Thursday, 20 May 2010

A Feast of Reading

I’ve been reading a book called A House is Built, which I was supposed to read at school when I was thirteen (I always said I’d get round to it eventually.) It’s a pretty much forgotten novel these days, and, although entertaining - and, arguably, an early feminist parable - it isn’t really especially good. It has two authors, which could account for the book’s slightly uneven tone, the tendency for characters to be introduced and forgotten about and a fairly jerky plot. ‭I think it was probably selected for the New South Wales curriculum because it is ‬set in Sydney in the‭ ‬1840s and‭ ‬50s and so it provided a bit of history to pupils in a fictional form.

And anyway it's not all bad. One delightful thing about it, in fact, is its vivid descriptions of food. At a lunch party we are told exactly what dishes are provided for the children:‭ ‘… ‬great plates of nice wholesome brown bread and butter,‭ ‬blue-rimmed bowls of barley broth, lightly boiled eggs,‭ ‬earthenware pots of honey,‭ ‬pitchers of milk and lemonade,‭ ‬pyramids of pale yellow pears,‭ ‬pie dishes of milky rice pudding in paper frills ...', and we are given just as much detail about what the adults will get:‭ ‘... ‬cold chicken decorated with beetroot stars‭ … ‬breasts of chicken in aspic,‭ mou‬lds and pies and spiced meats,‭ ‬salads,‭ ‬tall glasses of celery,‭ ‬an epergne of grapes in bacchanalian abandon,‭ ‬cremes and jellies,‭ ‬made with art and clarified with eggshell,‭ ‬glaces fruits,‭ ‬gâteaux and wines.‭’

‭Given how much time we spend eating - and indeed how much time characters in fiction spend at table - such close attention to what’s consume‬d is actually surprisingly rare. For example, I’ve just looked at one of my favourite scenes from Dickens - the dinner party given by the Veneerings‭ (‘‬bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London’‭) - and realised that, alt‬hough we see the characters called into the dining-room‭ (“‘‬Dinner is on the table‭!’ ‬thus the melancholy retainer,‭ ‬as who should say,‭ ‘‬Come down and be poisoned,‭ ‬ye unhappy children of men‭!’”) ‬and gathered around the table‭ (‬which like everything else in the house is so new that it is‭ ‘‬in a state of high varnish and polish‭’, ‬its surface,‭ ‬like that of its owners,‭ ‬smelling‭ ‘‬a little too much of the workshop and‭ … ‬a trifle sticky‭’,) ‬we are told nothing of what is eaten.

I’ve also had a quick flick through some novels by Evelyn Waugh, Henry James, F Scott Fitzgerald and DH Lawrence and, despite the fact that in all of them the characters never stop lunching and dining together , we rarely glimpse a thing they eat. Admittedly, Lawrence does allow a rather saucy girl some oysters in Women in Love, but I think he is more interested in insinuating something about the person eating the oysters than in the pleasurable experience of the eating itself. Similarly, Katherine Mansfield describes lots of food in The Germans at Meat, but not to give us the pleasure of thinking about the delicious dishes on offer - all she wants is to show us what greedy pigs her fellow boarding house guests are so that we will sneer at them with her.

‭In Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the character called Chip (who may, I suppose, be named after a snack?) thinks about food a great deal. However, although he spends a rather gruesome half hour walking around a shop with $78.40 of salmon stuffed down his trousers ‘like a cool loaded diaper’, you could hardly claim his story was a celebration of ‘fine dining’. ‬

John Galsworthy bangs on about saddle of mutton for a bit in Forsyte Saga - ‘No Forsyte has given a dinner without a saddle of mutton. There is something in its succulent solidity that makes it suitable to people of a certain position. It is nourishing - and tasty; the sort of thing a man remembers eating. It has a past and a future, like a deposit paid into a bank’ - but it is obvious he is not interested in the experience of consuming the thing but only in its symbolism. ‭

James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (a book anyone thinking of converting to Catholicism should read very carefully), is guilty of a similar trick. He conjures up a pretty delicious sounding Christmas dinner: ‭‘... the warm heavy smell of turkey and ham and celery rose from the plates and dishes and the great fire was banked high and red in the grate and the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy and when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top’ ‭but only so that poor old Stephen Daedalus can feel guilty about his ‘gluttonous enjoyment of food’ later on.

Towards the end of the novel - after Stephen has made his confession and feels his soul is ‘made fair and holy once more’ - Joyce repeats the exercise. He describes how: ‭‘On the dresser was a plate of sausages and white pudding and on the shelf there were eggs ... White pudding and eggs and sausages and cups of tea. How simple and beautiful was life after all!’‭but he isn’t trying to remind us of the joy of plain dinners; he merely wants to highlight Stephen’s state of religious fervour, in which even sausages become sacramental.

‭Perhaps unsurprisingly, the French give food more of a starring role in their fiction than we do. You don't need me to tell you how Proust has made the madeleine the most famous biscuit in all literature, but he is not alone. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert is also more than willing to describe what is being eaten by his characters, even if it does not lead to the kind of transcendent moment described by his colleague. He shows us Madame Bovary enjoying a maraschino ice and details a ‘supper, with plenty of Spanish and Rhine wines, soups a la bisque and au lait d’amandes, puddings a la Trafalgar and all sorts of cold meats with jellies that trembled in the dishes.’

He also tells us all about cheminots - ‘small, heavy, turban shaped loaves, that are eaten in Lent with salt butter; a last vestige of Gothic food that goes back, perhaps, to the time of the Crusades, and with which the robust Normans gorged themselves of yore, fancying they saw on the table, in the light of the yellow torches, between tankards of hippocras and huge boars’ heads, the heads of Saracens to be devoured.' Unfortunately, this latter description, which starts so innocently and ends so ghoulishly foreshadows the most horrible eating scene I’ve ever come across in literature - the one in which Madame Bovary ‘seized the blue jar, tore out the cork, plunged in her hand and withdrawing it full of a white powder ... began eating it.' The powder is of course the poison that kills her.

‭No survey of literature would be complete, of course, without reference to the work that towers over all others - The Compleet Molesworth, (okay, I admit it - the only reason I dragged myself through all that other dreary stuff was so that I could establish my credibility before quoting from Willans and Searle yet again). As befits a masterwork, The Compleet Molesworth does not let us down when it comes to eating. Contained within its covers we find not just passing references to meals but an entire chapter devoted to the subject. The food described is hardly mouthwatering, I admit, but it's a lot more cheering than Madame Bovary's final gulp:

‭Skool Food


‭Many boys find themselves quite incapable of not making any rude comments on skool food. This is hardly good maners hem-hem and i must impress on all cads and bounders who sa poo gosh when they see a skool sossage to mend their ways

‭When face with a friteful piece of meat which even the skool dog would refuse do not screw up the face in any circs and sa coo ur gosh ghastly. This calls atention to onself and makes it more difficult to pinch a beter piece from the next boy.

‭Rice PUDINGS and jely in the poket are not a good mixture with fluff and the ushual nauseating contents. Sometimes you can chiz a bit of pink mange into a hankchief but it is apt to be a bit hard to manage when bloing the nose. peason hav tried green peas up the sleeve but no good really as they all come shooting down again.

‭We in our skool are proud of our maners which maykth us the weeds we are and when grabber shoot peas from peashooter at the deaf master we are much shoked i do not think. Nor do we make lakes of treacle in the poridge or rivers of gravy through the mashed potatoes perish the thort.


‭Aktually whatever boys may sa about skool food the moment deaf master sa lord make us truly etc. whole skool descend upon food with roar like an H bomb and in 2 minits all hav been swept bare. We then hav time for interval of uplifting conversation
‭i sa e.g.
‭i think aldous huxley is rather off form in point counterpoint, peason. And he repli i simply couldn’t agree with you more rat face but peason is very 4th rate and hav not got beyond bulldog drummond. Anyway then the next course come and all boys disappear in a cloud of jely blanch mange plums and aple while treacle tart fly in all directions.


‭When the repast is finished the head of the skool or headmaster should wait for a moment until the conversation shows some small signs of flagging then rising to his feet he indicates that the meal is at an end and the lades may withdraw.

‭Aktually if he waited for the conversation to flag he would be sitting there until tea time when it would all begin agane. Wot he does is to bawl Silence at the top of his voice separate three tuoughs who are fiting and the whole skool charge into the corridor except molesworth 2 who is pinching the radio malt.


  1. Other children's literature is good on food. Tolkien in The Hobbit and LotR: seed cakes, honey and cream. Roald Dahl (geddit?) has tons of great food descriptions with some less savoury ones (Fantastic Mr Fox - eurgh).

  2. Gaw - a) loved the video on your site: the relentless cheerfulness of the people involved is really the only sensible approach to take in the face of London Transport, don't you think?
    b) you aren't actually suggesting that Molesworth is children's literature are you (although I suppose that might explain its mysterious absence from Harold Bloom's canon)?

  3. I find this bit the best!:

    i sa e.g.
    ‭i think aldous huxley is rather off form in point counterpoint, peason. And he repli i simply couldn’t agree with you more rat face but peason is very 4th rate and hav not got beyond bulldog drummond.

    Brilliant!!! I remember Bulldog Drummond well

    I think, from memory, that Dickens gets into lingering detail of food in A Christmas Carol


    “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

    -A Moveable Feast

  4. I'm that suggestible that I'm going to pop over to Steve Hatt to buy half-a-dozen oysters right now. Is there an oyster marketing board who could sponsor this comment thread?

  5. When young I had a nasty dose of e-coli courtesy of my primary school kitchen. I spent a lot of time at home and wasn't allowed to eat anything much for what seemed like an age. The book that tormented me most as I lay in bed recovering was one of the Richard Scarry picture books. It showed a young bear getting ready for school and illustrated all the stuff he was going to eat for breakfast - waffles with bacon and maple syrup, cereal, milk, orange juice and so forth. (I think there was also a picture containing peas although my memory might be playing tricks.) Looking at these illustrations caused a terrible yearning which my unfeeling parents did nothing to assuage and a love of waffles that is with me to this day.

  6. Worm - like Gaw, we are suggestible and have been knocking back Sydney rock oysters and cold white wine ever since your comment. I've only ever read The Old Man and the Sea but am going to return to Hemingway, inspired by that quote.
    Sophie - Parents are so mean. Do you ever have peas with your waffles (who was it who said you should eat peas with honey so they stay on the fork? Maple syrup should serve the same purpose, I guess)

  7. I eat my peas with honey
    I've done it all my life
    It makes the peas taste funny
    But it keep them on your knife.