Originating in Ireland, bubble and squeak migrated into England as a common breakfast meal somewhere before the middle of the eighteenth century. As a dish with the sole purpose to not waste leftover food from dinner the night before, it was essentially a mish-mash of vegetables shredded or chopped small and combined with slivers of remaining roast. Stirring together with whatever else might be left lying around, the concoction was then fried in a hot iron skillet until crispy.
It is unclear if this unique breakfast dish had a specific name or recipe, although the indications are that it was fairly well known since the first written reference to “bubble and squeak” was a casual mention in a 1752 issue of The Drury-lane Journal by “Madam Roxana Termagant,” who was, in reality, the poet Bonnell Thornton. The earliest recipe was published a year later, in 1753, but not in a cookery book. In an irreverent collection of satirical verse and prose called The Midwife, or Old Woman’s Magazine by Mary Midnight, the pen name of the eccentric poet Christopher Smart (1722-1771).
LECTURE IN COOKERY. Which contains the Art of making BUBBLE AND SQUEAK for Supper. Published at the Request of the Gentlemen of both Universities.
Take of Beef, Mutton, or Lamb, or Veal, or any other Meat, two Pounds and an half, or any other Quantity; let it lay in Salt, till the saline Particles have lock’d up all the Juices of the Animal, and render’d the Fibres too hard to be digested; then boil it over a Turf or Peat Fire, in a Brass Kettle cover’d with a Copper Lid, till it is much done. Then take Cabbage (that which is most windy, and capable of producing the greatest Report) and boil it in a Bell-Metal Pot till it is done enough, or if you think proper, till it is done too much. Then slice the Beef, and souse that and the Cabbage both in a Frying-Pan together, and let it bubble and squeak over a Charcoal Fire, for half an Hour, three Minutes, and two Seconds. Then eat a Quantum sufficit, or two Pounds and a half, and after it drink sixteen Pints of fat Ale, smoak, sleep, snoar, belch, and forget your Book.
In case you missed it amongst the ingredients, the line “that which is most windy, and capable of producing the greatest Report” not only reveals the satirical aspect of this recipe but also the fact that cabbage was a primary ingredient of bubble and squeak by this time. Cabbage was a plentiful vegetable, more so than potatoes (which would not become a common ingredient until WWI when meat grew scarce). In the 1770 publication A Burlesque Translation of Homer, Thomas Bridges wrote —
“We therefore cooked him up a dish Of lean bull-beef, with cabbage fry’d, … Bubble, they call this dish, and squeak.”
As for the name, it is generally accepted it refers to the sounds made while it cooks. In the 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, collaborator Francis Grose gives this definition: “Bubble and Squeak, beef and cabbage fried together. It is so called from its bubbling up and squeaking whilst over the fire.”
Recipes printed in cookbooks are almost non-existent, for obvious reasons, the first a mere footnote in Charlotte Mason’s The Lady’s Assistant in 1773. What isn’t rare are the references to bubble and squeak. Lord Byron mentions the dish in Don Juan, Canto XV. Famed Victorian chef Theodore Garrett described bubble and squeak as, “a favourite domestic réchauffee of cold meats and vegetables, variously compounded, according to what materials are at hand, or to fancy.” And, according to Fraser’s Magazine (1837 Vol. 15. p. 375), George IV, when Prince of Wales, was introduced to it when he dined with Sir Robert Leighton at Loton Hall in Shropshire —
‘Sir Robert, being a batchelor, was unused to giving so large a dinner as this occasion called for; and his cook, being rather at a loss to fill all the numerous side-dishes required, decided on fried beef and cabbage for one of them. “What have you got in that dish?” said the prince to a gentleman before it happened to be placed. “That sir,” answered Sir Robert, “is a favourite dish in Shropshire, called bubble and squeak.” “Then give me some bubble and squeak,” resumed the prince; and he ate heartily of it. Thus far I can vouch for what I have said; but it was currently reported that this homely dish was afterwards frequently seen at Carlton House.’
The process of making bubble and squeak required as much scraping as it did frying, best accomplished with a bubble and squeak scraper. This handy tool had a sharp edge which was great for scraping the crispy bits from the pan but also to chop the vegetables while they fried.