Angels on horseback is a hot appetizer made from oysters wrapped in bacon. In the UK they can also be a savoury, the last course of a traditional British formal meal. They look a bit like devils on horseback and the Midwest version of pigs in a blanket, a traditional dish of the region.
Strictly speaking, Angels on Horseback are hors d’oeuvres, unlike Pigs in a Blanket, which are canapés, since they always include a base or bread wrapper, and it is not mandatory to serve Angels on Horseback on toast.
Although the dish is of English origin, the name probably comes from the French anges à cheval. Its first occurrence, confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources, was in 1888, in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. However, it should be noted that there is a reference to the dish in a New Zealand newspaper, which includes a short recipe, in 1882. Oyster/angel and bacon/horse relationships seem to be unimportant. Although it is sometimes considered a traditional English dish, the dish also has an Irish following: it recently appeared on the menu that gave Danny Millar the Irish regional award a in the Great British Menu.
Angels on horseback are also served in the United States, where the dish never seems to have been as widespread as in the United Kingdom. It was probably introduced in the mid to late 1890s.
One of the first references in an American newspaper is an 1896 article in the New York Times, where the dish is suggested as an appetizer. According to the Times, the dish is due to Urbain Dubois, the German Emperor’s cook. In this version, they are pricked, sprinkled with a little red pepper and grilled, served with lemon and parsley (without toast). Strangely, the first occurrence cited in the Dictionary of American Regional English is from 1909. In the 1930’s, they were suggested, for example, as part of a picnic menu, and in 1948 again as an appetizer. In the 1950s, several articles appeared in American newspapers whose very titles already suggest that the dish is little known: “For Oysters, Try Angels on Horseback: They’re a Delicious Appetizer for Sunday Lunch”, “Angels on Horseback, English Monkey? Those Are Recipes!” and “These Angels on Horseback Are Oysters”.
Angels on Horseback achieved some popularity in the 1960s in Washington, D.C.: Evangeline Bruce, wife of U.S. Ambassador and Diplomatic Envoy David K.E. Bruce, famous for her “Washington nights,” served them regularly during John F. Kennedy’s term in office, but even then, the name was not well known, as the words of pink journalist Liz Smith suggest: “Sometimes the oysters were raw, and sometimes they were grilled and wrapped in bacon. As late as the 1980s, the Chicago Tribune called the dish “intriguing,” suggesting that it had not become popular in the United States.
According to the classic recipe, oysters without shells are wrapped in bacon. Sometimes scallops are used instead. They are then roasted in an oven, about 3 minutes on each side, or prepared with any other dry heat source, such as the grill. An older recipe, from 1902, suggests frying oysters with skewered bacon in butter. The dish is often served on toast, although if it is prepared on skewers and grilled, it can be eaten directly from the skewers.
Joanna Pruess’ book Seduced by Bacon includes a recipe for angels and devils on horseback. Pruess wrote: “a little chili sauce can transform them from a heavenly taste to a hellishly spicy one, or somewhere in between.