Fairy bread

A few days ago I posted on compounds of the form fairy X, including fairy bread, which I didn’t entirely know how to classify. Now Benita Bendon Campbell has written to remind me of a poem from “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson (1885), which she learned when she was about 6, found  appealing and mysterious, and still does:

Come up here, O dusty feet!
Here is fairy bread to eat.
Here in my retiring room,
Children, you may dine
On the golden smell of broom
And the shade of pine;
And when you have eaten well,
Fairy stories hear and tell.

In this context, it looks like fairy bread is some sort of magical bread that fairies might eat — that is, bread ‘belonging to’ or ‘associated with’ fairies (like fairy gold, fairy dust, fairy wand, and others in my fairy X posting).

Now some lexicographic notes on the compound.

OED3 has an entry that puts together two quite different senses:

Cookery (a) = French toast … (now rare); (b) chiefly Austral. and N.Z. a dish of sliced bread and butter covered with hundreds and thousands (‘sprinkles’).

The citations come in two sets: early US citations for the (a) sense:

1874 Home Cook Bk. 59   French toast, or fairy bread.

1901   North Adams (Mass.) Evening Transcript 5 Feb.,   Fairy bread. Put two ounces of loaf sugar into a pint of milk, [etc.].

and later Antipodal citations for the (b) sense, starting with:

1929   Mercury (Hobart) 25 Apr. 9/4   The children will start their party with fairy bread and butter and 100’s and 1,000’s, and cakes.

The Wikipedia entry is for the (b) sense, and it suggests a possible connection to Stevenson:

Fairy bread is sliced white bread spread with margarine or butter and covered with sprinkles or hundreds and thousands which stick to the spread. It is typically cut into four triangles.

It is commonly served at children’s parties in Australia and New Zealand. The origin of the term is not known, but it may come from the poem ‘Fairy Bread’ in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, published in 1885.

The Stevenson can’t be the source of the (a) sense, since the first attestation of (a) is earlier than the poem. But it could be the source of the (b) sense, going only on the dates. On the other hand, there’s no known connection between the (b) sense and the poem; it could just be that that the foodstuff in the picture and the fairy bread in the poem are both fabulous.

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