March 13, 2001
Holger Maertens wrote:
Why is it that we "eat humble pie" when we're forced into an apology or retraction? What is its recipe? Is there anything else I can do with humble pie, e.g., bake it and feed it to someone? Finally, does humble pie taste different from crow?
I don't think you want the recipe for humble pie. Nor will you ever want to eat crow.
The dish called humble pie was a pie made of the inferior parts of the deer. These inferior parts, or humbles, may have been the kidneys, intestines, heart, or liver. They were boiled until tender, and mixed with suet, apples, currants, sugar, salt, and spices such as mace, cloves, and nutmeg. This delectable was originally eaten by hunters (who were at one time respectable members of society), but later it became a common food of servants. Of course, the higher classes traditionally dined on venison (deer meat). The English brought the dish to America, where venison was plentiful, and recipes for it appear in cookbooks right up to the 19th century. Many dishes used humbles from animals other than deer: "burseu" was made by parboiling pig viscera in wine.
Almost always used in the plural, this term for animal viscera has gone through several spellings over time. Numbles/nombles was the original (early 14th century) spelling. This was borrowed from Middle French nombles, meaning 'loin of veal; fillet of beef or venison'. The French is an alteration of Latin lumbulus, meaning 'a little loin'. In the 15th century, the English spelling umbles is first recorded; the spelling humbles first appears in the late 16th century. It's likely that the "umble" spelling arose from the mistaken word division of "a numble pie" as "an umble pie." And the later "humble" spelling arose from a connection made between this lowly, inferior food and the meaning of the unrelated adjective "humble." In fact, British dialectal pronunciation dropped the "h," so that "umble" and "humble" were pronounced alike.
The more familiar use of humble pie is 'humility forced on someone, often under embarrassing conditions'. This sense of 'humiliation' first appears in the early 19th century. The expression eat humble pie means 'to be forced to apologize humbly; suffer humiliation'. These meanings derive from a reference to the lowly pie eaten by the lower classes, and from the adjective humble, which is close in meaning to 'humiliated'.
Though I can't tell you why 'eating a lowly food' came to be associated with 'humiliation', there exists a similar expression in 19th century dialectal English. The English Dialect Dictionary records the idiom eat rue pie, meaning 'to rue, repent'. Wouldn't "rue pie" be an interesting name for a dish?
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