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Main ingredientsVegetables, grains, meat or fish
Esau and the Mess of Pottage, by Jan Victors (1619-1676)

Pottage (/ˈpɒtɪ/ POT-ij) is a term for a thick soup or stew made by boiling vegetables, grains, and, if available, meat or fish. It was a staple food for many centuries.[1][2] The word pottage comes from the same Old French root as potage, which is a dish of more recent origin.

Pottage ordinarily consisted of various ingredients easily available to serfs and peasants, and could be kept over the fire for a period of days, during which time some of it could be eaten, and more ingredients added. The result was a dish that was constantly changing. Pottage consistently remained a staple of the poor's diet throughout most of 9th to 17th-century Europe. When wealthier people ate pottage, they would add more expensive ingredients such as meats. The pottage that these people ate was much like modern-day soups.[citation needed] This is similar to the Welsh cawl, which is a broth, soup or stew often cooked on and off for days at a time over the fire in a traditional inglenook.

In Nigeria the words pottage and porridge are synonymous, and such foods are consumed as a main meal. Nigerian yam pottage/porridge includes tomatoes and other culinary vegetables along with the yam. It may also have fish and/or other meat.[3]

In the King James Bible translation of the story of Jacob and Esau in the Book of Genesis, Esau, being famished, sold his birthright (the rights of the eldest son) to his twin brother Jacob in exchange for a meal of "bread and pottage of lentiles" (Gen 25:29-34). This incident is the origin of the phrase a "mess of pottage" (which is not in any Biblical text) to mean a bad bargain involving short-term gain and long-term loss.


Pottage was typically boiled for several hours until the entire mixture took on a homogeneous texture and flavour; this was intended to break down complex starches and to ensure the food was safe for consumption. It was often served, when possible, with bread.

Middle Ages[edit]

In Middle English thick pottages (stondyng) made with cereals, shredded meat, seasoned with spices and sometimes thickened with egg yolks and bread crumbs were called by various names like brewet, egerdouce, mortrew, mawmenee, blancmange and blance dessore. Thinner pottages were said to be ronnyng.[4] Frumenty was a pottage made with fresh cleaned wheat grain that was boiled until it burst, allowed to cool, then boiled with broth and either cow milk or almond milk, and thickened with egg yolk and flavored with sugar and spices.[5]

Colonial America[edit]

Pottage had long been a staple of the English diet. During the Middle Ages it was usually made with wheat, barley, rye, or oats. Native American cuisine also had a similar dish, but it was made with maize rather than the traditional European grain varieties. An early 17th century British recipe for pottage was made by boiling mutton and oatmeal with violet leaves, endive, chicory, strawberry leaves, spinach, langdebeefe, marigold flowers, scallions and parsley.[4]

In the cuisine of New England, pottage began as boiled grain, vegetables, seasonings and meat, fowl or fish. This simple staple of early American cuisine eventually evolved into the chowders and baked beans typical of New England's cuisine.[6] A version of "scotch barley broth" is attested to in the 18th century colonial recipe collection called Mrs Gardiner's Family Receipts.[7] Indian succotash, sometimes called pondomenast or Indian pottage was made with boiled corn and, when available, meat like venison, bear, moose, otter, raccoon or beaver. Dried fish like shad, eel, or herring could be used in place of the meat. Kidney beans were sometimes mixed into Indian pottage, along with fruits like Jerusalem artichoke, pumpkin, squash. Ground nuts like acorns, chestnuts or walnuts were used to thicken the pottage.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Oxford Companion to Food, p. 648
  2. ^ How To Be A Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life, Ruth Goodman, Penguin Books, 2016, p. 142. ISBN 9780241973714
  3. ^ Kperogi, Farooq (2014-01-26). "Q and A on the grammar of food, usage and Nigerian English". Daily Trust. Archived from the original on 2017-02-23. Retrieved 2017-02-23.
  4. ^ a b Stavley & Fitzgerald 2011, p. 114-115.
  5. ^ Smith 1873, p. 177.
  6. ^ Stavley & Fitzgerald 2011, p. 113.
  7. ^ Stavley & Fitzgerald 2011, p. 116.
  8. ^ Stavley & Fitzgerald 2011, p. 117.