The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.


An Essay on Devils

There’s the devil to pay.

The culinary devil is as controversial as its theological progenitor. Nonbelievers abound. In The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson announces that “...devilling has fallen out of fashion.” (Companion 248) The less skeptical disdain devils too. Back in 1877, E. S. Dallas lamented the devil’s excess and would have banned it from paradise. “It is the fault of devilry that it knows no bounds. A moderate devil is almost a contradiction in terms…. and [devils] ought to have no place in cookery.” (Kettner’s 157) We also might ask whether the devil is constant, because some devils contain cayenne and others curry; some lack them both and others require Worcestershire. Underwood Devilled Ham has no heat at all, nor does devil’s food cake. Is anything intrinsic to the nature of a devil?

Devil Tarot CardAt least the devil has a robust past and some recent advocates. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘devil’ appears in reference to food as early as 1786. “‘Devilling,’” Theodora FitzGibbon explains, “was very popular in 18th- and 19th-century Britain.” The issue, it turns out, may not be inconstancy at all, for the British long ago developed three distinct devils, the brown, the wet and the white. (Western World 130) The French have added two variations of their own, a native version based on the shallot and an equally French cousin that incorporates a British influence. We may worship the devil after all, so long as we are willing to recognize multiple gods.

Devils do share a common thread. “They all contain spicy ingredients [apparently the people at Underwood are confused] and can be served with hot cutlets, chops, steak or hard-boiled eggs.” Devilling “is an excellent way of serving cold poultry, game, or rib of beef bones;” Boswell repeatedly records relishing a plate of ‘deviled bones’ in his various diaries, which according to Davidson would trump the reference in the OED to earliest use in ‘86. (Western World 130; Companion 248) That, however, is not necessarily the case, because Boswell kept writing and eating for years after that. His Life of Johnson, for example, did not appear until 1791.

Mrs. FitzGibbon provides a recipe for each of the three British variations in The Food of the Western World. She uses brown devil primarily to coat ribs of beef for broiling. It is made from ½ cup of butter mashed with a quarter the amount of flour and a teaspoon of dry mustard like Colman’s. Chutney, prepared mustard and Worcestershire may join the base ingredients at the cook’s discretion.

Wet devil for jointed birds mixes together a cup of heavy cream, a Tablespoon of curry powder and a teaspoon of dry mustard. Grill the meat, dip it in butter, lap it with the devil, reheat the dish and serve it hot.

White devil goes with any leftover meat or bird on the bone. Reheat the leftovers in a splash of gravy or, lacking that, a little stock. Build this devil by adding mushroom ketchup, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire, salt and pepper to ‘slightly’ whipped cream, then turn the pieces of meat in the sauce and serve it straightaway. (Western World 130)

This delineation is only the beginning. Other British authors add their own animadversions; Mrs. Ayrton, for instance, offers a recipe for devilled butter to serve with grilled steaks and chops made from butter of course, joined by cayenne, curry powder, lemon juice, prepared mustard and paprika. Lizzie Boyd lists a devilled beef stew that is something like a carbonade and Jane Grigson describes a number of devils too, including ‘pulled and devilled’ chicken or turkey, a deft means of transforming leftovers into something exemplary. Her variation on white devil sauce includes anchovy, vinegar and Harvey’s sauce, this last sadly unavailable to us in commercial form.

William Blake's Song of LibertyBy now it is apparent that we believe in the devil. We believe that it heightens rather than annihilates the flavor of its host. We also forgive Mr. Dallas his apostasy, for he wrote during a self-consciously ‘genteel’ era in retreat from the wonderful excesses of the long eighteenth century. If cayenne was indeed the fiery taste of the first British empire, a bland Francophilia set the tone on the tables of the second. The culinary influence was both great and narrow, for Dallas also wrote before the advent of capiscum culture in Britain and America, before Caribbean cuisine laced with habaneros, the Vindaloo of India via Portugal, Sichuan spice and the Cajun craze. These foods share some DNA with the devil, and ought to presage its revival.

Finally, the devil is not so amorphous after all; varied in his culinary works, but hardly inconstant. The Underwood product is not an outlier but rather misnamed; it turns out to be that old British favorite, a potted meat and Things We Like. Devil’s food, it transpires, has nothing to do with the devil itself. It describes not a retributive fire but rather the voluptuary consumption of something sinful. (Oxford Companion 248) It even merits its own entry from Mrs. FitzGibbon in The Food of the Western World.

Recipes for a number of devils and for homemade Harvey’s sauce appear in the practical.


Elisabeth Ayrton, Good Simple Cookery (London 1958)

Lizzie Boyd (ed.), British Cookery (Woodstock, NY 1979)

E. S. Dallas, Kettner’s Book of the Table (London 1877)

Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (Oxford 1999)

Theodora FitzGibbon, The Food of the Western World (London 1976)

Jane Grigson, English Food (London 1974)