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What Is Eton Mess?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2016
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The Eton mess is a meal particular to Eton College in Surrey, England. The mess involves a mixture of strawberries, meringue and cream. The name comes from not just the location, in the town of Eton, but how the ingredients appear once together: it is literally a mess.

The basic recipe requires the meringue, diced strawberries and cream to be mashed together with a fork and placed in a glass bowl or dish. It is possible to use other fruit such as orange slices, kiwi fruit and raspberries, but the strawberry is the traditional fruit of the Eton mess. While the modern mess contains strawberries, some of the original messes contained bananas instead.

Once a year, the students of Eton College play an annual cricket tournament against the students of Winchester and Harrow colleges. Like many old colleges in Britain, the cricket match is an important social and sporting event. It is traditional for the Eton mess to be served to players and spectators attending the game.

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While Eton College opened in the 1500s, with its chapel built during the reign of Henry VI, the Eton mess is a much newer invention. The name was first used in the 1930s when it was sold in the school tuck shop, known affectionately by Etonians as the ‘sock shop.’ It is thought that the mess is a bit older. Records attest to a dessert of its kind in the 19th century, although it is thought that meringues were added to it later on.

While the myth of the mess creation may be apocryphal, it is thought that an excited Labrador might have created the mess during a picnic. The final Wednesday of May each year hosts Eton College’s annual prize-giving ceremony. One year during the picnic, guests were served meringues stuffed with cream and strawberries, much like a pavlova. The Labrador sat on a basket containing the meringue desserts and inadvertently created the first Eton mess.

The Eton mess has had various effects on British culture. First, because so many officers were educated at Eton, the officer’s dining room in many military complexes has come to be known as ‘the mess.’ Second, as so many politicians were also educated at Eton, including Conservative politicians such as Boris Johnson and David Cameron, mistakes or confusion may be referred to by others as an Eton mess.

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