English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Bread and dripping

Q: The next time Pat appears on the Leonard Lopate Show, she should tell Leonard that here in England we don’t all eat “drippings” (“dripping” in British English) for breakfast! The last time I tasted dripping was after the Second World War when food was still rationed. I’ve certainly never heard of it for breakfast. Fried bread is still popular, though my GP wouldn’t be too pleased if I indulged.

A: We do recall that Leonard once mentioned “drippings” in a discussion of British breakfast habits. Like us, he probably enjoys vintage British fiction, stories in which kids slip away from Nanny and sneak into the kitchen, where Cook gives them a treat of “bread and dripping.”

We’re big fans of Angela Thirkell, and we recall such scenes in her Barsetshire novels, which begin in the early 1930s and end in the late ’50s. In either kitchen or nursery, children are indulged with lavish helpings of “dripping,” spread on fresh warm bread.

We always assumed “dripping” meant bacon grease, but we should have consulted the Oxford English Dictionary! We would have found it defined this way: “the melted fat that drips from roasting meat, which when cold is used like butter. Formerly often in pl.”

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online says the noun is singular in the UK and plural in the US, though all the American dictionaries we’ve checked list “dripping” as the principal noun, with “drippings” as a common variant.

Gravy, as every cook knows, is made from the drippings (we prefer the variant) that come from roast meats—hot fat plus crispy morsels and bits of meat than have fallen off.

In many parts of the US, “biscuits and gravy” is a staple, and you can order it for breakfast in diners, alongside your eggs. (Tell THAT to your GP!)

So from now on, we’ll think of “dripping” as a sort of pre-gravy, before the flour and extra liquid are stirred in.

We’ve occasionally skipped the flour and used this pre-gravy with bread or mashed potatoes, but we’ve never used the cold congealed stuff like butter, as the OED suggests.

The British have used the noun “dripping” since as far back as the 15th century. The word is implied in a reference to “drepyngpannes” (dripping-pans) that was published in an Act of Parliament in 1463, according to the OED.

References to “dripping” itself began appearing in 1530 (“drepyng of rost meate”) and continued until well into modern times.

The OED’s citations conclude with this one, from Rosa Nouchette Carey’s novel Uncle Max (1887): “A piece of bread and dripping.”

However, the tradition has apparently lived on. We’ve found plenty of subsequent references to “bread and dripping,” eaten at breakfast or tea or even for supper, in the works of George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Somerset Maugham, P.D. James, Margaret Atwood, and too many others to mention.

And the online Oxford Dictionaries offers this example of the usage: “I still carry around a hankering for bread and dripping, steamed pudding, and sweet macaroni, but I know they will do me no good, so I avoid them.”

Contributors to British cooking websites often wax nostalgic about “bread and dripping.” Some recall it as a humble working-class dish, or as a byproduct of food rationing. But others still eat it with relish (that is, with enjoyment) just because they like it.

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