Decoding (Most of) an 18th-Century 'Riddle Menu'

Our readers offer up their answers and theories.

For hundreds of years, puzzle-lovers have tried to decode mysterious riddle menus. Published in puzzle books, cookbooks, magazines, and newspapers, the "enigmatic" menu items were disguised with clever wordplay. In the literary free-for-all before copyright legislation, many of these menus were copied over and over, giving readers of different countries and eras the chance to puzzle out what kind of drink "Counterfeit agony" could be. (Answer: champagne, of course.)

While many riddle menus were published in the 18th and 19th century, attempts to decode them have persisted until recently. In the food history journal Petits Propos Culinaires, readers attempted to solve one such riddle menu in 1984, and got pretty far. They were helped along by one unusual contributor of Petits Propos Culinaires who had uncovered the handwritten explanations to the same menu written by Sarah Yeates, an 18th-century Pennsylvania lady. Yeates's knowledge of the era's slang and culture made her a riddle menu champion, but even she didn't have some of the answers. Sometimes, publications came with an answer key, but most of the time, readers were left to ponder.

Recently, we gave Atlas Obscura readers a real head-scratcher to decode. Writer India Mandelkern transcribed a set of 18th-century riddle menus from the British Library, and we published one for your puzzle-solving amusement. Our readers didn't disappoint: They offered up a whole banquet of conjectures, suggestions, and downright brilliant answers to the mysterious riddle menu. As is almost traditional at this point, some menu items remain baffling, awaiting a new generation of puzzle-solvers.

First Course

A Fool’s head with a Lilliputian Sauce, garnish’d with Oaths, A roasted Turnspit, The revenue of being proud in a pye, and The Grand Seignour’s Dominions roasted

For the very first item on the menu, Sarah Yeates provided the likely answer: calling someone a "calf's head" was once an insult and a synonym for "fool," one that even Shakespeare used. Cooking a whole calf's head was once a much more common practice, and reader Christy from Massachusetts posited that a Lilliputian sauce could be "a small sauce: that’s any derivative of the five mother sauces." The garnish of oaths remain a mystery, though many readers wondered if the following dish, a roasted Turnspit, could have something to do with the dark tradition of turnspit dogs, bred especially to run upon wheels that rotated meat before a fire. Gabriele Kahn of Uslar, Germany, suggested another connection: both "spit" and "pike" are sharp metal rods, so the answer could be pike, a type of fish.

As for the revenue of being proud in a pye, readers Cemal Polat from Turkey and Kate Fennimore from Livonia, Michigan, had dueling yet intriguing answers. Polat believed the answer to be "mincemeat pie, as the punishment for the pride is being broken on a wheel" after death in Hell, in some Christian lore. Less gruesome is Fennimore's answer: peacock pie, from the term "proud as a peacock." Polat had the decisive answer for the Grand Seignour’s Dominions roasted: The Grand Seigneur was another term for sultan, so the answer is a simple roasted turkey.

Side Dishes

An unruly Member, The best part of an Office, The inside of a Snuff Box roasted, A Maid with Jump Sauce, surrounded with Beaus fool’s Coats, A Dutch princesses pudding

The sole response to the unruly member menu item suggested it could be genitalia of some kind, but it refers to a different organ entirely: tongue, a once-popular dish. In the Bible, the tongue is referred to as an "unruly member" given humans' ability to carelessly chatter. The inside of a snuff box roasted, wrote Kate Wood from Cambridge in the United Kingdom, possibly refers to the vintage delicacy of tortoise, since tortoiseshell was once used to make elegant snuff boxes. A Maid with Jump Sauce, surrounded with Beaus fool’s Coats was a stumper, but a Dutch princesses pudding less so: orange pudding, a reference towards royal dynasty of Orange.

Second Course

The Conveyors of Venus roasted, A couple of Threshing poets, The Divine part of Mortals fry’d, The Supposters of a Squeaker Stew'd

Here, Atlas Obscura readers distinguished themselves. Many pointed to the painting of Venus by Botticelli, which depicts the goddess floating to shore on a scallop shell, making scallops a likely answer to The Conveyors of Venus roasted. But another explanation came via Alexander Gourlay of Providence, Rhode Island: the doves who pull her chariot. Several Atlas Obscura readers brilliantly divined the answer to A couple of Threshing poets: duck. As Julie from New York noted: "Stephen Duck was a poet who wrote The Thresher's Labour in 1730." The Divine part of Mortal's fry'd was also no match for our readers: the most divine part of a man is his soul, and sole is also a kind of fish.

As for The Supposters of a Squeaker Stew'd, with "supposters" likely meaning "support," two readers have clashing but probable answers. Timo Tuokkola, of Thunder Bay, California, wrote that it could be stewed pig's feet, as "squeaker" is an old term for pig. Elizabeth King from Australia, on the other hand, had another theory: "stewed potatoes, a squeaker being a sausage which is often "supported" on a bed of potatoes."

Third Course

Three Dragons swimming in Cows blood and Indian powder, Quagmires, quintessence of Toes, sweet Turds and a transparent Cock standing in the middle, Three fiery Devils smother’d in their own Dung, Two Quakers hashed, and A Sign in the Zodiack butter’d

At the third course, the riddles got harder. Rebecca Woodman from Maine gamely investigated the Three fiery devils, reporting that "according to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a Devil is ‘the gizzard of a turkey or fowl, scored, peppered, salted and broiled; it derives its appellation from being hot in the mouth.’" Other than that, our readers were stumped, with the exception being A Sign in the Zodiack butter’d: Cancer the crab would go well with butter.

"The Desert" (Dessert)

A plate of Oxford scholars, A plate of Couplers, A plate of prize Fighters, A plate of Mischief Makers, and A plate of Two hundred thousand pounds

Many readers were left befuddled by the dessert section as well, but a little digging shed some light on this part of the riddle menu. According to one commenter on Mandelkern's original posting, the Oxford scholars could be nothing but a fruit called warden pears: "warden" being the title of Oxford's heads of colleges. A plate of "couplers", according to the readers of Petit Propos Culinaires, refers to more pears (since a couple is known as a "pair”). The prize fighters remain mysterious, but a plate of mischief-makers less so thanks to the PPC: it refers to "medlars," a vintage fruit, or a meddler. The two hundred thousand pounds is likely another fruit-laden reference: the sum of £100,000 was once referred to as a plum.

Liquors

The Joke of a puppet Shew, Counterfeit Agony, The twelfth part of a Chaldron of Coales, A Soliders Habitation, with a pretty Lady in it

Reader responses came in strong once more when it came to booze. The Joke of a puppet Shew could be nothing but punch, as several readers pointed out (Punch and Judy puppet shows were massively popular at the time this menu was written.) Champagne is counterfeit agony, and in a flight of brilliance, Sean Malloy from San Diego pointed out that a "chaldron" was a vintage unit of measurement. Every chaldron was made up of 12 "sackes," so the answer would be sack, a type of "fortified white wine," he wrote.

The mention of A Soliders Habitation, with a pretty Lady in it, had readers suggesting barack. Elizabeth King explained that barack "is a type of brandy which is often flavored with peach (a pretty lady,)" or maybe even with honey, both terms for lovely women. But the PPC, all those years ago, also published a compelling answer from Yeates, the 18th-century riddlemaster: a soldier's habitation could also be a tent, referring to Spanish tent wine (or vino tinto.) Regarding the pretty lady, Yeates’s answer was toast, as in the toast of the town, or the prettiest lady around. After all, the wine of yesteryear often came with a float of toast.