Kickshaw:   Tasty Treat or Tawdry Toy?

By the Regency, the term had come to mean both. However, the word had its origins in the Tudor period as a small specialty dish which was interspersed with more substantial dishes on the dinner table during a grand meal. But over the course of more than two centuries, the meaning of the word in England had evolved and its use during the Regency reflected those changes. This dual meaning may be turned to good effect by a Regency author who is aware of the difference.

Kickshaws through the Regency . . .

The word "kickshaw," like so many other words in the English language, had its origins in a term from another language. In this case, the French phrase, quelque chose, with the rather vague meaning of "a little something." In France, these "little somethings" were light and fancy dishes that might be included on the table during many splendid meals. The fashion for quelque chose dishes was adopted by the aristocracy and then the gentry of England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. And, as was often the case, many in England could not, or would not, make the effort to pronounce French words correctly. Thus, these small fancy dishes became known as "kick-choses" and later as "kickshaws."

Frenchmen tended to be more appreciative of these light, elegant and carefully prepared dishes than were their English counterparts. By the turn of the seventeenth century, most Englishmen, who usually preferred very plain and hearty meals, considered kickshaws dainty, even insubstantial dishes that provided little nourishment and thus were hardly worth the time and effort to prepare. They were also of the opinion that many of these dishes were so artfully prepared, and their ingredients so changed by that process, that it was nearly impossible to identify the main ingredients. In England, that was considered a fault by many. These views of kickshaws were strengthened by the average Englishman’s opinion that all things English were superior to all things French. Most Englishmen preferred plain, substantial dishes like roast meats and heavy puddings. For this reason, it may come as no surprise that the French often referred to the English as les rosbifs.

The first known published recipe for kickshaws appeared in The Good Huswifes Jewell, by Thomas Dawson. The first edition was published in London, in 1585. As was common practice at the time, this was a book of recipes for both food dishes and medicinal preparations. This cookery book is said to be the first to include a recipe for sweet potatoes. It also contained what most scholars consider to be the first published recipe for kickshaws. Dawson’s recipe was for what might be called meat pies today, though at the time, they were more often called meat "purses." They were named after the purses that most men carried at their waist, to hold their small personal possessions, in the days before the invention of pockets. These sixteenth-century kickshaws consisted of a pastry shell filled with cooked meat and sauce or gravy, usually seasoned with herbs and spices. Not long after the publication of Thomas Dawson’s cookery book, Shakespeare made mention of kickshaws as a small snack containing meat in his play, Henry IV.

The English Hus-wife, a later book of cookery and home-made remedies, was first published in London, by Gervase Markham, in 1615. This popular cookbook contained was is believed to be the first published recipe for Banbury cakes. It also contained a very different recipe for "quelquechose." This early seventeenth-century version of the dish was essentially an omelette, consisting of beaten eggs and cream, into which is blended a mix of salt, coarsely chopped spices, marigold flowers and minced "Pigg’s Pettitoes." This mixture was poured into a hot frying pan greased with melted butter, cooked until lightly browned on one side, then turned and browned on the other. According to Markham, any mixture of herbs or spices could be used in the recipe, as well as nearly any meat, fish or fowl. He also suggested that oysters, mussels or cockles, and/or lemons, oranges or other fruits could be added to the egg and cream mixture, as desired.

Though Markham’s recipe sounds like it might be rather tasty, depending upon the mix of ingredients used, not long after his cookery book was published, the average Englishman had come to see kickshaws as overly-fancy, frivolous French-inspired dishes which were of little consequence. As the seventeenth century progressed, the term "kickshaw" also came to mean any pretty, but insignificant, little toy or trifle. Typically, this was used as a contemptuous reference for an object, or even some type of effort, which was considered to be of no real value. At about the same time, in his comedy, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare uses kickshaws in the sense of something negligible or inconsequential, as the line refers to masks and revels. By mid-century, kickshaw was also used to refer to a frivolous or ridiculous person who was perceived to be someone who was incapable of being serious. The word also appears in the novel, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, written by Fanny Burney and first published in 1771. She has one of her characters dismiss the objects in a museum visited by a group of characters in the story as "kickshaw work."

Despite this new use of the word, through the seventeenth century and into the nineteenth, a kickshaw was still a special, fancy dish, though the recipe had changed yet again. From the mid-eighteenth century, Hannah Glasse, who had little use for French cookery in general, did include a recipe for kickshaws in her classic English cookbook, The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, from its first edition, published in 1747. However, her recipe was neither a beaten egg dish nor a meat "purse." Glasse’s kickshaws were fruit tarts, sweet treats which included no meat, salt or savory spices. Her recipe called for "puff paste," i.e. puff pastry, which could be used just as it was rolled out, or it could be pressed into a mold. The pastry was to be filled with fruit preserves, closed up and then baked or fried. The cook was then directed to " . . . throw grated Sugar over them, and serve them up." Glasse recommended pippins, gooseberries, raspberries, or whatever fruit the cook pleased, to make their kickshaws. This same recipe was included in every edition of The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy which was published, right through the Regency. Therefore, we can assume that many of our ancestors living in the early nineteenth century enjoyed these sweet fruit treats, perhaps served warm as a dessert or as a special treat with afternoon tea. Leftovers may also have been enjoyed as a cold snack, if any of them survived the meal for which they were made.

As sometimes happens, once a word has made its way into English, it may be co-opted by the more disreputable elements of society and acquire a less respectable meaning. Such was the case with "kickshaw." From the early seventeenth century, in many parts of England, the word became a euphemism for "vagina." By the eighteenth century, the word was also used as a term for a woman of ill-repute or easy virtue. Which, sadly, also gives us an insight into how little some men of that era thought of women, and/or sexual relations with them, since a kickshaw was considered something trivial and insignificant. Worse, the term was nearly always used contemptuously.

Though the word "kickshaw," for either fruit turnovers or something, or someone, frivolous and inconsequential, was becoming old-fashioned, it did remain in use through our favorite decade. In the early nineteenth century, it was used to refer to either a small fruit tart or a trivial toy or a very silly or foolish person. Yet, the word had fallen almost completely out of use by the end of the nineteenth century, though it could still be found in a few cookbooks which included recipes for old-fashioned dishes. In the twenty-first century, some English cooks and chefs have brought back recipes for kickshaws. However, nowadays, these modern recipes are usually similar to the meat purses of the sixteenth century. Modern-day kickshaws no longer contain fruit preserves nor are they topped with grated sugar. Instead, they are most often made with minced chicken or veal, seasoned and sealed inside a deep-fried pastry crust.

Dear Regency Authors, might you allow some of your characters in an upcoming novel to enjoy a fresh, warm kickshaw, garnished with grated sugar? Or might one of your characters be so silly or ridiculous that they are dismissed as a kickshaw by some of the other characters in your story? Based on my research, I got the impression that fruit-filled kickshaws were no longer a fashionable dish during the Regency, so they were not likely to be served during an elegant and sophisticated society meal in an urban area. But they may very well have been served in the homes of folks with few pretensions to fashion, particularly in rural areas. Fruit-filled kickshaws might make a nice guilty pleasure, remembered from childhood, mayhap for an urbane and cultured hero. Will the heroine get a glimpse of his simpler side when she offers him a fresh warm kickshaw, perhaps one she made herself? Then again, will the heroine, a country girl, go to a great deal of effort to make a gift for a more affluent and sophisticated cousin, only to have it dismissed as nothing but a kickshaw? How might that play out, if the hero is courting the churlish cousin at the time? There are also opportunities for double entendres with the word, between fruit-filled tarts, impractical toys or effort, not to mention its much more naughty meaning.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Kickshaw:   Tasty Treat or Tawdry Toy?

  1. fun to be had here with word play, eg asking “what kind of commodity is this kickshaw?” commodity having a similar naughty meaning. I have had an elderly gent objecting to fancy French kickshaws, as a child I recall older folk using it for trivial kinds of activities.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      A naughty meaning for commodity is a new one for me. It is not something I have yet run across in my research. I can see where it might have a number of amusing uses. 😉

      Having an elderly gent object to fancy French kickshaws is perfect. From what I learned, there were many Englishmen who had no use for fancy French cooking. It never ceases to amaze me how people can use food to express their prejudices.

      I did not know the word kickshaw had survived in use into the twentieth century. Thanks for sharing that!



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