Makin meat wi Nancy

Author: John Erskine

Date: 2010

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 11 Ware 2010


Compiled and introduced by John Erskine


In two of his regular columns in the Ballymena Observer for 1887, the writer ‘Bab M‘Keen’ places his wife ‘Nancy’ at the centre of his writing. Bab had tried, from time to time, to persuade Nancy to write one of his Observer columns for him but without any success. So, in these two columns, in the absence of writing by Nancy, Bab writes about Nancy. He gives his readers a report of two ‘lectures’ that she has delivered to a group of young women gathered in her kitchen in M‘Keen’s toon. The topics chosen for these lectures are, in the words of the newspaper’s editor, “domestic economy and cookery” or, as Nancy herself would say, makin meat.

Weemin an’ lasses

Before she presents any actual recipes, Nancy explains the need for the recipes by delivering herself of some general, and withering, observations on the state of society, of cooking and of men in the district. She addresses the “weemin an’ lasses” gathered in her house and is pleased to find that women can now meet on their own without the need to have men present:

I hae lang thocht it a peety that there has been nae wye o’ bringin’ weemin thegither for a chat amang themsels withoot haein’ the men bodies spyin’ intae iverything. Am thankfu’ tae hear, hooaniver, that at last there can be weemin’s meetin’s got up in M‘Keen’s toon. I say fair play for a’. If a hen canna crow she can cackle, an’ there’s a guid wheen o’ the cocks can nether crow nor cackle.

So much for the menfolk of mid-Antrim.

Tay an’ white breed

Having got that out of the way, Nancy goes on to express her dismay at much of what passes for cooking in the neighbourhood. In what sounds like a very modern comment on the inadequacies of contemporary diet, she condemns reliance on “tay an’ white breed”. Not only is such a diet unsatisfactory in itself, she says, but it is also monotonous.

This tay an’ white breed, mornin’, noon, an’ nicht, ’ll be the daith o’ half the bonny lasses in the perish. It pits me in min’ o’ the auld verse I used tae hear in my young days —

First I got pretas and kale,

Then I got kale efther that again,

Then I got kale tae kale

An’ then I got cauld kale het again.

Noo jest pit baps an’ tay, for pretas an’ kale, an’ ye hae it a’ ower again.

Nancy emphasises the responsibility that women have in improving family diet and she also remarks, in another modern-sounding comment, on the connection between diet and health. “I want tae get fouk tae dae richt, an’ I believe tae dae that, they maun begin by eatin’ richt.” Picking up on the temperance movement of the time, Nancy continues:

Weemin dear, we hear o’ the herm o’ drink, an’ the wye it’s ruinin’ its thousans an’ millions. Weel, dae ye hear me, but am beginnin’ tae think that there’s mair tae blame than drink, an’ in the future I wad jest like tae hear some o’ the temperance fouk tak a wee dhirl at the meat, for in my opeenion, there’s mair heedaches, an’ donsiness, an’ dwalms, an’ weeds, an seeknesses, an’ cross fits, an cantankerousness comes oot o’ bad cookin’ than it gets ony credit for. Nixt tae breed wunnin’ by the man, the breed makin’ shud be yin o’ the maist important duties o’ the woman o’ the hoose.

But how is that bad cooking done in many houses? Nancy returns to her assault on “tay an’ white breed” and witheringly describes it:

Boil up a drap wather, an’ power it intae an auld tin taypot, black as the ace o’ spades, baith inside an’ oot; throw in a grain tay, gie it a plout o’a boil. Send oot for twa or three baps, or a wee thrupenny, an’ there ye ir. Repeat this twa or three times a day — an’ it’s dune, min’ ye — an’ ye hae the makin’ o’ the future bone an’ sinew o’ the country. Bone an’ sinew — sherds an’ wraiths. It’s nae meat, an’s sendin’ thousans tae their graves, wi’ their stamacks tauned intae somethin’ like sole leather …

“Somethin’ ’ll hae tae be dune,” says Nancy, “in the wye o’ improvement in this maist necessary point o’ the hoose-keepin’ duties, or there’ll no’ shen be a soun’ body in M‘Keen’s toon.” So she gives her audience “a wheen words on ‘makin meat’ or, as the quelity wad say, cookery”; and presents them with a series of recipes.

Cooking and continuity

Nancy’s recipes will perhaps not seem greatly varied to the modern reader. Notably absent are a range of vegetables, fruit and preserves although we know that these were used in the district, by many people at least. And Nancy’s “cock-a-leey” has no chicken in it! No wonder that “it’s no’ very nourishin’”. Historians of cooking could comment much more knowledgeably on this. However, the recipes do give us some insight into the ingredients and local cookery of nineteenth-century mid-Antrim. It is indeed a pity Nancy considers soda bread so “simple” that she feels she “needna mention it”.

However, we should also bear in mind the nature of Bab M‘Keen’s column in the Ballymena Observer: in addition to humour, satire and social comment, there is also, no doubt, a strong and deliberate element of nostalgia in the writing.

How many of the words and expressions that Nancy uses survive today? I recently asked a member of the Language Society about a couple of them: for example, “a wee hair o’ saut”. She did not use the term herself, she said, but she did remember her mother using it. Do we still shear vegetables or give our food a rummel or a plout o’ a boil? Do you recognize or do you use these words and phrases? Some are familiar to me. Have I interpreted them correctly? And what about those special words and phrases associated with cooking that Nancy does not use?

Some members have suggested that it would be a good idea to create an Ulster-Scots cookery book using appropriate Ulster-Scots words, traditional recipes and new recipes made with traditional ingredients. You can help. Contact the editor! Meanwhile, here — in words, phrases and recipes — are what we might consider Nancy’s contributions to such a book.

Some of Nancy’s words and expressions

The words and expressions used in the two columns are, of course, of particular interest. Nancy M‘Keen, for example, follows the usual practice in Ulster-Scots of referring to porridge, and also broth, as ‘they’ and not ‘it’: for example, parritch (“in a wee they begin tae thicken”; “singed parritch ir said tae be wholesome”) and broth (“pree the broth noo an’ then, tae see hoo they’re daein”). Nancy uses the English word ‘thicken’ on two or three occasions in her recipes but also once uses the Scots word lythe (“throw it intae the pot for lythin’”) which has the more specific meaning of to thicken with oatmeal.

Four words for informal measurement are also used: hair (“a wee hair o saut”, “a hair or twa o saut”); grain (“a grain tay”, “a grain meal”, “a grain chives”); bean (“a bean o’ butther”); and junt (“a guid junt o butther”). The dictionary suggests ‘a large lump’ (for example of meat or bread) as a meaning for junt, Nancy, however, seems to have a smaller measure in mind. We may also wonder if stane (“boil a stane o’ pretas”) is a literal stone weight or simply a term for a good number.

Kitchen and meal have two meanings in the text. The newspaper editor uses ‘kitchen’ to refer to the place where cooking is done while Nancy herself uses kitchen in the more conventional Scots sense to describe a food or an ingredient that is more than, or gives flavour to, the basics of potatoes or bread (“used tae be a great kitchen in my young days”; “as a kitchen, used tae be thoucht a great luxury”). Meal has the primary meaning of ‘oatmeal’ but is also used for a ‘meal’ in the standard English sense (“a toothsome male”; “do withoot anither meal for twa days”).

Meat has the primary meaning of ‘food’ (and makin’ meat of ‘cookery’) while ‘meat’ in the sense of animal meat is also described by Nancy as flesh-meat. (The old Scots word for ‘butcher’ was flescher and many readers will remember the term ‘flesher’ as well as the term ‘butcher’ on old shop-fronts). Interestingly, too, Nancy recalls her father visiting the Shambles to buy beef. The ‘Shambles’ (an English rather than a Scots term?) was the name given to that part of a town or town market where shambles (or meat-stalls) were set up. Some streets retain the name to this day although the nature of the area will have changed. Perhaps the best known is ‘The Shambles’ in the city of York. It is interesting that the name was also used in Ulster. (Do any readers know of its continued use as a street-name today?) Because of the mess made by meat, bones and blood the name also gives rise to our phrase ‘a complete shambles’.

Nancy’s rhyme refers to kale but, perhaps surprisingly, she herself talks of going into the garden not to collect kale but to pick a “heed o’ cabbage”. Nancy uses the term shear to mean to cut or slice vegetables (“shear it [a heed o’ cabbage]”; “an’ noo shear yer leeks an’ chives”). Once so treated such vegetables are described as shorn (“half a dizzen o’ shorn leeks”). And when fadge is mixed and cooked in a generous amount of fat it is sappled (“weel sappled wi’ gravy”). The word rummel is used for stirring or stirring vigorously but as a noun and not as a verb (“gie it a rummel or twa”; “gie it anither rummel”). A scoudther scon (from the Scots verb scowther meaning to singe or burn) refers to an oatcake or bannock baked by a hot fire. And gravy means, or seems to mean, simply the unenhanced fat or juice of cooked meat.

And Nancy uses the wonderful term plout (“gie it a plout o’a boil”; “when it’s ploutin through the pot”) to mean the bubbling from boiling.






This is a kin’ o’ puddin’, an’s made in a pot. Wesh it clean (the pot, I mean), an’ pit as mony quarts o’ water in it as ye hae big fouk tae feed. Bring tae the boil. Stir in as much meal as ’ll thicken it gyley — ye’ll shen get used tae the quantity, but for yer life let there be nae lumps. Throw in a hair or twa o’ saut; an’ keep stirrin’ weel at the first tae keep them frae stickin’. Singed parritch ir said tae be wholesome, but I wad rether hae them withoot it. In a wee they begin tae thicken, an’ mak’ quare noises when they’re boilin’, an’ when this goes on for half an ’oor they’re ready for dishin’.

Directions for use — Sup wi onything handy, except a fork — sweet milk’s a great improvement, but buttermilk’s no’ bad; an’ trackle’s no’ tae be sneezed at.








Cabbage / nettles


On Sethurday feyther went … doon tae the Shambles an’ boucht a bit beef. It wasna much, but it was beef. It was sauted when it come hame, an’ when the ithers went oot tae meetin’ on Sunday, on went the pot o’ wather, an intae it the bit o’ beef, an’ a pun or twa o’ barley an’ peas. I hae seen guid broth made oot o’ pigs’ ribs, sauted; but beefs best. When it’s ploutin’ through the pot go oot intae the gerdin an’ pick a guid heed o’ cabbage, an’ twa or three leeks, an’ a grain chives, if ye hae them. Wesh the cabbage, an’ be carefu’ tae pick a’ the snails oot o’ them. Ye’ll fin’ the beef’s flesh-meat eneuch withoot them. Shear it, an gie it anither drook o’ spring wather. Wet a grain meal in a bowl, an’ throw it intae the pot for lythin’, addin’ a wee hair o’ saut. Dash in the cabbage, an’ noo shear yer leeks an’ chives, an’ pit them in tae. It disna tak’ as lang tae boil them. Then get a saucer an’ a spoon, an’ sit doon at the fire, an’ pree the broth noo an’ then, tae see hoo they’re daein. Aboot the time ye see the first yin on the road comin’ frae kirk ye can lift aff the pot an’ wait yer guests wi’ an easy conscience. There’s few sermons that haena been improved wi’ a guid pot o’ broth, an’ mony a yin I heerd discussed ower the bowl on a Sunday … In spring, whun the cabbage isna in saison, I hae seen nice broth made o’ young nettles, an’ if ony o’ ye hae the chance o’ puin’ them jest try them for a change.

Dumplins in broth



Dumplin’s in broth, used tae be a great dainty, an’ wur very fillin’. These wur made o’ oaten meal made intae dough, an’ mixed wi’ the fat that was sweemin’ on the tap o’ the pot. It was then made intae shapes like half-pun’ prints o’ butther, an’ plumped intae the pot o’ broth. Dumplin’s was guid, an’ mony a brave hearty meal I hae made o’ them an’ the bit beef, either suppin’ a quart bowl o’ the broth they wur boiled in.


Quarther o’ a pun o’ fat ’Merrick bacon



Cock-a-leey used tae be a great kitchen in my young days. Ye tak’ a quarther o’ a pun o’ fat ’Merrick bacon, an’ fry a’ the gravy oot o’it in a pan. Tak’ oot the meat an’ fill up the pan wi’ het wather, addin’ half a dizzen o’ shorn leeks, an’ bring tae the boil.

This maks a tasty soup, an’ weshes the pretas doon nicely. It’s no’ very nourishin’, but comes handy.


’Merrick bacon



Meal-a-crushy is a pleasin’ variety tae the denner table, an’ as a kitchen, used tae be thoucht a great luxury. Tak’ bacon as afore, fry, an’ lift it oot on a wee plate, but in place o’ addin’ wather an’ leeks, stir in oaten meal tae thicken. Gie it a rummel or twa, an’ ye hae a morsel that comes as near white puddins as oucht I hae come across.



Twa or three chives

A sup milk


Peel yer pretas afore ye boil them. Whun boiled, pound weel. Throw in a sup milk, warm, an’ twa or three chives in it. Gie it anither rummel. Dish on plates, an’ in the middle o’ ivery mountain hide a guid junt o’ butther.

Tak’ a spoon, an’, my word for it, ye hae a toothsome male — champ’s fillin.

Pretas in the Pan





Pretas in the Pan is a dainty dish for the young yins comin’ hame frae skool, an’ uses up the cauld yins. Peel these, slice them intae a pan in a taste o’ gravy, add pepper an’ saut, an’ let them at it wi’ a spoon.

Fadge, or preta-breed

Stane o’ Pretas



This is a wholesome fillin’ dainty that’s gyely gaun oot o’ use, an mair’s the peety. Tae mak’ it, boil a stane o’ pretas, peel an’ bruise wi’ the bottom of a tin; or if ye like, jest use up the twa or three left frae denner. Stiffen up wi’ flooer, an’dinna forget the hair o’ saut. Dae on a clean griddle, an’ eat wi butther.

Preta oaten





Preta oaten is anither variety o’ the fadge species. Work up same as afore, usin’ half an’ half o’ flooer an’ meal.

Fadge in the Pan

Fadge in the Pan, or Savoury Potato Cake as the big fouk ca’ it, is the aforesaid, weel sappled wi’ gravy in the pan, an’ made as het as it’s possible tae eat it. Fashionable at a’ saisons, an’ enjoyable abune oucht.

Hard breed

Oaten meal



There used tae be anither kind o’ breed that was baith wholesome an’ toothsome, if ye had the teeth tae eat it. I mean, hard breed, an’ jest because it was easy tae mak’, the fouk’s a’ quat it. Oaten meal, saut an’ wather’s the hale ingredients… [Nancy leaves it to her audience to work out the quantities.]

Scoudther Scon




A Scoudther Scon’s a hasty bit, for a cup tay, or a piece ’fore denner time. Tae mak’ it, tak’ a grain meal, an’ mak’ it intae dough. Work up a scon aboot an inch thick, an’ as braid as yer twa hans. Lay it on the brandther; gyley heat; turn, an’ finish up again a peat afore the fire. Time for cookin’ — fifteen minutes. Eat it het, wi’ plenty o’ butther, an’ ye cud dae withoot anither meal for twa days.

Boxty breed



Soda breed’s simple, sae I needna mention it; but am sure nane o’ ye iver heerd o’ boxty breed. Weel, it used to be made lang, lang ago, whun fouk made their ain starch oot o’ pretas. It’s a lang while ago; but the preta starch was mixed wi’ floor, an’ made up intae a thick cake, an’ this was laid on the harthstane at nicht, an’ the greeshach heaped ower it, an’ there was yer boxty breed in the mornin’.

Boiled milk



Boiled milk was a mooth waterin’ efther piece, an’ bates a’ the puddins in creation. It used tae be made o’ sweetmilk broucht tae the boil, an’ a grain meal threw in tae mak’ it aboot as thick as gruel. Whun weel boiled, dish, an’ slip in aboot the bulk o’ a bean o’ butther. Weans, but it’s guid.



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