A few weekends ago, I drove from Spokane to Moscow to see some friends. On the seat next to me was a plate of peach scones, wrapped in foil, sliding from side to side as I curved through the yellow hills of the Palouse, vibrant miles and miles of wheat.
A sign on the last county before Idaho reads “Entering Whitman County, The Nation’s Leading Producer of Wheat.” Most of the wheat in the Palouse is soft white winter wheat, which produces flour with less moisture, making it useful for cakes, pastries, and crackers. On day three of baking school, cake flour was just one of fifteen flours I sifted my fingers through to identify by texture, color, and moisture content, all of us pre-chefs standings around tiny bread pans filled with cake flour, whole wheat, cracked wheat, soy flour, all powdering our fingertips. I’ve only used all-purpose flour for my scones.
This wasn’t the first or last time I baked scones for social purposes. For an English department event I thought was a potluck but was actually just some beers and chips among mostly tenured faculty outside the Humanities Building, I brought a platter of pumpkin scones. Having the excuse of a gift makes it less nerve-racking, these social interactions, and there’s something anachronistic about it, too.
It’s comforting, I think, because of how bad I usually am at building and maintaining friendships. When I leave a place, I leave it entirely, forgetting too soon how lonely my preferred state of aloneness can become. Scones give me purpose, something to absorb my anxiety like a sponge: I promise I care about you, and here’s a plate of fresh-baked evidence that I hope will speak for me so I can stay quiet.
Supposedly the first recorded reference to scones is from the Scottish bishop Gavin Douglas’s 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “On grene herbis and sonkis gres./The flour sconnis war sett in, by and by” (88). The word scone possibly comes from the Scottish Sgonn, which Alexander MacBain’s 1896 Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language defines as “a block of wood, blockhead; sgonn-balaich, lump of a boy, ‘section'” (317). However, the aptly named Dictionary Containing English Words of Difficult Etymology (self-published by the Reverend Thomas Richard Brown in 1843) identifies sgonn as a Gaelic word meaning “a prater; and droll, an idle person: which seems to be synonymous with sgonn-bhalach, a scoundrel” (124).
All western baking traditions are products of modernity, though. The earliest references to scones appear just before the widespread use of ingredients we think of as essential for them. Sugar was one of the primary crops of the slave trade, which the British were in the process of expanding in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century; tea imported from China did not enter conventional British social life until the early eighteenth century; and baking soda wasn’t a household product until the nineteenth century. As Great Britain expanded its reach, afternoon tea time became a form of “participating in the continued success of the British Empire” (Fromer 538), a symbolic act of consuming the fruits of violent conquest abroad.
I don’t know what premodern scones were like, but their etymology (from lump, not scoundrel) could accurately describe many different kinds of bread. In 1999, a team of Oxford archaeologists working in Yarnton discovered what the BBC called the oldest bread in Britain: small burned blobs of 5,500-year-old crushed barley. Plenty of evidence suggests that in Neolithic Britain, “cereals were primarily cultivated on a fairly small scale,” such as “garden plots that would have shifted around with people” (Cummings & Harris 831), so unlike the static winter wheat fields of the Palouse.
I’m drawn to these ancient bits of toast because of their context. The Neolithic period was one of intense climatic change, of chaos and uncertainty. One important note: the barley chunks were also found with apple cores and hazelnut shells. Barley was probably difficult to grow in large quantities, so the first bread in Britain may have been ritualistic, a treat for a special occasion rather than a staple.
With limited resources, one type of probably rougher flour, no baking soda, and only honey as a sweetener, the barley lumps/scoundrels may have looked more the “oily cakes” that the protagonists make in Kelly Reichardt’s 2019 First Cow. Set in 1820 in the Oregon Territory, the characters Cookie and King-Lu begin making a kind of fried dough using milk stolen from the only cow in the region, owned by a British governor known by his title as the Chief Factor. When Factor finally tastes the cakes, he remarks without an ounce of self-awareness for what the cake implies that it “tastes of England.”
The film is ostensibly about friendship, but I think it’s also about the difficulty of an authentic friendship under capitalism. When the working class must sell their labor—their mind, body, time, and spirit—to the ruling class, it becomes easier to treat one another as mere resources, just as our bosses do. In First Cow, it’s unclear until the final scene how much King-Lu and Cookie’s friendship is transactional, a mere business deal.
A journalist obtained from A24 Reichardt’s recipe for the oily cakes, from co-writer Jonathan Raymond, which was developed “from historical recipes of the time.” Requiring “just an astonishing amount of lard” to cook the yeast, fat, egg, and all-purpose flour, the formula is more like rustic pancakes.
Like a conventional short story, the film coalesces around one character’s final decision to act or to not act: King-Lu could take the profits from the cake sales and abandon Cookie, or remain with him, as Factor hunts them down after discovering their thievery. The friendship portrayed is both sincere and realistically fraught, even doomed, by the social circumstances that originally shape it.
Every time I make scones, I either use a different recipe or a different flavor. This is the opposite of industrial baking for profit, which requires uniformity. I’m glad for the uneven, lumpy, rustic shape my scones often take. I like that no two batches are the same. The pumpkin scones were the best batch I’ve made in a while (an earlier attempt at pear scones were less successful). I shared half of the batch with some fellow humanities adjuncts over dinner after the department event, along with soup made from the produce of a theology professor’s garden.
I don’t know what I’ll bake for the next occasion to share a meal. Maybe I’ll experiment with barley flour. Lumpy scoundrel already sounds like a type of doughnut. Maybe I’ll bake them with hazelnut, local apples, and fresh milk.
Brown, Thomas Richard. A Dictionary Containing English Words of Difficult Etymology. 1843.
Cummings, Vicki, Oliver T.J. Harris. “The Continuity of Hunting and Gathering in the Neolithic and Beyond.” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers. Ed. Vicki Cummings, Peter Jordan, & Marek Zvelebil. Oxford University Press, 2014, 825-837.
Douglas, Gavin. The poetical works of Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld; with memoir, notes, and glossary. Edinburgh, 1874.
Fromer, E. Julia. “‘Deeply Indebted to the Plant’: Representations of English National Identity in Victorian Histories of Tea.” Victorian Literature and Culture Vol. 36 (2008) pg. 531-547.