Foods: Dickens’ Great Expectations

My featured image surly points to my curiosity in many subjects. I agree with Horace Mann, “Every addition to knowledge is an addition to human power!” I took this picture of the limestone etching on the front of a building. I think the drive to add to our knowledge begins with curiosity. So, while my blog posts may appear random, they do reflect my curiosity. Today is one of those random interests of mine.

The Foods in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectation

As an English and Geography major, I tend toward the writings of Dickens, Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and Chaim Potok, when I’m reading great writers. For some reason, the foods in their books intrigued me. Once I invited a friend to dine with us. She replied, “I don’t know. What are you reading?” She remembered that I like to cook the foods in the books I read. For this entry, I offer something I wrote about foods in Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Charles Dickens describes the meal scenes in Great Expectations in sensual and appealing ways. Whether Pip and Joe Gargery sit down to light meal, called tea, consisting of bread, butter and a mug of tea or relatives gather around Mrs. Joe’s Christmas table to consume a spread of meats, sweet and savory pies, each food stuff carries with it custom and innovation. Food served in Pip’s’ era, 1860s Britain, possessed different qualities specific to each region of England. The story takes place in Kent, London, and Rochester and near the tributaries of the Thames River (Hunt vii), and each meal or food scene invites the reader into Pip’s world with regional flavors and traditional presentations.

The first meal encountered in Great Expectations finds the main character, Pip, and his gentle brother-in-law, Joe Gargery, a blacksmith, in the kitchen watching Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, preparing their afternoon tea (Dickens 9). According to Roz Denny, afternoon tea, “a very British meal,” started as a fashion begun by the Duchess of Bedford in 1840.  Since the Duchess became hungry between lunch, served at midday, and dinner, served around 8:00 p.m., she demanded a small meal around 4:00 p.m.  Tea for the rich usually consisted of brewed tea, plates of sliced bread and butter; cucumber, egg or tomato sandwiches; buttered scones with jam; and pieces of sponge cake or fruitcake (31).  Similar to Denny’s description, but more like the afternoon tea of the poor, Pip and Joe enjoy only bread and butter with their brewed tea.  The description of the bread served in the Gargery household carries tradition of its own as well.

Pip observes Mrs. Joe, known for her foul temper, serving his and Joe’s afternoon tea.  He notes that her trenchant way of cutting his and Joe’s bread-and-butter never varies:

First, with her left hand she jammed the loaf hard and fast against her impregnable bib. Then she took some butter (not too much) on a knife and spread it on the loaf, in an apothecary kind of way, as if she were making a plaster, using both sides of the knife with a slapping dexterity. (Dickens 9)

Visualizing Mrs. Joe’s use of her bib to steady the bread while she cuts it, as opposed to using a cutting board, calls to mind images of a rather large loaf.  In his book, The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson explains many varieties of bread loaf shapes of the nineteenth century.  Mrs. Gargery’s sounds like the Coburg or the cob.  Davidson describes the cob as a popular English crusty loaf made from plain white dough.  Round in shape, since bakers or “housewives” did not bake bread in a pan, the cob has a plain, uncut (no slashes like French or sourdough loaves) crust.  Cob loaves were formerly small and round and baked with coarse flour.  The name Coburg had just come into use during Mrs. Joe’s time possibly introduced by a German baker who settled in London.  The loaves became larger and more substantial when baked by women in the country.  A loaf of bread served by a country housewife, like Mrs. Joe Gargery, measured about 12 to 14 inches in diameter and four to six inches in height (Davidson 98).  Hence Mrs. Joe’s ability, or necessity, of jamming the loaf into her bib, and, Pip says,  “sawing a very thick round off the loaf: which she finally, before separating from the loaf, hewed into two halves, of which Joe got one, and I the other” (Dickens 9).  In Dickens’ day, more professional bread makers worked to provide bread to those living in the city.  Country women baked their own bread. Bread’s importance lay in its energy value for food to hard working lower and middle class people because it provided protein, iron, nicotinic acid and vitamin B1 (Toussaint-Samat 237). It consisted of baked dough made of wheat flour, water, and yeast.  After combining the three components, the baker mixes then kneads the dough to incorporate air into the dough.  The flour ferments producing bubbles of carbonic gas, which raise the dough. In the heat of the oven, the bread increases in volume, and forms a firm crust once the evaporation of the water in the dough stops (Toussaint-Samat 239).  

Partaking of bread-and-butter appears in a few other scenes of Great Expectations.  The best scene involving bread and butter shows Pip, well after settling in London, at the home of John Wemmick.  Wemmick’s fiancée, Miss Skiffins, engages in a Sunday ritual with the Aged Parent to prepare tea. Pip states that the “Aged P” prepared a haystack of buttered toast, which left them “warm and greasy after it” (Dickens 327). The scene represents Pip in a happy time, but skipping back before the move to London, shortly after Pip learns of his call to visit the wealthy recluse, Miss Havisham, he first heads to Uncle Pumblechook’s living quarters in the High Street of the market town.  The next morning, before going to Miss Havisham’s, Pip wakes up to a breakfast consisting of a mug of tea (with watered-down milk) and haunch of bread-and-butter, which he refers to as a penitent’s meal because of the butter’s scarcity in relation to the amount of bread presented.  Soon after breakfast, Pip meets Miss Havisham and her ward, Estella, who soon becomes his life-long love.  After playing cards with Estella and being the victim of her many insults centered on his coarseness, Pip’s day at Satis House ends with his receiving a small meal of bread, cold meat (meat’s first appearance) and a mug of beer, which he eats while he sits alone in the yard like a “dog in disgrace” (Dickens 66). Having meat during the week proves Miss Havisham’s wealth (Tannahill 207).  On the last Saturday before embarking to London and beginning his journey of becoming a “gentleman,” one of Pip’s final suppers at Joe Gargery’s forge consists of bread-and-cheese and beer (Dickens 159).  Beer, a cereal beverage, contains protein, and people with limited incomes favored it as a drink in Dickens’ era because of its low cost and nutritious value (Tannahill 330). Cheese also served the same purpose in terms of being healthful and relatively inexpensive (Tannahill 208).

In the thirteenth-century, Britons relied on sheep to supply their dairy products.  Three hundred years later, cows became the main source for what the English called, white meats, claiming cow’s milk to be more versatile than sheep’s (Tannahill 208).  In the nineteenth-century, Britain’s cheeses continued to come from cow’s milk.  Professional cheese makers or country housewives, like Mrs. Joe, produced hard cheeses made in large cylinder shapes, called truckles, from which triangular wedges were cut (Denny 27). The cheese ripening process requires bacteria, yeasts, and molds.  The rind of the cheese holds much of the bacteria necessary for aging.  Unlike modern consumers of cheese, the British of Pip’s time ate the whole cheese, rind and all (Davidson 160).  Recall Pip’s stealing the rind of cheese for the shackled convict out on the marshes near the churchyard (Dickens 12).   Abel Magwitch ate the cheese rind just as the rotund Uncle Pumblechook greedily ate his Christmas dinner at Gargery’s home, only more thankfully (Dickens 13).

The grandest meal in Great Expectations certainly must be the Christmas dinner early in Pip’s story.  Pip illustrates Mrs. Joe’s preparation of the house for Christmas dinner:

Mrs. Joe put clean white curtains up, and tacked a new flowered-flounce across the wide chimney to replace the old one, and uncovered the little state parlor across the passage, which was never uncovered at any other time, but passes the rest of the year in a cool haze of silver paper, which even extended to the four little white crockery poodles in the mantelshelf. (Dickens 220)

In a chapter entitled, “A Victorian Christmas,” the editors of The Pageantry of Christmas recall Christmas in England during the reign of Queen Victoria as a “time stirred up by a great hustle and bustle for ordinary folks preparing a bountiful holiday” (74).  The serious eating began about 1:00 p.m. with an elaborate tea at 5 o’clock (Fillmore 76).  The meal laid out on the table by Mrs. Joe differs little from that described in Pageantry only Pip’s sister adds a bit more: “leg of pickled pork with greens, a pair of roast stuffed fowls, a handsome mince pie, a beautiful, round, compact pork pie, and the pudding”.  Mrs. Joe put the pudding on to boil the day before, and Pip had to stir it on Christmas Eve “with a copper-stick, from seven to eight by the Dutch clock” (Dickens 12).  Mrs. Joe presents each course with a touch of pomp and circumstance beginning with the leg of pickled pork and the greens (Dickens 22).

     Mrs. Joe’s leg of pickled pork comes from a long tradition of preserving meat, an essential process because of a lack of refrigeration to keep it bacteria free. Preservation by salt and/or brine curing (pickling) yields the best results (Tannahill 210).  TheWorld Atlas of Food notes that the British had not acquired an art of resourceful pork cooking, so pickling seemed to work best in the nineteenth century (Hale 82). Pip’s sister displays her wealth and motivation with a no-expenses-spared dinner for her honored guests because pickling meat requires extra money and time.  A scarcity of salt and spices increases the meat’s cost.  Spices such as peppercorns and cloves add extra expense to the already expensive meat, so wives have to be mindful not to waste precious salt and spices on poor cuts of meat such as tough, stringy mutton, hence the saying, “That sheep’s not worth his salt” (Tannahill 212).  The extra time involved in pickling meat includes pounding and smashing the large, lumpy salt, (Tannahill 210) and days of planning, because the curing process in pickling takes two to five days, and the spiced brine must be changed daily to prevent spoilage (Kerr 25).  Mrs. Joe serves the pickled pork and greens as the first course along with the roast stuffed fowl (Dickens 22).

     In the Literary Gourmet, Linda Wolfe names roast goose as the favorite fowl served on the Victorian Christmas table (151).  The eating of goose on ritual occasions or seasonal feast days comes to Western Europe directly from the Celts and Germanic peoples (Toussaint-Samat 337).  Mrs. Joe, likely, offers her family and guests a goose that she first rubbed with butter, flour and salt then browned in hot grease to seal the juices in before roasting (Wolfe 152).  Recall Pip and Joe warming themselves at the chimney corner in the kitchen (Dickens 7).  The chimney in a wooden country house, like the Gargery’s, rose above the roof from the kitchen where women of the era cooked their meals.  Families gathered in the kitchen for its warmth as well.  Mrs. Joe probably roasted her Christmas fowl before a brisk fire without the use a pan, but rather something like a large skewer, and she had to baste the bird often before its own juices began to flow (Wolfe 152). Like other women in her region of southeast England, around Kent, Mrs. Joe roasted the fowl with stuffing inside made of the goose’s liver, breadcrumbs, onions, sage, butter, egg yolk, salt and pepper (Wolfe 153). After Mrs. Joe’s meat courses, her diners still have more than half of the whole meal left to consume, and next comes the mince pie.

 Pip stole mincemeat from a jar in the pantry (Dickens 15).  Mrs. Joe had already made the “handsome mince pie”, so she did not notice any missing (Dickens 22).  Mincemeat has its origins in thirteenth century England when the aristocracy kept large amounts of dried fruits in their larders because varying climate made the storage of fresh fruit impossible.  In addition to the variety it added, dried fruits served to disguise meat past its prime. Mrs. Joe likely served it because of tradition, and almost everybody in England continues to eat mince pies at Christmas, presently (Hale 86).  The World Atlas of Food cites “Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management of 1856-1861” as having the original mincemeat recipe, which bakers continue to use today.  It includes raisins, currants, lean rump steak, beef suet, sugar, candied citron peel, lemon peel, orange peel, nutmeg, apples and brandy all mixed and stored in glass jars to mature for about two weeks (87). The Kerr Home Canning and Freezing book written more than a century later offers the same basic recipe as well (25). However, Kerr promotes the use of a pressure canner, 10 pounds of pressure for 90 minutes. I have found this much too long as the juices tend to flow out of the jars, so I have opted to freezing my annual mince made from my Native American Grandmother’s recipe.  Mincemeat’s function, besides serving as a sweet treat, lay in its relatively long shelf life, essential in not having adequate refrigeration (Davidson 507).  At Pip’s Christmas dinner, the mince pie came just before the “savory pork pie”.

Minced meat continues to be one of my all time favorite luxuries. Take a look at one of my blog entries two years ago with history and a recipe found here: https://peopleandcultures.blog/2018/08/09/history-of-mince-pie-and-a-recipe/

Before Mrs. Joe serves her next to the last item on the menu, she coyly teases her guests, Mr. Wopsle and the Hubbles, with the portly Uncle Pumblechook’s gift of a pork pie.  Lucky for Pip, the teasing delays his sister’s discovery of the missing pie.  Just as Mrs. Joe is about to discover the missing pie, soldiers, looking for the blacksmith to construct leg irons, interrupt the grand dinner.  Thankful at the interruption, Pip thinks of the convict out on the marshes hungrily consuming the pie (Dickens 30).  The British pork pie originates from a medieval tradition, but the practice has changed little in modern times.  Fresh pork seasoned with salt, pepper and lots of sage goes into a hot watercrust pastry case made with boiling salted water, flour and lard heavily kneaded for strength.  The pie, baked in a three-pint basin, measures about eight inches in diameter and four inches high.  When the pie finishes baking, the baker pours rich stock from the trimmings through a hole with a funnel.  The stock congeals when the pie cools.  Pip’s convict enjoys the pork pie cold just as anyone in Britain would eat it (Davidson 624).  Magwitch does exonerate Pip’s thievery, as he is being led to the prison ship, by claiming to have stolen the “wittles” himself. Magwitch offers this gesture to honor Pip for his generosity.  Sadly, for Mrs. Joe, the soldiers’ interruption did overshadow her presentation of the final item on the feast menu: the pudding.

The Pageantry of Christmas illustrates a scene of “Plump Molly Dumpling,” as the epitome of a chubby Victorian housewife plunging her Christmas pudding, cradled in a large white bag, into boiling water (75).  Like Molly Dumpling, Mrs. Joe uses a pudding cloth to hold the pudding while it cooks in a boiling liquor bath.  Her predecessors had to use the stomach or entrails of a sheep or pig to hold the pudding while it cooked, similar to Scottish Haggis, which is not sweet.  The guts were only available at the time of the animal’s slaughter, which did not necessarily coincide with Christmas (Wilson 283). The Christmas pudding recipe dates back hundreds of years before Mrs. Joe put hers on the table.  The recipe varies from region to region with base ingredients that do not change: breadcrumbs, sugar, rich dried fruits, nuts, spices and suet (Hale 87).  Pudding sounds similar to mincemeat without the meat but with flour. Roz Denny notes that most cooks begin their puddings six weeks before Christmas for thorough mingling of the ingredients’ flavors (34).  Mrs. Joe may have rushed her pudding only beginning it the day before (Dickens 12), but Dickens relates the scene with lively beauty.

The author describes the meals in Great Expectations in ways that conjure visions of happiness and grief, and they invite questions about their origins.  Pip and Joe’s humble teas, served by the bitter Mrs. Joe, date back twenty years before their time as a remedy to quell hunger between the long hours of lunch and dinner. Menu items of the teas reflect the household incomes and range from only tea-and-bread to elaborate menus including sweet cakes, scones, butter, jam, and sandwiches. Pip’s teas mostly consist of bread-and-butter with a mug of tea, but when he has tea at Miss Havisham’s, he receives cold meat, a sign of the recluse’s wealth. The shape of Mrs. Joe’s bread loaf, the Coburg, hints at her place of regional residence, a southeast England countryside, and cheese and dairy products provide vital protein, as a white meat, to Pip’s diet even though he must consume his milk watered-down.  The scene with the most tradition, pomp and circumstance shows Mrs. Joe presenting a Christmas meal to friends and family. The meal demonstrates a bountiful household graced with a clever and hardworking mistress. 

Necessity-becomes-tradition describes each item on the Christmas menu. Pickling pork gives it a longer shelf life at the same time imparting flavor to an otherwise mild meat. Sweet dried fruits disguise spoiling meat while providing tastes to satisfy the sweet tooth, and the fruity mass of the Christmas pudding gives everyone at the table something to anticipate.  Pip’s world can be beautiful at times thanks to the delicious meal scenes. 

Next time you read a book, if it features food, try creating the recipe. It may be fun. Also, I have a works cited list if you’re curious. Thank you for reading.

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