Food Glorious Food: Dinner with Dickens

Museums
4 out of 5 stars
Christmas at the Charles Dickens Museum

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Charlie D’s crib has gone full Christmas with its annual festive makeover. In the year that marked the 175th anniversary of the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’, it’s putting on an exhibition about the place of food in Dickens’s work. There are recipe books used by his wife Catherine (including the amazingly titled ‘Gastronomic Regenerator’), household accounts and Victorian dining paraphernalia, all tied together with foodie quotes from his novels.

As a young literary star, Dickens loved to entertain and basically show off. There are details of the complex menus from his parties that show that Dickens was as obsessed with the imaginative and theatrical possibilities of dinner as he was with everything else. But this is also the house in which Dickens wrote ‘Oliver Twist’, his starkest depiction of hunger. ‘Please Sir, I want some more’ could be applied to Dickens’s entire career – this was a man who essentially worked himself to death under the shadow of his nightmarish childhood poverty.

Like everything else, food is strongly polarised in his work: the table is bountiful or barren. He loves describing a feast, he droops over starving orphans. But he was also conscious that the display of food has powerful connotations: munificence can be a symbol for jolly contentment or the vulgar carapace of nouveau-riche self-delusion. For every convivial Pickwick-esque nosh-up, there’s the royally iced sham of Miss Havisham’s ‘bride cake’, devoured from within by mice.

Dickens was acutely sensitive that food reflected social status, especially at Christmas. The rich ate game from their estates. Middle England ate beef. Yuppies ate turkey. The poor ate ox heart. The very poor ate fuck-all. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is replete with images of both plenty and need, and this low-key but engaging culinary look at Dickens is also maybe an opportunity to consider what and how we eat at this time of year. Or not. Anyway, I’m off for a glass of Smoking Bishop and God bless us, every one.

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