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Dating back to the 18th century, it is widely assumed that toad-in-the-hole was created as a way to stretch out meat in poor households. Meat was expensive and families were large, so what little could be scraped together had to be bulked out with cheaper ingredients. The Yorkshire pudding had been invented earlier that century and batter-based dishes were a popular way of filling the family at a low cost. By combining meat (rump steak, pigeon and kidneys were all suggested prior to the use of sausages) with a filling batter and a tasty gravy, you could cook a tasty and affordable meal.
The first reference to the dish by name is in a book named A Provincial Glossary published in 1787, although it is also referred to as ‘meat boiled in a crust’ in the book. Perhaps the most important mention however, is in Mrs Beeton’s iconic Book of Household Management, first published in 1861. Several recipes suggest different meats which can be used to make Toad-in-the-Hole, including beef, kidneys and mutton. Although the dish is mentioned in various other cookery books in the same era, the only reference to its name is in 1900, in a publication called Notes & Queries that refers to a “batter-pudding with a hole in the middle containing meat”.
Far from popular belief, there is no record of the dish ever being baked with toads substituting the meat. The reference to toads is believed to be referring to the similarity in appearance to toads lying in wait of prey in their burrows, their heads visible against the earth. It is certainly a peculiar name for a dish, not least because toads are considered unsavory creatures and not at all something that would whet the appetite. Perhaps the mention of toads was a tongue-in-cheek comment that for some reason stuck.
There is a tale which may explain the origin of the name, but there is nothing to tell that this is more than a local legend. Some say that Toad-in-the-Hole originates from the town of Alnmouth in Northumberland, where the local golf course was overrun with Natterjack toads. During a golf tournament, a golfer putted his ball only for it to leap back out before an angry toad raised its head, peering out of the hole that it had been sleeping in. The chef at the hotel the golfers were staying in devised a dish to resemble this humorous moment, baking sausages in batter to appear like toads poking their heads out of the golf holes –and thus Toad-in-the-Hole was born!