I was searching the Gourmet.com archives for a plum cake recipe that used ingredients I had, got distracted by their Cocktails of the Decade, 1940-2000 gallery (awesome), and noticed a cocktail called the Phoebe Snow. I knew the Phoebe Snow was a train, and that Utah Phillips wrote a song about it (her?), but I didn’t know the backstory: Both the cocktail and the train were named for
a character created for a railroad advertising campaign that ran from the 1880s into the middle of the 20th century. The original Phoebe Snow was a young woman whose white dress remained pristine while riding the train because it ran on anthracite rather than normal, sooty coal.
Both Wikipedia and Utah Phillips back that up. Cool.
(Here’s Phoebe, courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Then I moved on the The Joy of Cooking, still looking for a plum cake recipe, and I finally decided to look up “cockaigne.” Many recipes in there are called “Chocolate Cake Cockainge” or “Christmas Fruitcake Cockaigne” and while I’ve been reading the cookbook since I was about ten, I’ve never bothered to find out what it means. (In my head, I had decided it meant “with nuts;” I don’t know why.)
As it turns out, in medieval times “cockaigne” was a mythical land of plenty to peasants, kind of like the Big Rock Candy Mountain was to hobos. The Joy of Cooking authors had a country house named that, so all the “Recipe Cockaignes” were really just their house specialites–no nuts involved. Apparently this was in the forward to the cookbook the entire time. Thanks, Wikipedia!
(I did finally make “Plum Cake Cockaigne,” but I always forget how much sugar plums need. It’s a little tart.)