Once steamed in shirt sleeves and pant legs, this sweet roll took on the nickname “dead man's leg.”
Brits in the 19th century steamed a jam-filled roll of suet pastry that most people refer to as a jam roly-poly. But historically, it’s been known by another moniker: dead man’s leg. British baby boomers recall embracing the morbid nickname when school cafeterias served the pudding as a weekly treat. It’s also referred to in a discussion of English puddings in Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book (published in 1982). Introducing an apricot and almond crumble, Grigson writes, “It is always a great success with our French and Italian friends, who ask for an English pudding but whose pioneering spirit would fail if faced with Spotted Dick or Dead Man’s Leg.”
The rationale for such a unappetizing nickname? Home cooks used to steam the pudding inside an old article of clothing, such as a shirt sleeve or pant leg. This gave the encased foodstuff a look that apparently reminded English folk of a dismembered leg. When served with a side of custard, however, the slices feature a pretty, winding spiral of jam in the center, bearing no resemblance to anything but a delicious dessert. Today, chefs wrap the dough in muslin before steaming or bake the creation in an oven, which gives it a golden crust, a flatter shape, and a decidedly less macabre association.
Where to Try It
Humble Pie 'n' Mash63 Church Street, Whitby, England, YO22 4AS, United Kingdom
Try the jam roly poly at this simple, traditional British eatery.