Cooking the books

For Austen, meals were a framework for society. For Dickens, they were a sign of love. Simon Fanshawe chews over food in a few classic books – and offers some literary recipes

For Austen, meals were a framework for society. For Dickens, they were a sign of love. Simon Fanshawe chews over food in a few classic books – and offers some literary recipes

Patrick O’Brian
Food for work

The myth about food at sea is that it was disgusting. This was propagated mainly by one-legged, scurvy-infested, disgruntled ex-sailors from the era of the Napoleonic wars like the notorious Jack Nastyface. The clue, though, is in their disgruntlement. They hated the navy. The wider truth, which you find in the novels of Patrick O’Brian, is that the food had to be pretty good to keep the sailors working. His books celebrate, over many meals and adventures, the rather sexy intensity of the friendship between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the Starsky and Hutch of the Georgian Navy, just recreated by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany in the movie Master and Commander.

Three square meals was what the men got – “square” because the plates were – and by the 1790s they were eating 3,500 calories a day. The books have a genuine ring of authenticity, which extends to the food. They are peppered with references to bizarrely named dishes such as: Little Balls of Tripe a Man Might Eat For Ever, Cold Crubeens, Figgy-Dowdy and so on. Boiled Baby is often referred to in the books.

Boiled baby: serves four

4oz plain flour, 2oz suet, lots of nutmeg, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, a handful of lexia raisins (the really big ones you can get in Waitrose), enough milk to bind. Mix the lot and put it in a pudding bowl. Put a cloth over the top and tie it tightly with string around the lip of the bowl. Boil for two hours – and voila! Your baby!

Jane Austen
Food for society

“Much was said and much was ate,” Jane says in Mansfield Park. Food is everywhere in her books. It was the age in which British food was at the top of its game. And she used it mercilessly as a metaphor. When Elizabeth first visits Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice she sees a pyramid of fruit, which, the critics always remind us, signifies the social pyramid she will be ascending by marrying Darcy and the ripeness of their love. Food is the framework for society. It punctuates their days with opportunities for flirtation.

White soup, mutton with anchovies and oysters feature in Mansfield Park, while syllabub was typical of the time. Mutton is everywhere in the 19th century but I can’t see the point in eating it if you can have beautiful lamb. It is much more gamey, shredded in texture and, however well cooked, unappetising. Syllabub, however, is another thing. You can make it with a wonderful kitchen gadget known as a wooden cow, first described by Dr Hales, the canon of Winchester Cathedral, in 1758. It is a small bellows with a short length of copper pipe attached and to that fixed a perforated tin cube. But you can use a clean bicycle pump, if you don’t have a wooden cow – anything that will create the bubbles.

Syllabub: serves four

The syllabub mixture is easy. Combine single cream (a pint) , juice of a lemon, some sugar (2oz) and as much alcohol as you like and the cream will take – white wine, marsala, brandy, whatever. When you pump the bellows in the mixture you make a froth of bubbles. Lift them off with a spoon and put them into a flat sieve with a wooden surround. Pump, spoon, pump, spoon. It takes forever. Remember: the key is to create the bubbles. Then leave them to drain in the sieve over night. You will be left with solid bubbles. Float spoonfuls of it on to marsala wine in a syllabub glass, sprinkle with chopped almonds.

Charles Dickens
Food for love

When his father was condemned to the debtor’s prison at Marshalsea in 1824, the 12-year-old Charles was sent to work in a blacking factory for six shillings a week. He hated it. Food ran low. And his spirits ran lower. There is perhaps a little self-pity in all of this. But it has given us the rich counterpoints of moral value that food has in his work. The scrappy meal that Pip in Great Expectations delivers with trembling respect to the escaped convict Magwitch is a never forgotten sign of love. It is such a contrast with the empty luxury of the Veneerings, the pomposity and show of meals at the Dombeys’ and such a compliment to that great love feast, the Cratchits’ Christmas meal, which is the classic Victorian Christmas.

Not many people know about the cookbook that Dickens wrote with his wife, Catherine. What Shall We Have For Dinner was published under the pseudonym of Lady Maria Clutterbuck. There are few recipes in it, but it is more a planner of tasty menus designed to enable a wife to keep her errant husband at home.

Cheesecake is an element from a simple menu on page 16: A dinner for four to five persons – fried sole, shrimp sauce, mutton cutlets, salad, mashed and brown potatoes, cheesecake, macaroni.

Cheesecake: serves four

There is no recipe for cheesecake in the Dickens’ book, so food historian Valerie Mars suggests one from William Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle, first published 1817. You are supposed to get unpasteurised milk, buy rennet (which is the enzyme chymosin that usually comes from the stomach of slaughtered newborn calves) and make your own curd cheese. It is much easier with a deli and a blender. Take 10oz of curd cheese (drained), melt 2oz butter (don’t let it separate) and mix with 2oz sugar, nutmeg, some brandy (but don’t make it sloppy) and two egg yolks. Whizz the whole thing up. Stir in a handful of currants and grated lemon rind. Line a baking tin with puff pastry – about quarter of an inch thick – butter it, spoon in the mixture, and bake for 20 minutes.

James Joyce
Food for organs

Leopold Bloom cooks a kidney for Molly Bloom’s breakfast. Food is not a literary tool for Joyce. Sex, farting and defecation get more emphasis in Ulysses. But Leopold Bloom, the central character, “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls… Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys, which gave to his palate a tang of faintly scented urine”. He actually buys a pork kidney – strange strange for a Jew. And then, his mind probably diverted by his unrejoindered desire for his wife, he burns it. Burned kidneys are disgusting. And yes, they smell of urine. Ugh. So Richard Corrigan of Lindsay House suggests a veal kidney instead.

Cooked veal kidney: serves two to three

Cook the veal kidney in its own fat: heat a pan, pop it in, baste constantly, take care not to over cook it. Just a few minutes. It is delicate. Take it off the heat, set aside for several minutes and let the juices drain away. Carve it and eat with relish but, like Leopold Bloom, with a certain lower-middle-class sense of self-disgust. Pour over harissa (a spicy tomato sauce) and serve with mash and cabbage.

Ian Fleming
Food for seduction

James Bond lived and played just as Britain tipped into an age of plenty. As Malcolm Muggeridge said: “Fleming’s squalid aspirations and dream fantasies happened to coincide with a whole generation’s. He touched a nerve. The inglorious appetites for speed at the touch of a foot on the accelerator and for sex at the touch of a hand on the flesh, found expression in his books. We live in the Century of the Common Bond, and Fleming created him.” And what straight man doesn’t still have ridiculous dreams of seduction à la 007?

Fleming uses food and drink as the central metaphor of this luxury of youth and sophistication. In Moonraker, Bond and M share asparagus (in season), hollandaise, lamb cutlets (again in season), peas, new potatoes, and a plain slice of pineapple (the height of exotic sophistication in the late 50s). All of this is accompanied by Scottish smoked salmon.

However there is one actual recipe from one of Fleming’s short stories: scrambled eggs “James Bond”. So to adapt Paul Johnson, “the appeal of James Bond was sex snobbery, sadism”… and scrambled eggs.

Scrambled eggs: serves four “individualists”

Take 12 fresh eggs, salt and pepper and 5-6oz fresh butter. Beat eggs with a fork and season well. Melt 4oz of the butter in a pan, add the eggs and cook over a low heat, whisking continuously. While the eggs are slightly more moist than you would wish for eating, remove pan from heat, add the rest of the butter and continue whisking for a minute, adding finely chopped chives or herbs. Serve on hot buttered toast in individual copper dishes (for appearance only) with pink Taittinger and low music.

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