Dickens and More Wittles

By Sue Roe

For today’s Heritage Open Days blog, it’s back to Dickens.

Dickens was a bit of a foodie himself. His favourite dish was lamb stuffed with oysters and to drink, he relished a glass of Smoking Bishop or Gin Punch. He loved entertaining and held regular dinner parties. A convivial host, he had an ample wine cellar: his 1865 cellar lists a 50 gallon cask of ale, 18 gallon of gin, 18 dozen bottles of port, four dozen bottles of champagne and sundry others. He clearly was no fan of the Temperance Movement – he thought the working class deserved some enjoyment. After the forced separation from his wife, his sister-in-law Georgina acted as housekeeper. Here is one of her menu cards.

Menu card for dinner, probably at Gad’s Hill in the 1860s, with Charles Dickens’ cest (Charles Dickens Museum)

His wife Catherine was a foodie too: she published a cookery book of her recipes, What Shall We Have for Dinner? Satisfactorily Answered by Numerous Bills of Fare for from Two to Eighteen Persons (1852), under the pseudonym Maria Clutterbuck. It included many of Dickens’ favourite recipes but was not just a cook book. Catherine focussed on menu planning, and included some recipes which the author claimed were commonly ‘misunderstood’. Books on household management and etiquette were becoming increasingly popular as the rising middle class looked for guidance in order to avoid social faux pas.

Bill of Fare for Two to Three Persons, from Catherine Dickens’ cookery book, What Shall We Have for Dinner?

Despite his wife’s skills as a cook, the depiction of women in the kitchen reveal something of Dickens’ attitude to women. Dora, David Copperfield’s child-like first wife, and Bella Wilfer (Mrs John Rokesmith) in Our Mutual Friend (1865) share an ignorance of even the simplest culinary skills. They are an interesting contrast to Peggotty, the kind hearted cook in David Copperfield (1850), or Mrs Joe, Pip’s sister, in Great Expectations (1861), who runs a very tight ship in her kitchen!

In David Copperfield our eponymous hero and his wife, Dora, seem to be at the mercy of butchers and other tradesmen:

I could not help wondering in my own mind, as I contemplated the boiled leg of mutton before me, previous to carving it, how it came to pass that our joints of meat were of such extraordinary shapes – and whether our butcher contracted for all the deformed sheep that came into the world; but I kept my reflections to myself.

David Copperfield, chapter 44.

Our Housekeeping by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). Image scan and text by Philip V Allingham.

On the same occasion Dora had ordered in a barrel of oysters (one of Dickens’ favourites):

… we had no oyster-knives – and couldn’t have used them if we had; so we looked at the oysters and ate the mutton.

Bella Wilfer has a similar lack of skills, though she does try to improve them. On one occasion she informs her family ‘I mean to be Cook today’ (Our Mutual Friend, chapter 4), much to the shock and surprise of her mother who does instruct her. However she is not very successful. Of the fowls she has cooked she comments:

‘But what makes them pink inside … is it the breed ?’ ‘No, I don’t think it’s the breed, my dear,’ returned Pa. ‘I rather think it is because they are not done.’ ‘They ought to be,’ said Bella. ‘Yes, I am aware they ought to be, my dear,’ rejoined her father, ‘but they – ain’t.’

Later, as the newly married Mrs John Rokesmith, she was:

fast developing a perfect genius for home… Such weighing and mixing and chopping and grating … and above all such severe study! For Mrs J R, who had never been wont to do too much at home as Miss B W, was under the constant necessity of referring for advice and support to a sage volume entitled The Complete British Family Housewife.

Our Mutual Friend, chapter 5.

This book seems to bear comparison to Yottam Ottolenghi, with both recommending hard to source ingredients – in the former case a salamander!

Behaviour at mealtimes is not forgotten. When Pip goes up to London on coming into his Great Expectations, he lodges with Herbert Pocket who tutors him on table manners:

… in London it is not the custom to put the knife in the mouth, – for fear of accidents … Also, the spoon is not generally used over-hand …

Great Expectations, chapter 22.

Mealtimes are also worthy of note in Our Mutual Friend: the Veneerings are a nouveau riche couple:

“… bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new … they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby.”

Our Mutual Friend, chapter 2.

They give excellent dinners .. or new people wouldn’t go!

Dickens doesn’t spend much time describing what is eaten at these dinners – he is more interested in the table decorations, a display of conspicuous consumption:


The great looking-glass above the sideboard, reflects the table and the company. Reflects the new Veneering crest in gold and eke in silver, frosted and also thawed, a camel of all work. … and a caravan of camels take charge of the fruits and flowers and candles, and kneel down to be loaded with salt.

Our Mutual Friend, chapter 2.

The Veneering Dinner, by Sol Eytinge, Jr. Scanned image and text by Philip V Allingham.

Lady Tippins is on the left behind one of the camels; the man in the background with the champagne bottle is probably the Analytical Chemist (the butler)!

Champagne was served with most courses after a sherry. The culinary similes continue: Lady Tippins, a regular visitor to these dinners, has ‘an immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon’ (Our Mutual Friend, chapter2).

In Our Mutual Friend we are even given an idea of what might appear in a small Victorian kitchen. The solicitor Eugene Wrayburn and his friend Mortimer Lightwood have taken new offices together and the former takes Mortimer on a tour of ‘This very complete little kitchen of ours’ (chapter 6).

‘See!’ said Eugene, ’miniature flour-barrel, rolling-pin, spice-box, shelf of brown jars, chopping-board, coffee-mill, dresser elegantly furnished with crockery, saucepans and pans, roasting jack, a charming kettle, an armoury of dish-covers. …

In his exploration of food and drink, mealtimes, household management, there is often unwitting testimony to the changing habits of the different classes. He and Catherine initially would have served meals at their dinner parties à la française where all the main courses are displayed on the dining table. He would surely have relished playing mine host, carving the joint, serving his guests.

However in 1843, Catherine wrote to a friend that the dinner is in ‘the new fashion’. This was service à la russe where food was served to guests in courses – often ensuring much hotter meals but necessitating more servants and tableware.

Dickens even saw training in domestic skills as a way out for homeless women; he worked with Angela Burdett-Coutts to set up a home, Urania Cottage, for ‘fallen women’ where they were taught household skills including needlework and cookery. He took an active interest in the running of the project, personally interviewing all the applicants.

Dickens despite his fame and wealth clearly had not forgotten those ‘in misery and despair’ (letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts, 1846). The experience of childhood poverty and the ignominy of working in the blacking factory seem never to have left him.

Here, from Dinner with Dickens, by Pen Vogler, is a recipe Dickens would surely have enjoyed.

Mutton Stuffed with Oysters

SERVES 6-8

2 tablespoons freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 dessertspoon freshly chopped thyme leaves

1 dessertspoon freshly chopped savoury

2 hard-boiled egg yolks

6 oysters, cleaned, shucked, and chopped, reserving the liquor, or 6 finely chopped anchovies

3 garlic cloves, minced (I think garlic is better than onion in this dish, but if you prefer to follow Catherine, use one very finely chopped shallot)

leg of mutton (or lamb if you cannot find mutton), approx. 5½-6¾ lb/2.5-3kg

2 teaspoons all-purpose/plain flour

1¼ cups/300ml lamb or chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C/Gas 7. Chop the herbs as finely as possible – a meat cleaver is useful for this. Bind them together with the egg yolks, oysters (or anchovies), and garlic (or shallot). Using a sharp knife, make about 6 indentations in the fleshy part of the leg of mutton (or lamb) and push in the mixture. If you make the indentations at a slight angle, you can pull the fat back over the cut. Place the meat in a roasting pan and roast in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 325°F/160°C/Gas 3. Baste the joint with the fat and juices in the pan and continue roasting for 15-20 minutes per 1 lb/450g. When the meat is done, remove it from the oven, cover with foil, and let it rest for 15-20 minutes. Make the gravy by mixing the flour with the fat in the roasting dish over a low heat, and slowly adding the stock and the oyster liquor. Skim the fat off the gravy (putting it in the freezer helps it coagulate on the top) and serve as it is, or add to the Piquant Sauce ingredients.

Piquant Sauce

1 shallot, finely chopped

a little oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped gherkins

1 tablespoon finely chopped capers

4 tablespoons good red wine vinegar

1 anchovy fillet, pounded

Sweat the shallot in the oil until it softens, then add the gherkins, capers, and vinegar. Simmer for 4 minutes. Make gravy from the joint, add the oyster liquor (to make about 1¼ cups/300ml), the shallot mixture, and the pounded anchovy. Simmer for a few minutes before serving in a gravy boat.

Bibliography

Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield, Great Expectations.

What Shall We have for Dinner? by Lady Maria Clutterbuck [Catherine Dickens] (Bradbury & Evans, 1852).

Dinner with Dickens: Recipes inspired by the life and work of Charles Dickens, by Pen Vogler (CICO, 2017).

‘Dinner Is the Great Trial: Sociability and Service à la Russe in the Long Nineteenth Century,’ by Graham Harding, European Journal of Food Drink and Society: Vol 1: Iss 1, Article 4 (2021).

2 thoughts on “Dickens and More Wittles

  1. This is fascinating background and would be so even if it didn’t throw such light on Dickens’s emotions about food. The sheer welter of different dishes makes one wonder where the diners put it all! It’s like reading a Georgette Heyer novel, where one course consists of about six dishes of varied fish, meat and game, then it is “removed” with another similar one that might have a pupton of fruit and a cheesecake. There must have been some well-fed servants which is a comfort to us in these days of trying to avoid conspicuous consumption. I wish an enterprising publisher would reprint “Maria Clutterbuck.”

    • I agree – the meals seem gargantuan by today’s standards! Gout and apoplexy must have been rife.
      With regards to “What Shall We have for Dinner?” – it is possible to get a copy. I found one on on World of Books. It is slightly disappointing: it is really a list of menus, or bills of fare as she termed them, and recipes, with no commentary on the dinner parties she gave or any direct insight into her life with Dickens.
      The introduction was written by Charles Dickens posing as Maria Clutterbuck, reminiscing about her deceased husband Sir Jonas Clutterbuck.
      The Guardian published an interesting article about Catherine Dickens and her book in 2011 (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/16/rereading-charles-dickens-dinner)
      Sue

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