.

[3] Andrew F. Smith, “Sangria,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America 3, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 197-98.


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