Today is Mad Hatter day in Britain (but not in the U.S. – where it is October 6th). The day is celebrated on the date 10/6 because in John Tenniel’s illustration of the Hatter at the tea party at the March Hare’s house in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (see pic), the Hatter is wearing a topper with a note in the band saying “In this Style 10/6” which meant 10 shillings and sixpence (or half a guinea) in old currency. In British notation of day/month, 10/6 is June 10th, whereas in the U.S. system of month/day it is October 6th. The day is meant to be filled with scatterbrained activities and ideas. In the chapter “A Mad Tea-Party,” the conversation involves riddles that have no answer, highly personal remarks, and generally nonsensical banter, giving us the lead on how to celebrate the day ourselves.
I find two points of interest that sometimes escape readers of this chapter of Alice. First, the Hatter is never referred to as “the Mad Hatter” in the text – only “the Hatter.” Second, both the Hatter and the March Hare are mad (as the Cheshire Cat warns Alice ahead of time). This generally connects with two common Victorian similes: “as mad as a hatter” and “as mad as a March hare.” One speculation about the former is that in the nineteenth century, mercury was used in the process of making felt for hats, and so hatters (and mill workers) were exposed to high levels of mercury vapor in their factories and workshops leading to mercury poisoning which caused neurological damage. Hares were said to be mad in March because of their crazy antics during mating season, such as boxing one another and randomly jumping vertically in the air. Mating season begins in the month of March. Versions of this idiomatic saying date to 1500. Just to complete the trio of tea drinkers that Alice comes across, the Dormouse is perpetually asleep in reference to the expression “as sleepy as a dormouse” presumably referring to their times of hibernation.
The March Hare and the Hatter make a brief appearance in the sequel Through the Looking-Glass, renamed Haigha and Hatta (see pic), working as the White King’s messengers. As the king explains:
“I must have TWO, you know—to come and go. One to come, and one to go.”
Tenniel’s illustration shows Hatta still in his 10/6 topper sipping a cup of tea with the Hare looking on.
It’s way too obvious to give you a recipe that has something to do with tea time, and besides I already went on about tea time in a previous post (Louisa Lawson and The Dawn Club). Instead I am going to focus on another of Carroll’s beloved characters; the Mock Turtle. What makes the character of the Mock Turtle amusing may be missed by modern readers. In Tenniel’s illustration (see pic) he has the body of a turtle and the head, feet, and tail of a cow. In nineteenth century England, particularly in the Victorian era, turtle soup was a hallmark of fine dining and opulence among the elite. It was typically on the menu at ceremonial dinners such as the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London. People who could not afford real turtle meat could make mock turtle soup in imitation of the real thing. To substitute for turtle meat, recipes called for the head, feet, and tail of a cow, because the fat and bones produced a gelatinous broth similar to turtle soup, and the fatty portions of the meat mimicked turtle meat – hence the Mock Turtle’s head, feet, and tail.
I doubt anyone reading this post is likely to run out and buy an ox head to make the soup, so I am going to fall back on my Victorian stalwart , Isabella Beeton, for her recipe. It is perfectly serviceable if you are up for it. I did make it once many years ago, and it was good – although it made an awful lot of soup, and you need an awfully big pot. The recipe is quite precious. A tammy (or tamis) is a large round sieve shaped like a drum. Note that she advises the addition of mushrooms “when obtainable.” In Victorian times they were gathered wild because they were not grown commercially. And, oh yes, have a jolly time removing the brains. For them you need her recipe for brains on toast points (which my mum made for Saturday tea time once in a while when I was a boy).
172. INGREDIENTS.—1/2 a calf’s head, 1/4 lb. of butter, 1/4 lb. of lean ham, 2 tablespoonfuls of minced parsley, a little minced lemon thyme, sweet marjoram, basil, 2 onions, a few chopped mushrooms (when obtainable), 2 shallots, 2 tablespoonfuls of flour, 1/4 bottle of Madeira or sherry, force-meat balls, cayenne, salt and mace to taste, the juice of 1 lemon and 1 Seville orange, 1 dessert-spoonful of pounded sugar, 3 quarts of best stock, No. 104.
Mode.—Scald the head with the skin on, remove the brain, tie the head up in a cloth, and let it boil for 1 hour. Then take the meat from the bones, cut it into small square pieces, and throw them into cold water. Now take the meat, put it into a stewpan, and cover with stock; let it boil gently for an hour, or rather more, if not quite tender, and set it on one side. Melt the butter in another stewpan, and add the ham, cut small, with the herbs, parsley, onions, shallots, mushrooms, and nearly a pint of stock; let these simmer slowly for 2 hours, and then dredge in as much flour as will dry up the butter. Fill up with the remainder of the stock, add the wine, let it stew gently for 10 minutes, rub it through a tammy, and put it to the calf’s head; season with cayenne, and, if required, a little salt; add the juice of the orange and lemon; and when liked, 1/4 teaspoonful of pounded mace, and the sugar. Put in the force-meat balls, simmer 5 minutes, and serve very hot.
Time.—4-1/2 hours. Average cost, 3s. 6d. per quart, or 2s. 6d. without wine or force-meat balls.
Seasonable in winter.
Sufficient for 10 persons.
Note.—The bones of the head should be well stewed in the liquor it was first boiled in, and will make good white stock, flavoured with vegetables, etc.