Thursday, 20 December 2018
Rereading: What Shall We Have for Dinner?
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/16/rereading-charles-dickens-dinner As the celebrations for Charles Dickens's bicentenary next year begin in earnest, spare a thought this Christmas for his wife, Catherine, who published her own book of dinner menus Penelope Vogler Fri 16 Dec 2011 22.55 GMT First published on Fri 16 Dec 2011 22.55 GMT Engraved Portrait of Catherine Dickens. Photograph: Michael Nicholson/Corbis One publication to emerge from the Dickens' household at Devonshire Terrace in London seems to have been largely forgotten. It was a short book, published in 1851, and pretty successful, running to five editions up until 1860. No fuss was made of it; there are no mentions of it by Dickens in his correspondence which, at the time, was concerned with the scrum of nine children, his wife's fragile health, the deaths of his father and baby Dora – not to mention the first issues of Household Words and work on Bleak House. It was a selection of menus, called What Shall We Have for Dinner?, written under the pseudonym Lady Maria Clutterbuck. The paper-trail for it, although a little soggy (it comprises mostly circumstantial evidence), shows the author to be Dickens's wife, Catherine. She calls her menus "Bills of Fare" and promises they will give satisfactory answers to the troubling question of what to cook for between "two to eighteen persons". It is not known exactly when it was published as there are no surviving first editions, but a second edition came out in October 1851. Dora had died in April of the same year, and perhaps the book offered a distraction for a grieving mother (Catherine was buried in the same grave as Dora 19 years later). Published by Bradbury and Evans, whom Dickens had chosen to bring out the second edition of A Christmas Carol, it is a curious little book. The "new edition" from 1852 in the British Library has been given an anonymous recasing. This, and a later 1854 edition, saw the addition of a new appendix with "useful receipts" for some of the Dickens' favourite dishes: leg of mutton stuffed with oysters for Charles; rich, lemony, Italian cream for Catherine. The extraordinary pseudonym comes from a French farce, first played in England in 1848, and adopted by Dickens for the family's Twelfth Night theatricals in 1851. At Rockingham Castle (the inspiration for Chesney Wold in Bleak House) Catherine was persuaded to play the foolish and unappealing widow, Lady Maria Clutterbuck. It was not a flattering role compared to that of the hero Sir Charles Coldstream (played by Dickens), who got to flirt with the leading lady. Sign up for Bookmarks: discover new books in our weekly email Read more The book's culinary style is high Victoriana; vegetables are outnumbered by fish and meat, and no dinner party today (even for 20 people) would attempt so many dishes: two soups, three fish, ten – mostly meaty – offerings in the third course, three or four in the next; five puddings and perhaps three savouries (Dickens liked to round a meal off with toasted cheese). The names and sheer volume of dishes make the Bills of Fare seem, at first sight, solidly British and off-puttingly bourgeois. But at the time they would have been the height of fashion. The cauliflower with parmesan, for example, came from Charles Elme Francatelli, Queen Victoria's Anglo-Italian chef (although unlike Francatelli Catherine doesn't suggest serving it in a coronet of croutons). The flamboyant Alexis Soyer, the Jamie Oliver of his day, is the source for recipes such as roast mutton with pungent sauce (unattributed) or the unappealing sounding "salmon curry a la Soyer" ("which stew about half-an-hour"). The selection shows considerable culinary interest and knowledge. The grand menus are fascinating, requiring a grasp of seasonality (Catherine gives the months that each menu could be served) and a practical understanding of what a female cook (rather than a trained chef) working with limited oven and stove-top space in an urban kitchen could produce. They indicate a practical sort of person, hardly the domestic incompetent with a "mental disorder" that Dickens painted his wife as after their estrangement. A typical dinner is a five-act drama, in which Catherine carefully orchestrates taste (turbot with lobster sauce and cucumbers in one course), textures (crisp little mushroom patties; emollient oyster curry and a mousse-like grenadine of veal) and colour (spinach and beetroot salad to enliven a roast saddle of mutton). Dickens was a famous host and raconteur, fuelling his dinners with humour and games, and his wife was clearly an excellent hostess. Literary letters of the time are abuzz with reports of "pleasant" (Longfellow) or "charming" (Mrs Cowden-Clarke) dinners; Wilkie Collins admires the dinner and the table decorated with flowers, including a nosegay beside each napkin. Jane Carlyle waspishly writes that the Dickens' dinner parties with their "quantities of artificial flowers" and "overloaded dessert" were too grand for a "literary man". She works herself to a pitch of excitement because "the very candles rose each out of an artificial rose! Good God!" Entertaining was a financially onerous burden for most middle-class Victorian homes; suet dumplings, mashed turnips and raspberry-jam sandwiches for pudding when there were no guests helped balance the domestic books. Catherine's Edinburgh upbringing was relatively humble; her parents couldn't afford a cook and she learnt domestic economy from her mother. There are plenty of suggestions for cold lamb or beef and "made dishes" (using leftovers). Many cookery books of the time recognise this need for frugality, such as Modern Cookery for Private Families by Catherine's contemporary, Eliza Acton, which includes recipes for reusing bread in the "Poor Author's Pudding" or plum-pudding in "The Elegant Economist's Pudding". However, giving your husband last night's "cold shoulder" turns out to be as fraught as coming up with 20 dishes for 20 people. The introduction to What Shall We Have For Dinner? is generally agreed to be by Charles Dickens, writing as Lady Maria, looking back on her happy life with the late, well-fed, Sir Jonas Clutterbuck and affecting dismay for her female friends whose "daily life is embittered by the consciousness that a delicacy forgotten or misapplied; a surplusage of cold mutton or a redundancy of chops; are gradually making the Club more attractive than the Home". Over the century what "dinner" was, and how and when it was served, was subject to dizzying change. Jane Austen would have had hers in early or mid-afternoon, served "à la Française", in which the dishes in the first of two or three courses would have been laid out symmetrically on the table (and getting cold) before the diners entered the room. By the end of the century, as gas lighting made later eating and cooking easier, not only had dinner shifted to late evening, but a whole dining style called "à la Russe" had caught on, with a succession of courses which a grand – or aspiring – host could turn into an enormous procession of servants and tables flooded with decorations. The Dickenses, mid-century and middle class, ate no later than 7pm and helped popularise a more informal version of "à la Russe". This later dining time ushered in a new calorie-laden problem for middle-class women, called "lunch". It was seen as a particularly female meal, taken with the children in the nursery or with women friends while the men were working. Clearly the evening menus served by Catherine were not slimmers' food, either. In 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote admiringly that Catherine was a "good specimen of a truly English woman: tall, large, and well developed". Although part of Dickens's justification for the separation was that they had nothing in common, they clearly shared a love of the groaning table. Catherine's enjoyment of food was used as a weapon against her by biographers and commentators for many years. Margaret Lane attributed the "famous breach" at least in part to Catherine being overfond of her own recipes and becoming, while still young, "mountainously fat". Fortunately, there are now people fighting her corner. In 2005, Prospect Books published the text of What Shall We Have for Dinner? accompanied by phenomenal research on the book by Susan M Rossi-Wilcox, an American food historian and curator at Harvard's Botanical Museum (the book is entitled Dinner for Dickens). It is admired in Lillian Nayder's feminist biography of Catherine, The Other Dickens (2011). Sue Perkins is exploring Catherine's legacy in Mrs Dickens' Family Christmas in a BBC documentary, in which I can be seen overcooking a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters and spattering a perfectly innocent kitchen with the overflowing ingredients for a massive Twelfth Cake. So, this Christmas, if you are contemplating your Dickensian Christmas pud with its sprig of holly or, like me, cursing the writer of A Christmas Carol for making our families insist on turkey, spare a thought for Catherine Dickens. Not because she was the wronged wife or struggling mother of 10, but because she was a splendid foodie. • Penelope Vogler is editor of Penguin's Great Food series. https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0925/3888/files/What_Shall_We_Have_For_Dinner_release.pdf?17268749423770106016