Thursday, June 3, 2004
‘Angels on Horseback’ Said to Be ‘Heaven-Sent’ Oyster Dish
By ROGER M. GRACE
“Angels on Horseback” was the title of a 1977 episode of “Charlie’s Angels” in which the trio of distaff detectives found themselves on a dude ranch where, of course, they were clad in bikinis.
It was the nickname for midwives who staffed the Frontier Nursing Service, formed in 1925 to bring medical services to an isolated region of Kentucky.
“Angels on Horseback” is also the title of a celebrated 1957 book containing works of British cartoonist Norman Thelwell, who died earlier this year.
This column, however, has nothing to do with curvaceous female sleuths, with midwives, nor with British pictorial humor—er, humour. It is, rather, the seventh in a series of columns on oysters.
If you saw last week’s installment, you learned, if you did not already know it, that an “angel on horseback” is the same as a “pig in a blanket”: an oyster wrapped in bacon, served on a buttered toast point.
The derivation of the name “angels on horseback” as an appetizer is about as contrived as some of the “Charlie’s Angels” plots. As oysters are cooked, the edges curl, and this is said to resemble an angel’s wings.
Marilyn Hansen, in her 1990 book, “Entertaining in the Victorian Style,” says of “angels on horseback”: “These intriguing morsels are indeed heaven-sent for oyster lovers.” In her rendition, the toast is spread with butter blended with anchovy paste and parsley.
The Los Angeles Times’ “Prize Cook Book,” published in 1923, had this simple recipe for “Angels on Horseback”:
“Trim the beards from as many oysters as may be required, wrap each in a very thin shaving of fat, streaky bacon; run them one after the other on a silver skewer, and hold them over a toast in front of a clear fire until the bacon is slightly crisp; serve on toast immediately.”
A recipe appearing in the Los Angeles Times in 1993 was a bit more elaborate. Sourdough bread was specified for the toast. The oyster, wrapped in bacon, was to be rolled in a mixture of beaten eggs, Worcester sauce and French bread crumbs and fried in butter.
Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1993, Jay Harlow provided this information:
“Angels on Horseback is found in one form or another in most standard American cookbooks, but it appears to have originated in England. According to Lonnie Williams and Karen Warner in ‘Oysters: A Connoisseur’s Companion,’ the dish dates to the Victorian era in England, ‘when oysters were so plentiful they were eaten mainly by the poor.’ The dish is also attributed to the English in the second edition of Larousse Gastronomique.”
Vancouver Magazine in December, 1999, told how the dish was enjoyed in the 1890s:
“At a time when men still wore top hats, and women whalebone corsets, Vancouver was peppered with oyster bars….The drinking man’s favourite was an iron pan of angels on horseback, local oysters wrapped in streaky bacon with a dot of Keen’s hot mustard.”
Angels on horseback were thus concocted well before the era when waiters in diners shouted orders to cooks in code—such as “Adam and Eve on a raft” indicating two poached eggs on toast and “moo juice” being milk. Nonetheless, “angels on horseback” is sometimes associated with such jargon.
A 1988 article in the Washington Post said:
“In the 1920s and 1930s, diners became part of the American mainstream. By 1937 millions of Americans were regularly eating diner staples such as ‘angels on horseback’ (bacon wrapped oysters on toast), ‘bossy on a board’ (roast beef on toast) and ‘wets’ (french fries in gravy).”
One of many variations on the dish was published in 1995 in the Christian Science Monitor. It was an Italianized version with prosciutto “(preferably imported from Parma, Italy)” used in lieu of bacon.
Scallops are sometimes substituted for oysters—and have been since the 19th Century when oysters were not always available.
A frequent substitution is a half-shell in place of the toast. Oysters broiled in an oven topped with bacon and splashed with Worcester sauce are called oysters Kilpatrick—and are, indeed, a treat.
What are “devils on horseback”?
According to a 1988 article in the Chicago Tribune, they’re the same as angels on horseback, except they “are sprinkled with Tabasco before broiling.”
Food authority James Beard (1903-85) insisted that angels on horseback required ham as a wrapper, and that if bacon were used, what you’d have would be devils on horseback.
The British serve a dish they call “devils on horseback”—which has not caught on here (understandably). It’s the same as an “angel” except that a prune, sometimes stuffed, is substituted for the oyster.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company
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