Saturday, May 07, 2005


The Diabolic Tomato

Literary voyeurs! Are you done looking through the checking account of Lewis Carroll? Well, now you can root through the kitchen drawers of Charles Dickens. The Guardian reviews Susan Rossi-Wilcox's Dinner for Dickens: The Culinary History of Mrs. Charles Dickens' Menu Books:

Rossi-Wilcox has delved into Catherine's domestic records to... [find] a sprightly intelligence keen to graft dishes learned while living abroad in France and Italy on to a stock of sturdy "Scotch" staples that reflect a much-loved Edinburgh childhood.

The reason that Rossi-Wilcox can even attempt to do this is that Catherine's manuscript menu books have survived (ironically because they belonged to the first wife of a great man) together with the odd fact that in 1852 she published a pseudonymous recipe book entitled What Shall We Have for Dinner? which was re-issued, in altered form, right through to 1860. Buttressed by the kitchen inventory from 1 Devonshire Terrace, where the family lived in the 1840s, as well as scraps of information about the arrangements at Doughty Street and Gad's Hill, Rossi-Wilcox is able to study Catherine's household in a way that has historically been impossible for all but a handful of courtly kitchens.

In some respects the Dickens family table turns out to be typical of its type, that of a metropolitan household leapfrogging several sections of the middle class. There is the usual love of mutton, beef and pork, pork, pork (Catherine is thrifty and anything piggy is cheap) and the instinctive resistance to vegetables and salad, especially the near-diabolic tomato.

One can only hope that this book finds a wider audience among scholars (and it will be scholars, at $50 hc) and not simply among Dickens freaks. What's great about a project like this is not that it really matters what Dickens ate -- I mean, honestly, does it matter? -- but that, since at some point people began saving every scrap of paper associated with him, his house has become an almost unique core sample of London domestic life from the era.

I do occasionally come across 19th century references, incidentally, that seem to regard tomatoes as nutritionally worthlessness -- even dangerous. So now, if you don't mind, I'm going to go risk my life on a slice of pizza...

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