Such a delightful word–it rolls off the tongue with a musical quality and promises of a tasty treat. Used both as a noun (a fricassee) and a verb (to fricassee), the word is relatively old, appearing as early as 1490 in French cookbooks, and by 1568 in England, but its origin and etymology are surprisingly brief. It is speculated that it is a portmanteau word combining the French ‘frire’ -to fry with French ‘casser” to break. Perhaps that accounts for some rather gruesome connotations the word has acquired.
First, there is Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal, which is anything but modest. In his biting satire of the English mishandling of Irish economy, he claims a fricassee or stew of the very young children of the poor would help solve the problem of poverty in Ireland. I can’t help but think of this preposterous idea whenever I hear of a recipe for fricassee.
While real recipes for fricassees usually call for chicken not children, one can’t ignore the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk. Was he thinking of fricassee when he said, “Fee Fie Foe Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman, be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.” You might ask, what does this have to do with fricassee?
Well, although grinding young Jack’s bones is the more common rendition of the rhyme, I’ve always heard it as ‘break his bones to make my bread.’ The connection becomes clearer when you consider the recipe in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, for Frykecy (40). After killing and flaying the animal hot, the cook is instructed to break the bones of a chicken or hare with a pestle. To be fair, ‘break bones’ in cookery can mean dismember or cut apart, though I’m not sure exactly how that is done with a pestle. It seems a fairly violent method of cooking, rather in line with the giant’s idea.
So what exactly is a fricassee? It is a sort of stew made with cut up meat, and fried before it is stewed (or sometimes stewed before it is fried). It is usually made of chicken or rabbit, with varying spices. Early fricassee recipes use egg yolks to thicken the gravy. Later recipes use flour. In the 17th century fricassees could be made of eggs, lambstones, veal, or sweetbreads, or even chicken-peepers (which are young chickens) and pigeons, head and all. By the 18th century, the more familiar fricassee appeared. These recipes leave out the heads and innards and thicken the gravy with a bit of flour to help stabilize it.
So in spite of all the gruesome connotations, fricassee today is as delightful to eat as it is to say.
A modern fricassee (based on Fricasseed Chicken, Brown from Child, 54)
(Note that often cooked poultry in the 18th century was meant to be served as white as possible (see turkey blog) This recipe browns the chicken pieces first. It is followed by a recipe called fricasseed chicken, white.)
A modern fricassee (based on fricasseed chicken, brown) (Note that often cooked poultry in the 18th century was meant to be served as white as possible (see turkey blog) This recipe browns the chicken pieces first. It is followed by a recipe called fricasseed chicken, white.) 1 chicken or about 8 pieces of chicken 1 onion About 3 T. butter About ½ c. flour 1 t. Salt ½ t. Pepper 1 t. Crushed marjoram 2 t. Crushed sage Cut up a chicken into serving size pieces (legs, thighs, wings, etc.) Wash and dredge the chicken in a mixture of flour, salt, and pepper. Fry them in butter along with 1 chopped onion. When the chicken is browned, remove it. Add 2 cups of water or broth to the pan, along with marjoram and sage. Bring to a boil. Mix 2 T. of the flour left from dredging with 2 T. water to make a roue. Add the roue to the pan, stirring constantly. Boil 1-2 minutes. Turn the heat down to simmer. Put the browned chicken back in the pan and simmer 20-30 minutes.
Recipes for Fricassee can be found in Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (pages 40 and 44) and in The American Frugal Housewife p. 54, among other cookbooks.
Child, Lydia Marie. The American Frugal Housewife. Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy. 12th Edition. Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co. 1833. (First published 1828)
—–. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats. (A Family Manuscript, Hand written circa 17th century. Transcribed and annotated by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)