December 2018 update: taffety tarts enter the OED

December 2018 update: taffety tarts enter the OED

This month taffety tarts join the OED’s wordlist for the first time. Defined by the dictionary as ‘a sweet tart consisting of thin pastry filled with slices of apple or (less commonly) some other fruit’, these tarts were popular in the second half of the seventeenth century and through into the eighteenth, but since then have largely been the province of food historians, although there have been some notable revivals (for instance in fine-dining establishments with an eye to old traditions). The name comes from taffety, a variant of the fabric name taffeta, which (as you can see in the revised OED entry) was also applied to things that were variously fine, smooth, lustrous, or dainty, which is probably where the name of the tarts fits in.

How taffety tarts came to the attention of OED’s editors is an interesting story in itself. For several years, the OED has been a participant in Shakespeare’s World, a collaboration between the Folger Shakespeare Library, the crowd-sourcing specialists Project Zooniverse, the OED, and, crucially, the general public. In this project, members of the public transcribe hand-written documents from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries that form part of the collections of the Folger Shakespeare Library. These volunteer transcriptions form the basis for expertly-verified versions that will be consultable as electronic text by future generations of researchers, and by anyone with an interest in this period.

As part of the Shakespeare’s World project, a large number of household recipe books have been transcribed, and pretty soon a volunteer spotted this recipe for ‘taffetye tarts’:

Taffety tarts

Some further work by volunteers and a group of specialists in food history associated with the project quickly located further references to, and recipes for, ‘taffeta tarts’, and confirmed that they were a fairly common item in this period. The unrevised OED entry already had a reference from 1720 to ‘Taffity-Tarts and Pies’ from the playwright and literary writer Thomas D’Urfey, which had been placed under the figurative meaning ‘dainty, delicate, fastidious’, but now we had much better evidence that taffety tarts were a real-world item, featuring in the recipe books and menus of the period.

Kudos for finding OED’s (current) earliest example of taffety tart goes to the food historian and former Great British Bake Off finalist Mary-Anne Boermans, who kindly shared with us an example from 1651 that she found in the manuscript collections of recipes held by the Wellcome Trust. She has also put this research to very practical use, baking taffety tarts (and developing modern recipes for anyone else wanting to do the same). If your interest extends no further, you may at least be interested to see what a couple of representative versions look like:

Tart variations


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