Devils and angels on horseback: the art of strangely named canapes

The buzz and intrigue surrounding the dish's odd name is the perfect dinner party food, and has provided inspiration for a pair of culinary performance artists.

What was once a marker of sophistication, devils on horses have fallen out of favor. But the mouth-watering dish of toothpick-wrapped, meat-wrapped plums has a history that stretches back to the 19th century. Variations exist in France, England and the US, from spiced oysters as a fruit substitute – an angel on a horse; for wieners wrapped in cookies - little pigs in blankets.

The convoluted history of canapes is told in Devils on Horseback: A Global Etymology of Oddly Named Dishes. Published by Melbourne-based duo Long Prawn – who host culinary events and co-author a cookbook – this recipe book dives into the history and buzz that underlies oddly-named dishes from around the world.

Researching the book sends Long Prawn's Frederick Mora and Lauren Stephens into a maze of grim and unconvincing characters, real or imagined: a flat-bellied nun, an ordinary man named John, Jesus, and a hungry Buddha.

“[It] has been a wild goose chase throughout history, with conflicting books,” Mora says of the titular dish. "I find a lot of stories depending on which century you are in. They mean different things, have different ingredients, and I don't think there is any right or wrong."

For example, the first documented recipe for an angel on horseback was in a 19th-century cookbook by a French chef who dubbed oysters wrapped in bacon, "les anges à cheval." The "angels", Mora and Stephens surmise, reference the oyster, and the snack was popularized in England and served as a savory coda after dessert.

But they are not chasing alone. Painter Mark Chu contributed Buddha jumping over a wall, an elaborate stew from Fujian, China that required many animals and days of preparation.

Chef Pablo Britton, who bakes surreal cakes under his Deep Cake moniker, offers up a recipe for pet-de-non or nun farts, a custard-filled deep-fried choux pastry found in Tours, France, and Catalonia, Spain.

This book straddles the knife-edge between the absurd and the serious, as Long Prawn's work so often does.

Their first cookbook, Fat Brad, was based on many of Brad Pitt's famous eating scenes in movies including Ocean's 11 and Fight Club. Their shows include show elements: they've cooked foil-wrapped meals using the heat from car engine manifolds as they race through Melbourne; and a dinner that "considers what it means to be a landlord and what is left after everyone has helped themselves".

Both members of the Long Prawn have personal and family backgrounds in the arts and hospitality. Stephens' mother works in hospitality events management and Mora's grandmother is renowned visual artist Mirka Mora, who, with her husband Georges, organizes elaborate parties and owns restaurants across Melbourne.

“He would crush his face and hands into a beautiful finished dish, which I found very unconventional,” says Mora. "When everyone would come to pay their bills, he would cut [holes] out of her clothes so her nipples were coming out."

The Long Prawn website describes the business as an "artistic food practice". But they say they were only inspired by the artist – they chose not to explicitly assign the title to themselves. “Someone asked if we did hospitality cosplay,” Stephens joked.

Stephens cites 1980s New York City tapas bar and restaurant El Internacional, run by artist Antoni Miralda and chef Montse Guillén, as examples of how the artistic and culinary worlds can overlap. El Internacional is a restaurant that works, but also enjoys a whimsical dining concept.

“[Miralda and Guillén] had a party just for the twins and a menu based on building materials,” says Stephens.

True to that subversive influence, this book eschews lavish food photography in favor of a surreal visual interpretation of the dish's name. In honor of the titular dish, the cover stars a plastic-horned geriatric demon riding a glittering horse.

“The horse is in Drake's video clip,” Stephens said. “The day [model, Seb] moseyed in a three-piece suit and was about 10-15 years older than her profile picture looks… I put her on this enormous horse, stuck the horns in her thin skin, it froze and I had a meltdown.

Devils on Horseback A Global Etymology of Oddly Named Dishes is a layer cake of rumors and stories. The paperback, pocketable cover is beautifully decorated with mysterious typography and illustrations, giving the feeling that the pages contain a spell, incantation, or mythic tale.

“It is not the full authority on how this dish got its name… You can argue with someone about the origins of the dish and [those conversations are] fuel for dinner parties,” says Mora. "It was amazing and something we didn't want to lose."

Satan on horse

  • Serving 2
  • Toothpick
  • White bread slices
  • Butter or oil for frying the bread
  • 6 striped meat lengths
  • 12 plums
  • Cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Croutons (optional)
  • Continental parsley or watercress (for garnish)

Preheat oven to 180C. Soak a toothpick in water so it doesn't burn. Trim the stone and set it aside.

Cut 12 rounds of bread using the top of a champagne flute or a small round cookie cutter.

Fry the rounds in very hot fat or butter until golden brown.

Halving the bacon lengthwise gives you 12 strips of bacon, each strip long enough to wrap around the trimmings with an overlap of 2 cm. Skewer the bacon and trim it together with a toothpick. Repeat with the remaining bacon and prunes.

Grill little devils on a greased baking sheet or pan for 5–10 minutes or until flesh is crisp, turning as needed.

Riding Devil

Serve over croutons, garnished with cayenne pepper, continental parsley or watercress and serve all at once, very hot.

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