Last updated on August 11th, 2020
The first thing you need to do when you enter the Charles Dickens Museum is stop. Just pause for a moment. Dickens actually lived in this Georgian house at 48 Doughty Street in Holborn. He walked these halls, instructed his servants, arranged his furniture (rather fanatically, it seems), raised three of his ten children, entertained friends and family in the Withdrawing Room and this is where he actually quilled Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. Just take that in for a moment before you press on and discover the delights of this house where one of the world’s greatest writers lived. This is also where he and his wife, Catherine, both great foodies, hosted some legendary dinner parties. And just in time for Christmas, the Dickens Museum explores the couple’s relationship with all things culinary in Food Glorious Food: Dinner with Dickens.
Dickens loved his food, but he had an uncomfortable relationship with it. After all, he knew all about hunger. When his father John Dickens went to debtor’s prison in 1824, a 12 year-old Charles was forced to fend for himself by working in a blacking factory. It’s an episode in his life which would forever cause him anxiety. Hunger is a subject which looms in all his stories, most famously in Oliver Twist with one of the writer’s most memorable quotes: “Please sir, I want some more.”
Fast forward to 1837, and Dickens’ fame was already on the ascendant. Catherine, the domestic goddess, wrote her own recipe book, What Shall we Have for Dinner, Satisfactorily Answered by Numerous Bills of Fare for from Two to Eighteen Persons. Known for her culinary prowess, she would dish up several puddings in a single seating: Cabinet Puddings (sponge cake and dried fruit). Punch jelly, Charlotte Russse and Italian Cream, one of her son Charley’s favourites.
At Doughty Street, dinner would have been served in the old style where all dishes were served at once, as opposed to the more fashionable way of dining à la Russe, where dishes were brought out as courses. Husband and wife were regularly entertaining the likes of William Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Carlyle and John Forster, his biographer and lifetime friend with super plus-size dinners. Dickens loved a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters, roly-poly jam pudding and he was a toasted cheese devotee, frequently consumed at the end of his supper.
“…no man could possibly survive the consumption of such frequent toasted cheese” Charley Dickens, ‘Reminiscences of My Father.’
When Dickens moved into Doughty Street, he employed a cook, a housemaid, a nursemaid and a manservant. Upstairs was the picture of domestic bliss, whilst the staff would be toiling and sweltering in the basement rooms to cater for the large and frequent dinner parties.
Catherine kept her tea and china porcelain in this room. After-dinner tea was common in the Georgian and Victorian household. It wasn’t until the mid-1840s that afternoon tea was invented, thanks to the Duchess of Bedford’s grumbly tummy which led her to request sandwiches and cake mid-afternoon.
The Lancet, an 1849 journal found 49 bread samples were contaminated with sulphate of lime and alum. Tea leaves might be degraded with black lead, used for blacking cast-iron stoves, or flour would have a chalky consistency thanks to the addition of Plaster of Paris as an unwelcome ingredient. In a house such as Doughty Street, however, it would be easy to store foods and therefore, reduce the amount of degradation in food stuffs.
Hygiene was a Victorian prerequisite, and one would often have a resident hedgehog, for the purposes of eating cockroaches and earwigs. The Dickens Museum has its own little artful catcher, Bill Spikes. I’m hoping I might bump into him on my next visit.
The Wash House Copper (right) at the Dickens Museum was used for washing clothes as well as for boiling Christmas pudding.
“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding!” A Christmas Carol
British Plum (Christmas) Pudding was a staple on every Christmas lunch table. It was made by greasing a muslin cloth and filled with pottage (porridge) and dried fruit – and not a plum in sight. By 1845, Dickens’s Plum Pudding from A Christmas Carol had been rebaptized Christmas Pudding by celebrity cook, Eliza Acton who we know was a Dickens fan. Et voila – the Christmas Pudding with its sprig of holly was born.
Every 6 of January, the Dickens family would celebrate Catherine and Charley’s birthday in style with a sizable Twelfth Night cake. Favours would be placed in the cake: a bean for the King, a pea for the Queen, a clove for the Knave, and a rag for the Slut (she who is lazy as opposed to a “working” girl). Never mind who won the bean, Dickens was always King.
“Saturday January 6 1838. Our boy’s birth day – one year old. A few people at night – only Foster, the Degexs, John Ross, Mitton, and the Beards beside our families – to twelfth cake and forfeits.” (Charles Dickens diary)
After dinner, guests would gather in the Withdrawing Room around a bowl of punch such as Wassail and Smoking Bishop. Dickens describes his recipe for punch to a friend, recounting “the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rim, and the steam of boiling water,” He was not a fan of the Temperance movement, designed to moderate drinking in the lower classes. He believed rich and poor should be allowed to enjoy a tipple.
Guests and family would play games and listen to song in this room. Popular games included blind man’s buff, snapdragon (eating raisins pulled out of flaming brandy), charades and guessing games such as ‘Yes or No.’ Dickens was a great raconteur and entertainer.
Food Glorious Food was curated by food historian, Pen Vogler, who has written a marvellous book, Dinner with Dickens. Vogler showcases 60 recipes from Dickens’s novels such as David Copperfield’s Soft, Seedy Biscuits and a Dickens favourite, Wassail. (I had to include my Fortnum and Masons footman above, as Mr Dickens was a loyal customer of the shopping emporium).
Here is my humble attempt at Mr Dick’s Gingerbread recipe from Dinner with Dickens. Next week, I will be trying out the Chestnut and Mince Pies.
Food Glorious Food – Dinner with Dickens was on at the Charles Dickens Museum in London until 22 April 2019. More on the museum here.