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Eating the Past: Scotch Eggs

A plate with breaded Scotch eggs
NatalieH6, Photographer

 This is Tammy Proctor, and this season on Eating the Past, we have

already seen that defining dumplings can be difficult and a little

contentious. I’m going to add to the dicey history of dumplings today by

exploring a British delicacy, the staple of buffets and church fetes

across the UK – the Scotch egg.


If you’ve never had one, it is a fun food that in the US would probably be

categorized with state fair foods. It is a hard-boiled egg, surrounded by

a layer of sausage, then breaded and fried. You can buy a grocery store

pre-cooked version and heat it in a microwave, but the best way to have

one these days is at a restaurant that makes gourmet versions from

scratch with organic eggs and homemade sausage.


So, I think these probably count as dumplings because they are fried

balls, filled with yummy stuff, and they can be served alone as a snack

or with a sauce on top or for dipping. The real debate comes from the

question of their origins. They are definitely not Scottish! They became

popular nationally in the UK in the 1800s, but there are three possible

origin stories. See which sounds most probable.


First, some people think the Scotch egg originated in Britain’s empire – in

India – with a dish called Nargisi Kofta. This lamb and egg curry probably

became popular during the Mughal empire period in India and it features a

hard-boiled egg wrapped in a layer of ground lamb and spices, then

breaded and deep fried. After that they are usually served in a curry

sauce. These could probably be categorized as either dumplings or

meatballs – hard to say, but some food history experts see this as the

inspiration for the British Scotch egg when it developed. Albeit without

the curry!


Second, the town of Whitby in Yorkshire on Britain’s east coast also

claims to have created the first version of a Scotch egg at an

establishment called William Scott & Sons. These ‘Scotties’ were hard

boiled eggs wrapped in fish paste, then breaded and fried. Later versions

featured sausage as well.


The last origin story comes from Fortnum & Mason, the luxury

department store and food hall. In this story, Fortnum & Mason created

Scotch eggs for upper-class and wealthy travelers seeking a luxury

snack when they ventured out on trips in the UK or abroad. F&M claim

that they developed the Scotch eggs in 1738 and began marketing them

soon after.


Regardless of the origins, it is indisputable that these little fried globs

took the country by storm and became ubiquitous in the twentieth

century. The Oxford English dictionary records a real uptick in usage by

1940 and after. I’m assuming their portability made them popular among

those working in war industries in the 1940s and 1950s and their cheap (by

that time) cost also proved irristible to a postwar Britain that

continued rationing into the 1950s.


Today is a particularly good day to talk about Scotch eggs because November

5th is Guy Fawkes Day in Britain, and many a bonfire night spread will include

Scotch eggs.


Are they dumplings? Well, perhaps listeners should decide.

Next week more on the history of dumplings. Join us for Eating

the Past every Sunday at noon, right before The Splendid Table, on your

UPR station.

Tammy Proctor is a specialist in European history, gender, war, and youth. Dr. Proctor has written about Scouting, women spies and the way war affects the lives of ordinary people. Currently she is writing a book on American food relief to Europe during and after World War I. She has worked at Utah State University since 2013 and is a native of Kansas City, Missouri.