The many lives of Angels on Horseback
Exploring the caroms of culture in the form of one bacon-wrapped delicacy
Hello, Snackers. It’s bacon, it’s oyster, it’s cheese, it’s hot dog, it’s French, it’s British, German, it’s a Girl Scout thing, it’s … it’s … what the heck is it?!
(This post is quite late; sorry to be out of touch for a bit. But please know that somewhere in the multiverse, everything is on schedule.)
Blame Paul Hollywood. A few weeks ago, The Great British Bake-Off had a series of Halloween-themed challenges. Americans on social media lost their minds at the technical challenge, set by Mr. Handshakes, which featured what he described as “s’mores,” and what people who have eaten s’mores would describe as “not s’mores.”
(NB: Hollywood did classify them “a riff on s’mores” or “a fancy version of s’mores” or anything like that; this is his version of the real deal, with digestive biscuits and Italian meringue.)
Once I got over the trauma of seeing … that … on my television screen, I did what I always do when I’m confused about food: I opened Google and did some research.
The usual story, including in all of the aforementioned outlets, is that the recipe dates to 1927 and was probably created (or at least popularized by) Girl Scouts.
Just for kicks, I tried looking for “some mores,” and quickly found a recipe for the dish in The Buffalo News in July 1926. The same newspaper mentioned it as a scout-adored campfire classic a few months earlier:
Once again, the usual food story is wrong.
However. I am not here to discuss Mr. Hollywood and I have no particular desire to dig into the matter of s’mores any further since, again, other outlets have covered that topic.
I would prefer, instead, to take a closer look at a different food, one that isn’t nearly as famous but appeared alongside s’mores in nearly all of those early articles, as another favored element of Girl Scout camping cuisine.
Look at that clipping again and note what’s listed right before “some mores.”
Angels on horseback.
What on earth are they and what’s their deal?
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Angels on horseback is a hot hors d'œuvre or savoury made of oysters wrapped with bacon. The dish, when served atop breads, can also be a canapé.
It’s a fairly long Wikipedia entry, as lesser-known food entries go, with 31 references, including various old newspapers, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the James Bond novel Dr. No, which includes a passage in which 007 orders the dish along with caviar, grilled lamb cutlets, and salad (this being a Bond novel, there’s also more than a dash of sexism and racism in the scene-setting surrounding the meal).
Citing The Glutton's Glossary: A Dictionary of Food and Drink Terms, the Wikipedia entry says that “the origins of the dish are unclear. The name most likely derives from the French anges à cheval.” The Glutton’s Glossary, in turn, references a British cookbook, published in 1888, which included the oldest-known recipe for the dish and listed both the English and French versions.
But knowing the French term is not the same as understanding why the name came about. I looked into the meaning of the term “angels on horseback,” which put the dish in a different light when I found this explanation from a British magazine in 1849:
Many of our readers are doubtless familiar with this rustic phrase, so often applied to anything superlatively fine or beautiful, and like ourselves, have probably considered it as a mere extravagant expression.
With this in mind, it’s possible—likely, even—that “angels on horseback” was simply a marketing gimmick of sorts, an over-the-top description for an over-the-top dish. A bacon-wrapped oyster conjures a feeling of decadence (not fanciness necessarily, but certainly excess), even today, and every data point indicates that they carried the same connotations 100-plus years ago. “Angels on horseback” is simply the old-school version of the modern food-naming conventions that give us, for example, Flavor Blasted Xtra Cheddar Goldfish.
This possibility—that the name is just, like, branding—is further strengthened by the fact that a British newspaper was the first to use “angels on horseback” as the name of a kind of food. This, at least, is the origin story given by The New England Farmer in 1878, which I’ve included below.
Maybe I’m projecting, but it’s entirely plausible to see some writer dreaming up this dish, or seeing it for the first time, and—facing a deadline and desperate to capture readers’ attention—reaching for the current turn of phrase to do so. We ink-stained wretches do love food-related wordplay.
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As the combination of bacon and oysters spread across the USA, it took on multiple names. A few years after angels on horseback galloped onto the scene, they were followed by a nearly identical dish called Oysters en Brochette, the fancy French version. (As far as I can tell, this is the product of American French and Cajun cooking, not from the Old World, but if any readers are better acquainted with classic French cuisine, please tell me if I’m wrong.)
A book published in 1888, with this exquisite cover, appears to be the first published recipe for oysters en brochette, and within a decade, it was in French restaurants from Salt Lake City to New Orleans to Buffalo.
Again, this alternate name affirms the idea that the dish was something at least a bit gourmet. But it was also approachable, a thing you could potentially make at home—another early recipe was in a book called Dainty Dishes for Slender Incomes. The general vibe, in every case, was that this was something fun and shareable, an appetizer or party food to please the masses.
Some early sources cite angels on horseback as a Lenten specialty from England. Another theory, first mentioned in a round-up of oyster dishes the St. Paul Globe in 1884, says it “was first prepared by the chef de cuisine to the emperor of Germany,” though the same article assures readers that it’s something they can easily make at home. British publications, meanwhile, treated angels on horseback—both the name and the dish—as a novelty well into the 1890s (London’s Daily News called it “ridiculous and profane” in 1892). This makes me think it didn’t start in Britain at all, but was invented in the USA as a “British” dish, and then eventually made it back to the land from which it supposedly originated.
* * *
Enter the Girl Scouts, who created their own version of angels on horseback sometime around 1926—in fact, that clip I included above, with one of the first mentions of “some mores,” is also the earliest reference I could find for scouts preparing angels on horseback.
Their recipe was a bit different: instead of an oyster, the bacon was wrapped around a piece of cheese, cooked over the campfire. At some point, this evolved to be a bacon-wrapped piece of cheese-covered hot dog, which makes more sense as a campfire food, and would seem to offer a bit more structural integrity.
And then … this is where things get especially fun. I’m not 100% certain of the timing of everything, but it sure looks like this second draft of the Girl Scouts’ angels horseback eventually moved out of the scouting realm and into the broader party-food world, where it evolved again, becoming a piece of bacon-wrapped sausage.
* * *
It gets confusing, but trying to unpack all the twists and turns is kinda enjoyable, no?
It’s fun to see all these little caroms of culture in one dish: an expression becomes a food, which bounces around regions and groups and morphs into different variations.
Like Paul Hollywood’s recent version of a s’more, angels on horseback are bite-size bafflements, a dish unsure of its roots or its place in the culinary landscape, billed as both refined and populist but not quite fitting in either category.
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