Junket or Curds and Whey
With the Grubby Tale of Little Miss Muffet
Junket is a lost art. In the late 1940s, when I was very little, Mum served it regularly for pudding. It was always the same: the junket itself very plain, no flavouring in it except the faint but distinctive taste of the rennet, the soft milky texture unsweetened, and the surface just sprinkled very lightly with a little grated nutmeg. Occasionally, but by no means always, a tiny sprinkle of sugar was added.
Today, if you do an online search for “junket”, you’ll probably find most hits are for people asking what it is, or where the word came from.
Well, Veronica, it’s what the nursery rhyme calls “curds and whey.”
When I started thinking about junket—goodness knows why, but I did—I went first to Jane Grigson’s English Food, which not only provides the recipes for the traditional foods of England (that the early settlers duly brought out to the colonies), but also gives their history. She writes so well that all of her books are a pleasure to read, whether or not you intend cooking from them.
At this point I was enlightened. Mum’s is a very basic version. Jane Grigson’s recipe is called “Devonshire Junket” and is much fancier. But, sure enough, she explains the dish’s history:
“Junket is an English version of those curd and cream dishes that the French still [in 1974] make in such delicious variety …, produced by curdling warm milk with rennet. Then it is left to set to a smooth jelly. The curd is not broken up and drained of whey as it would be in France, and as it once was in England (junket derives from old Norman French, jonquet, a little basket made from jonques or rushes and used for draining cheeses until recent times).
“When we had the idea of leaving the curd alone in its smoothness, I do not know. In Food and Drink in Britain, C. Anne Wilson quotes the earliest recipe she can find, from 1653, in which the junket was not drained, but eaten with cream and cinnamon … She suggests that it was the popularity of unrenneted creams in the eighteenth century, the syllabubs, fools, fruit creams, which sent the junket into eclipse. Like many old dishes which have survived at the fringes of the country, it has acquired the reputation of being a local speciality, in this case of Devonshire, which is really unjustified—or perhaps one should rather say misleading. The production of rennet in convenient bottled form—rennet extract was first prepared by a chemist in Denmark in the 1870s and was in production from 1878 onwards—unfortunately meant that junket could become the bane of every nursery, with an ultimate degradation of artificial colouring and flavour.”
(Jane Grigson. English Food. Harmondsworth, England, Penguin, 1977. (First published London, Macmillan, 1974))
Mum’s recipe was very plain: just the warmed milk, a spoonful of rennet and then leave it to set. Not in the fridge—we never had one when we lived in Wellington, anyway. The cold stops the rennet working. Just leave it to cool down at room temperature.
I miss it. I always loved it: it was one of my favourite puddings.
Incidentally, at the time when Jane Grigson was explaining to the recipe-reading Anglophone public what “junket” was, I was in Paris, restraining a nauseated gulp as a student friend’s French girlfriend seized upon the carton of milk he’d left out on the windowsill to keep cool overnight, forgetting that this particular window got the morning sun, with a delighted cry of “Le caillé!” And forthwith consumed the curdled result eagerly. So much for Mrs Grigson’s “those curd and cream dishes that the French still make in such delicious variety (cremets d'Angers, maingaux, coeurs à la crème).” She obviously moved in much more up-market circles than me!
“Junket” or “Curds and Whey”?
Maybe our junket was degraded, but maybe Mrs Grigson’s school cook didn’t have Mum’s lightness of touch with the rennet! The “Devonshire” bit seemed curious to me, so I checked with the real expert: Isabella Beeton. And gee, there I found not only what I’m very sure is the original of Jane Grigson’s “Devonshire Junket”, but also a recipe for “Curds and Whey” that matches both what we ate as junket in the 1940s and 1950s, and Jane Grigson’s description of it as simply milk curdled with rennet. That's all junket is: milk curdled with rennet, or the name that today subsists only in the old nursery rhyme: “curds and whey”.
Folk knowledge of the meaning of the old expression has long since disappeared—certainly in the Antipodes: we learned a lot of nursery rhymes when we were very little, but Mum never explained that “curds and whey” is junket.
So why use a word which, as Jane Grigson points out, derives not merely from French, but “from old Norman French”?
We know that modern cookery writers use French expressions liberally. The simple explanation for this is that French is the language of cordon bleu cuisine and if you want to give yourself credibility, you use it. For well over a hundred years English recipe books have fostered this notion, so much so that in the 21st century we “julienne” vegetables rather than cutting or slicing them thinly or finely, and our food processors all have “julienne” attachments. Of course there are historical reasons for this development: the 19th-century English cookery writers, who set the pattern for those who followed, were heavily influenced by the great chefs of their time like Soyer and Escoffier.
This explains why the modern trend started, yes, but not really why it persisted, nor why today French cookery words are felt to be much more up-market than the good old English expressions that have been in the language since Anglo-Saxon times. Mere snobbery? You could well put it like that: the need to be upwardly mobile seems to be something fairly deep in the human psyche.
And funnily enough, way back in the Middle Ages the same thing seems to have happened. In the wake of the Norman conquest a great many French culinary expressions came into English. True, it was a general linguistic movement, not confined to cookery. But when you look at the cookery words, you’ll see that the trend is towards gentility, French being the language of the upper classes. In the houses and castles of the gentry and nobility your cook, your spicer and your phalanx of kitchen hands and table attendants weren’t all French speakers, but the master and mistress of the house were, and they were the ones ordering up the food. Thus often the French replaces the older English expression. Cookery, or perhaps one should say cuisine, was typified by this trend towards the usage of the gentry. For example, meat dishes were plentiful on the tables of the upper classes but rarely available to the lower classes, and so “pork” (< French porc) is what we eat in English, but “pig” is still the animal, though in French porc is used for both meat and animal. Likewise “veal” (veau) is the meat but “calf” is the animal. Even “beef”, that most English of meats, is a French word, boeuf. Humbler foods retain the old words: “milk”, “bread” (as opposed to lait, pain).
So, in line with this trend, “junket” became a posh word to use as far back as the Middle Ages.
More or less, that is, because this wasn’t the Mediaeval spelling! You won’t find J,U,N,K,E,T in the late Mediaeval texts: it’ll be I,O,N,C,A,T,E, or quite possibly a variation thereof. The letter “I” was generally used for “J”, though the reverse could also be true, and spelling itself wasn’t yet fixed. John Russell in The Boke of Nurture, circa 1460, advises not to eat “Ioncate”, i.e. junket, in the evening: hard cheese is much better for your digestion! (John Russell (active 1450). The Boke of Nurture, Folowyng Englondis Gise, c.1460, In: Frederick James Furnivall (1825-1910) (editor). Early English Meals and Manners. London, Published for the Early English Text Society by Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1868. In the quote below, (Cotgrave”, footnote 1, is A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues by Randle Cotgrave (d. circa 1634), first published in 1611, a French/English dictionary with about 50,000 entries.)
The recipes that follow show how the posh version of “junket” is actually only curds and whey with a French accent.
Mrs Beeton doesn’t call this first version “junket”, she gives it the good old English name, “curds and whey.” It’s from the Recipes, Chapter XXXIII, for “Milk, Butter, Cheese and Eggs.” Given a few slight variations due to the passage of time—our rennet came out of a bottle—it’s the junket we ate in New Zealand in the late 1940s through the early 1950s, as well as the dish Miss Muffet ate while sitting on her tuffet.
CURDS AND WHEY.
INGREDIENTS.—A very small piece of rennet, 1/2 gallon of milk.
Mode.—Procure from the butcher's a small piece of rennet, which is the stomach of the calf, taken as soon as it is killed, scoured, and well rubbed with salt, and stretched on sticks to dry. Pour some boiling water on the rennet, and let it remain for 6 hours; then use the liquor to turn the milk. The milk should be warm and fresh from the cow: if allowed to cool, it must be heated till it is of a degree quite equal to new milk; but do not let it be too hot. About a tablespoonful or rather more, would be sufficient to turn the above proportion of milk into curds and whey; and whilst the milk is turning, let it be kept in rather a warm place.
Time.—From 2 to 3 hours to turn the milk. Seasonable at any time.
(Isabella Beeton. The Book of Household Management. [London], S.O. Beeton, 1861)
Yep, if you were wondering what on earth “rennet” was, that sure clarifies it!
Rennet or Not
If you want more, the Wikipedia article, “Rennet” will give you the full lowdown (though I must admit it reads as if the writer had never heard of Mrs Beeton). It’s “a complex of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminant mammals.” Likewise: “Chymosin, its key component, is a protease enzyme that curdles the casein in milk. This helps young mammals digest their mothers’ milk. Rennet can also be used to separate milk into solid curds for cheesemaking and liquid whey.”
Although the animal product is still made as rennet, albeit via a much more high-tech method than Isabella’s cook’s, today in commercial cheesemaking the traditional rennet has largely been replaced. Since 1990 “fermentation-produced chymosin” or “FPC” is produced through genetic engineering. Rennet genes from animals are isolated as the beginning of the process, and introduced into fungi, bacteria or yeasts, to induce fermentation. “The genetically modified microorganism [GMO] is killed after fermentation and chymosin isolated from the fermentation broth, so that the fermentation-produced chymosin (FPC) used by cheese producers does not contain a GMO or any GMO DNA.” Er—yeah. Well, there you have it!
Junketing Through Devonshire: Mrs Beeton and After
It’s clear from Mrs Beeton’s recipes that nice people would make the basic curds and whey fancier. These were people who could not only afford thick cream and brandy but also had ready access to cinnamon and nutmeg—not us peasants who lived at Jane Grigson’s “fringes of the country.” Or in the far-flung colonies—yep. It’s quite probably the presence of “thick or clotted cream” that makes the dish “Devonshire”. Clotted cream is still sold in England as a speciality of Devon.
INGREDIENTS.—To every pint of new milk allow 2 dessertspoonfuls of brandy, 1 dessertspoonful of sugar, and 1-1/2 dessertspoonful of prepared rennet; thick cream, pounded cinnamon, or grated nutmeg.
Mode.—Make the milk blood-warm; put it into a deep dish with the brandy, sugar, and rennet; stir it altogether, and cover it over until it is set. Then spread some thick or clotted cream over the top, grate some nutmeg, and strew some sugar over, and the dish will be ready to serve.
Time.—About 2 hours to set the milk. Seasonable at any time.
(Isabella Beeton. The Book of Household Management. [London], S.O. Beeton, 1861.)
Mrs Beeton’s two recipes are adapted into one for the Australian housewife in 1894 by Mrs Wicken:
1 quart Milk; 1 tablespoonful Rennet; 1 oz. Sugar; Nutmeg
Total Cost—5 1/2 d. Time—Two Hours.
Make the milk tepid, stir in the sugar and a spoonful of rennet or a rennet tablet; pour into a dish and stand on the stove till solid. Grate a little nutmeg on top and serve cold. Rennet can be bought at the chemist’s ready for use; but rennet tablets, which answer very nicely, can be used instead. These can be bought in many places, and keep good a long time.
(From Chapter 22: “Fifty Recipes for Sweets” [i.e. puddings], Philip E. Muskett and Mrs H. Wicken. The Art of Living in Australia, by Philip E. Muskett; together with three hundred Australian cookery recipes and accessory kitchen information by Mrs. H. Wicken. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, )
In fact the distinguishing features of the Devonshire version have gone, and this is merely basic curds and whey with a little sugar: the junket of my childhood. Note the essential instruction to stand on the stove till solid—in other words, don’t let it get chilled. Interestingly, Antipodean mums were still adding a sprinkle of grated nutmeg to the top of a junket in the 1950s, sixty years on.
Here it is again for the Australian home cook, nutmeg an’ all, in successive impressions of The Golden Wattle Cookery Book from 1926 onwards:
3 cups unscalded milk; 1 tablespoon sugar;
1/2 junket tablet; 1 tablespoon cold water; 3 drops vanilla
1. Soak tablet in cold water. Crush.
2. Warm milk slightly (blood heat).
3. Put dissolved tablet and sugar in a glass dish, pour on warm milk.
4. Stir slightly, leave to set in a warm place.
5. Cover [sic] with grated nutmeg, serve with stewed fruit.
(From the section “Milk Puddings, Custards, Etc.” The Golden Wattle Cookery Book, Thirty sixth impression. Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1999, reprinted 2005. (Originally published 1926))
A basic recipe for a plain junket, but it has the earmarks of being adapted from two other recipes, one using vanilla (ignored in the instructions), and one adding nutmeg!
1950s: Going, Going…
By the 1950s junket has begun to vanish from the cookery books in favour of smarter, more up-to-date recipes. In New Zealand’s Edmonds Cookery Book (1955) it’s banished to a section which was traditional in the older generations of cookbooks but by this time is making its final appearance: “Invalids.” And it’s completely denatured by the addition of eggs. Eggs were considered very good for invalids—strengthening and nourishing—which is why “Egg Junket” is up-dated and fortified with an egg. Not even its horror value can persuade me to give it here: it’s disgusting!
Really, it’s too late for plain junket: by the 1950s we already have refrigerators in the home, and the handy “rotary” egg whisk is eagerly being snapped up by the conscientious housewife anxious to use the latest labour-saving devices to produce the very latest dessert recipes for hubby and kiddies. (See “A Christmas Pudding From Katherine”.)
And so around 1952 we’re offered this refreshing Antipodean alternative to old-fashioned junket:
Junket Ice Cream
1 1/2 pints milk; 1 junket [rennet] tablet; 1/4 cup sugar;
3 heaped tablespoons cream; 1 1/2 tablespoons condensed milk;
Make junket with lukewarm milk, sugar, and tablet. When set, stir in cream, put in trays, and freeze. When setting around the edge, take out, add condensed milk and vanilla, whip well, and freeze.
(for MARCH 18) –MRS. H. FOSTER (Coulta).
(Calendar of Puddings: A Pudding a Day for the Whole Year. [5th ed.], [Adelaide, S. Aust.], South Australian Country Women's Association, [1952?])
Note the use of “junket tablet” instead of “rennet tablet”: typical of the contemporary mealy-mouthed mind-set. In the Fifties we know that rennet isn’t really nice, so we avoid the word. Even though most of us couldn’t tell you more than that “it comes from a cow’s stomach.” The sort of intel that Dad used to impart avidly over the dinner table to us kids. He did have an enquiring mind, but nothing to check his facts in except a very heavy, chunky book of “One Thousand and One Wonderful Things.” There were door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen, yes, it’s not a myth, but our family could never have afforded an encyclopaedia. Added to which—curious, this—buying an encyclopaedia and setting its smart gold-leafed bindings in a special little bookcase, often in the passage rather than the sitting-room, was considered down-market. Mum never said so in so many words, so I can’t explain how I know that this was her opinion—but I’d take my dying oath it was. People who listened to the races on the radio did that sort of thing. Ouch!
Well, if you were an impressionable little kid whose dad had just told you that the squashy thing in your pudding plate was made from something that came from a cow’s stomach, would you be inclined to eat it? No, quite! Added to which, its texture was slimy. Small wonder junket wasn’t a favourite with my siblings, and by the late 1950s quietly vanished from the menu in our house, as it did from everyone else’s.
We’d all moved on. By the time we were in our first permanent Auckland house, in a raw new development in Bayswater, with bare clay surrounding the house and going all the way down the slope behind it for a whole block, a fridge had become an essential part of life. You needed one, in those warmer northern climes—I’d never seen one until we moved to Auckland when I was five, and Aunty Molly favoured us with her homemade ice cream. Fridges not only let you make ice cream—one small tray of it, the freezing compartments were minute—but were ideal for keeping all sorts of luscious puddings fresh: Spanish Cream, or “fluffy jellies” made from packet jellies whipped up with egg whites, custardy trifle, and so on. The sugary, jelly-like confections had it all the way over simple, plain junket, and it vanished from our plates and our consciousness.
Revived or Semi-Conscious?
In the 1970s Jane Grigson reprised Mrs Beeton’s “Devonshire Junket” for a whole new generation of home cooks—who, history has proven, did not leap on it with enthusiasm!
And that was about it. Does anyone make junket today? In an expanding universe probably someone does, yeah. But I couldn’t find it in that huge compendium of modern Australian culinary delights, BestRecipes, http://www.bestrecipes.com.au. And that’s a pretty reliable indicator of today’s Antipodean tastes.
Sole Survivor: Little Miss Muffet
It only survives in the nursery rhyme, as “curds and whey.”
Okay, now we know what “curds and whey” are! Curdled milk, made with rennet
But as to the nursery rhyme itself…
Well, probably the most obvious questions—the ones that certainly appear to have been the most asked, anyway—are “Who was Miss Muffet?” and “What is a tuffet?” Apart from these quite possibly minor considerations, you can apply dozens of interpretations to any nursery rhyme, including this one.
The historical interpretation: The rhyme represents some historical event. (Very popular ever since analysts first began dissecting nursery rhymes, but most of these “meanings” are now questioned, because of lack of evidence).
The educationist standpoint: The earlier theory said that nursery rhymes teach children about the world—and very often, in the opinion of the Victorian moralists, rude things about the world, which is why many nursery rhymes were bowdlerised in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The simplest modern theory is that the “sing-song” character of nursery rhymes promotes language learning in young children. But we also get such arguments as “music and rhyme increase a child's ability in spatial reasoning,” also aiding “mathematics skills” (“Nursery rhyme”, Wikipedia).
The psychological interpretation: (Take your pick!) Catharsis: they allow children to deal imaginatively with violence and danger, whilst not either acting or being threatened in reality. Psychosexual: “hidden” meanings. These appear to be as many as the human mind can devise. Quite often they involve long, tortuous arguments which ignore the actual language of the rhymes, which can often prove that there was a dirty meaning originally—in all likelihood one of the factors which helped the rhyme to remain in the popular consciousness!
Most of the earnest interpreters fail to take into account the fact that for most nursery rhymes not one but many of the several possible interpretations hold true. Not all jingles are memorable; many historical anecdotes are eminently forgettable; moralising is even more so; stories which draw on our hidden fears and phobias are tempting, but we don’t remember all of them, either; and dirty jokes are funny, but not necessarily so good that they’re automatically passed on through the generations. But nursery rhymes last. They work on several, and sometimes all, of these levels. They’re jingles which work as jingles, but they have something more. Even when any historical “meaning” has long since become irrelevant, they still work.
Miss Muffet Interpreted
Here are some samples for you. I’ll forgive you if you conclude I’ve made the lot up!
**Dr Muffet’s Stepdaughter, or Mary Queen of Scots?
The short answer is “No.” Two theories for the historical “derivation” or “meaning” of the rhyme have been put forward, neither more than speculative. One attributes the rhyme to a Dr Thomas Muffet (d.1604), an English physician and entomologist who had a stepdaughter. This claim rests solely, as far as I can see, on the double coincidence of the surname (the spelling of which would have varied hugely during his time) and the spider/entomology motif. (Entomology = “Study of insects” (Concise Oxford); spiders are not insects but I dare say in the late 16th century this differentiation hadn’t been made.)
Theory two is that the rhyme dates from the same period but refers to Mary, Queen of Scots (1543-87), being “frightened” by the religious reformer John Knox. (“Little Miss Muffet”, Wikipedia).
The nursery rhyme wasn’t published until 1805, so yer pays yer money and takes yer choice.
**Pragmatic Advice to the Young, Or, Object Lesson
Spiders can be dangerous, so a prudent child does run away from them, even if she’s eating her pudding at the time. Or, less literally, when danger approaches, it’s best to get out of its way. The Victorian interpretation?
Fear of spiders is a very common human phobia, and many adults, let alone little girls, would recognise the rhyme as an illustration of it. Getting psychological, here? Read on…
**Slippery Freudian Curds and Whey?
I’ll quote this one. A summary wouldn’t get its flavour. “Freud’s psychoanalytic theory: Although Miss Muffet was very afraid of spiders and she saw the spider web hanging over the tuffet, she could not resist her strong id impulse to sit down and eat the curds and whey that was sitting on the tuffet. Her ego - or the rational part of her mind - was unable to redirect her id impulse that caused her to sit down and eat immediately, ignoring the spider web.” (Example from a project for psychology students, “Project #1 Using child development theories to analyze nursery rhymes”, Psychology 311 Projects, http://psycsos.tripod.com/311projects.htm)
I particularly like the “ignoring the spider web” bit. What spider web? There is no web in the text! Extrapolation, thy name is psychology.
**Poor Weak, Female Miss Muffet: A Feminist Sociological Study
Miss Muffet is the archetypal young female, oppressed and brainwashed by the conventions of our society, unable to stand up for herself, in fact taught not to stand— You don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a couple of quotes:
“Miss Muffet ... is portrayed as a weakling who is incapable of handling the situation. In such subtle ways, infants are made to accept the notion of the female sex being the weaker sex." (Feminism & Patriarchy, by "anton")
“Little Miss Muffet— the idealistic, stereotypical littke [sic] girl wearing a pink, puffy dress with long tied-back hair and bright blue eyes… We are taught this nursery rhyme from a very young age, it presents swayed, bias gender development, stereotypes and infringed children's rights.”
I got the impression this writer’s bitterness was genuine, though the final comment is distinctly wry: “My conclusion? The future’s screwed.” (From DeviantArt)
I think we can fairly say “unproven” to all of these interpretations! But there's no reason, except perhaps in the case of the historical so-called meanings, that a lot of them shouldn’t hold true to a certain degree. Probably one’s id would do, um, whatever stuff that was. And on one level you can certainly read the rhyme to a child as an object lesson. The cathartic bit holds true, too: big scary spider, thrill, shudder, without having to actually see a spider. And a good little girl sitting down and eating her pudding up is pretty stereotypical, isn't it? Though the rhyme doesn’t actually say she was a “good” little girl, let alone award her a pink dress! The weaker sex? Yes, she is a girl, and yes, she is frightened away by the spider. And arachnophobia is right. You wouldn’t have to be a psychologist or even know the term to recognise it as a common fear and put it into a rhyme—whether consciously or not.
That Grubby Little Tuffet
The generally accepted interpretations of “tuffet” in the nursery rhyme are two: either that Miss Muffet is sitting on a hassock or small footstool, or that she’s sitting on a small clump of grass.
Is she? What is a tuffet?
Not being able to find the exact derivation of a word always maddens me. There is none for “tuffet.”
My good old Concise Oxford let me down. Nothing, nada, zilch.
I did find the Wikipedia article on the word, which reflects the commonly accepted interpretations: “The names tuffet and hassock are both derived from English names for ‘a small grassy hillock or clump of grass’, in use since at least the sixteenth century.”
Are they? The footnotes merely take you to the Merriam-Webster entries for “tuft” and “tuffet”. However, I found the subsequent admission quite enlightening: “Chambers 20th Century Dictionary does not recognize the use of ‘tuffet’ for a piece of furniture, and the Oxford English Dictionary says that it only ‘perhaps’ means hassock or footstool, suggesting that this usage is due to a misunderstanding of the nursery rhyme ‘Little Miss Muffet’.”
Without taking Wikipedia for gospel, I’ll grant its article does have quite a respectable list of references. Well, if you look at them closely, which of course I proceeded to do, all but one are online references, but their original sources are solid enough. I couldn’t access the OED online, as it requires a sub, and I’m not yet that mad; added to which I firmly believe such knowledge should be free. If you don’t want the hoi polloi down here at the bottom of the world to access it, Oxford, we won’t; and get knotted. Presumably it says what Wikipedia quoted.
From The Horse’s Mouth
The standard interpretation of “tuffet” in Little Miss Muffet dates, apparently, from 1898. Certainly I couldn’t find an earlier reference to the word in context:
E. Cobham Brewer (1810-1897). Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.
“A small tuft or clump. Strange that this word, so universally known, has never been introduced into our dictionaries, to the best of my knowledge.”
He then cites the nursery rhyme. As far as I can see, this has been taken as gospel ever since.
Later dictionary entries do not specifically cite “tuffet” as meaning either a clump of grass or a small footstool (hassock) in any early source. Merriam-Webster is typical: it gives the two modern meanings and it gives the etymology, but it does not give any early context for this precise semantic content. That, is we gather that tuffete occurred in Anglo-French but we are not told what it meant then.
Definition of tuffet: 1: tuft 1a; 2: a low seat
Origin and Etymology of tuffet: Anglo-French tuffete, from *tufe tuft
First Known Use: 1553
Online Etymology Dictionary:
tuffet (n.) 1550s, “little tuft,” from Old French touffel (with diminutive suffix -et for French -el), diminutive of touffe (see tuft). Obsolete except in the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet” (1843), where it has been felt to mean “hassock, footstool.”
“Felt to mean” is right! The substitution of -et for -el seems very dubious: -el is the Old Norman French equivalent of the Old French suffix -eau; the English word “castle” is the classic example, deriving not from Old French chasteau (later château) but from Old Norman French chastel (Concise Oxford).
It took me ages, but I finally chased down a very early dictionary entry which allows one to assume a much ruder meaning of “tuffet” than the Victorian E. Cobham Brewer would have permitted. Having done a fair bit of Renaissance French and a bit of Old French in an earlier life, I thought that if the word is at least cognate with, if not actually derived from, the French “touffe”, the rhyme can very well have a rude interpretation: Miss M. is sitting on her little tuft, i.e. her genitals.
The diminutive -et is found frequently in French, as in the word “jonquet” meaning a little basket of rushes, cited by Jane Grigson—more correctly, I suppose, “a little rush thing.” I think it wasn’t uncommon in ruder contexts—certainly it appears in Villon’s rhyming of “sadinet - jardinet”: “Ces larges rains, ce sadinet/Assis sur grosses fesses cuisses,/Dedans son petit jardinet”. (François Villon. “La vieille en regrettant les temps de sa jeunesse”, Oeuvres. Paris, Champion, 1964, p.28.) And there are lots of rude poems, full of double entendres, in early English, only a few of which have survived (e.g. “I Have a Gentle Cock”, The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950 (OUP, 1972)).
I failed to find anything under “tuf…”, the spelling suggested by the modern references, but I knew that in earlier times French spelling varied almost as much as English spelling did, so I tried “touf…”.
This is what I found in Greg Lindahl’s really great online index to Cotgrave’s Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues:
“Touffe de cheveux: a tuft or lock of curled haire”
(Randle Cotgrave (-1634?). A Dictionarie of the French and English tongues. London, printed by Adam Islip, 1611.)
Index by Greg Lindahl at: http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cotgrave/
There you are: touffe means a tuft of curled hair. Note that “curled”! Add the diminutive, whether as far back as Anglo-Norman or not, and Bob’s your dirty old uncle. No wonder the Victorians bowdlerised the meaning of the nursery rhyme!
Not convinced? No, well, they were ruder in the early 17th century. But you might like to compare the traditional verse with this little gem offered by the Online Etymology Dictionary:
LITTLE Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
And made of her knees such display
That the old fashioned spider,
Embarrassed beside her,
Was actually frightened away!
(Life, Oct. 1, 1927)
Shades of Sharon Stone? Yes, Veronica, that is very rude. Never mind; just sit down on your hassock and/or clump of grass and eat up your junket like a good little girl. In your pink dress: yes, dear.