It has been one of the less welcome effects of the diversification and globalisation of British culture that British cuisine, which once enjoyed worldwide fame for its diversity, richness and quality, has lost its position of world eminence to the, perhaps inferior, cuisines of other nations (Italy, France and China spring to mind). We have touched on the strange stories behind some of our national dishes before (see 'The Yorkshire Pudding' - ed) but perhaps the strangest is that of a dish that until recently was one of the mainstays of the British diet, namely chicken in a basket.
It is perhaps appropriate that we should examine this dish so close to All Hallow's Eve, as the roots of chicken in a basket are inextricably entwined with the rich vein of the occult that runs through British history. The traditional familiar of British witches had been, from celtic times, a black chicken (note the similarity to voodoo – ed). This fact may come as a surprise to some, as the traditional witch's familiar is generally thought to be a black cat. The reason for this confusion lies in sloppy translation of the Anglo-Saxon source texts. The Anglo-Saxon for 'chicken' is 'chatken' or 'chatkin', and translators in the seventeenth century assumed this was a corruption from 'cattus', which was the vulgate Latin word for 'cat' (giving us 'chat' in French, 'katze' in German and so on), so they, almost without exception, translated this word as 'cat'. It was not until the late nineteenth century that this mistake was universally acknowledged and corrected, and by then the idea of the witch's cat had become ingrained in the British psyche. But I digress. Back to chickens.
The procedure of the ducking-stool is well-documented and I will not treat it in detail here. Suffice it to say this was a wonderfully self-fulfilling way of determining guilt, that makes the most imaginative efforts of the West Midland Serious Crimes Squad to 'get a result' pale into insignificance. A suspected witch was ducked in water. If she sank and drowned she was innocent, but if she floated and survived she was plainly guilty and was sentenced to burning at the stake. What is less well-documented was that the familiar was tested in a similar manner. The unfortunate chicken was strapped into a small basket and immersed along with her owner. The same rules applied. As chickens are naturally buoyant, the chicken was almost always found guilty and burned.
The variation of this procedure used in Norfolk by Witchfinder General 'Burn-em' Matthews took the principal of 'guilty until proven innocent, or at least rich enough to afford several expensive lawyers' to new heights. The chicken was first plucked, and was dunked not into water but into a specially prepared batter, similar to 'Yorkshire Pudding' mix, which was mixed to be so dense that a housebrick would have difficulty sinking, let alone a chicken. When the chicken was found guilty (as it invariably was) it was rolled in breadcrumbs before burning. Matthews would then consume the unfortunate fowl, but the final joke was to be on him. Burning at the stake is a particularly inefficient method of preparing a fowl for the table; the outer parts are usually overcooked, but the inner parts invariably finish the process little more than warmed through. After five years on an almost exclusive diet of chicken, Matthews died in agony, exhibiting symptoms that any modern doctor would instantly diagnose as acute salmonella poisoning.
So, these are the features of a truly traditional 'chicken in a basket': chicken, rolled in batter, covered in breSo, these are the features of a truly traditional 'chicken in a basket': chicken, rolled in batter, covered in breadcrumbs and then cooked so that half the flesh is charred, stringy and tough, and the other half has the consistency (and taste) of pink, watery, lukewarm rubber. As a final ironic twist, the chicken is served in the very basket used for its dunking.
This dish survived, almost unchanged, to modern times, but it has fallen out of favour in the last fifteen years or so, for reasons already stated. Attempts to update the dish by offering 'chicken korma in a basket', or the disastrous 'consomme de poulet dans un basquette' have proved ineffective, and the British taste for occult cookery is now satisfied by the rise of the 'Hammer Horror' inspired 'Stake Houses'.
(28th October 1997)