Whitebait

I have been swotting up on the history of whitebait by reading Roger Williams’s book Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries in preparation for tonight’s annual Whitebait dinner when we sail downriver in the late afternoon to eat whitebait at a gastropub in Greenwich.   The term apparently originally described any small fish, mostly sprats, which was used as bait to catch larger white fish, like pike (red bait was apparently used to catch salmon).   Whitebait first appeared as a term to describe small cooked fish in the fifth edition of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Easy (1796) which recommended that they should be dusted with flour, cooked for two minutes in hog fat, and dished up with ‘plain butter and soy [sauce]’.   Then in 1829, William Yarrell, the great ichthyologist, classified whitebait as a separate species.   This was the era when it was fashionable for groups to go downriver to pubs in Greenwich or Blackwall to feast on freshly caught whitebait, as did a group of Royal Academicians in 1818 when ten oarsmen went to ‘Eel Pye house’ in Twickenham.   In 1823, Turner suggested that the Whitebait Dinner should be held in Greenwich at the Crown & Sceptre, so it was nice to be back.

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3 thoughts on “Whitebait

  1. Jeremy Fletcher says:

    Now there is a real eye opener. Soy sauce in 1796! Presumably from China? I have always associated it with the mass advent of Chinese restaurants and takeaways in the 1950’s and 60’s. Apart from tea, what other Asian or Chinese foods did we eat in the 18th century? Rice, noodles? Would love to know more.

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