Saturday, January 23, 2010


A listener asked about a term that his grandmother used decades ago: apple davy. It sounded vaguely familiar, perhaps a dessert mentioned in some 19th century British novel, but it has turned out to be devilishly difficult to track down. In fact, I still don’t have the recipe.

I found it mentioned online three times, but what I found needed interpretation. So I turned to the list maintained by the American Dialect Society. Various members helped pick out the meaning, and I’m happy to give them credit.

(1) First, it shows up in a Victorian Song titled From Dive to Drawing Room, 1893:

I first saw the ole black 'oss,

He was standing on 'is 'ead, was that noble quadruped,

And a playing at a game o’ pitch and toss.

He'd a fine Roman nose, and he walk'd on his toes,

I'll take my apple-davy it is true,

His neck was awry and he'd only got one eye,

And his tail was all a-swivel and a-skew.

Robin Hamilton suggested that the context above probably points to a type of cockney rhyming slang, making “apple-davy” a variant of affidavit. That makes sense to me. So that one has nothing to do with food.

(2) Second, it shows up in a child’s counting-rhyme recorded in Transactions of the Buchan Field Club, Volumes 1-2 (1887), p. 198:

Apple Davie

Currant Tam

Sugar Rollie

Black Man

This is directly relevant to the original question. The book was published in Scotland, a fact that helped in the deciphering process. The ADS members used context and other sources to determine that the four items in the counting-rhyme were sweets. Robin Hamilton defined Sugar Rollie as a sugar stick. Joel Berson nailed Currant Tam as a tam-shaped (round) currant scone. Douglas Wilson suggested that Black Man was probably licorice. And there was general agreement that Apple Davie must have been a slice of apple cake or apple pie.

(3) Finally, Apple Davey is the name of a variety of apple, Malus x Domestica. It is described as being resistant to apple scab, attractive to bees, butterflies, and birds, and bearing fragrant flowers. But that places it outside the realm of a dessert or sweet treat.

Any recipes out there?

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