The nourishing foods of A Christmas Carol.

December 20, 2011 | 
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In the mid-1800′s, Charles Dickens published his novella called A Christmas Carol.  It tells the now-famous story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a grouchy, miserly, and lonely old man living in England, who had no Christmas spirit and who, one Christmas Eve, was visited by four ghosts who attempted to show him the error of his heartless ways.  The story is poetic and heartwarming.

While reading it, I noted with interest the foods that Dickens discussed.  Even though the story is fictional, it is reasonable to conclude that the depiction of food is historically accurate.  The book was written long before the advent of the industrial foods and food-processing methods that are now commonplace.  I can perceive no political or literary motive for fabricating the foods enjoyed then.

Mr. Dickens made several mentions of food in the story.  In one mention, a ghost, named the Ghost of Christmas Past, showed Scrooge a scene from his youth in which his boss, Mr. Fezziwig, threw a Christmas party.  Mr. Fezziwig insisted that everybody in the shop eat, drink, dance, and be merry.  After one particularly lively dance, the author relates that “the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter,” a type of very dark beer.  (p. 47)  Furthermore, “there was cake, and there was negus (a hot drink consisting of wine, sugar, water, lemon juice, and nutmeg), and there was a great piece of cold roast, and there was a great piece of cold boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer.”  (p. 48)

Mid-way through the story, another ghost, named the Ghost of Christmas Present, appeared to Scrooge and made his entrance in an unusual way.  Scrooge was in his home and was startled to find the ghost occupying a small room, surrounded by holly.  “Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreathes of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelve-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, which made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.”  (p. 62)

A little later, the Ghost of Christmas Present was taking Scrooge through a market, and the author describes the foods on display.  “There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, … There were ruddy, brown -faced, broad-girthed Spanish onions, … There were pears and apples, … there were bunches of grapes, … there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, … there were Norfolk biffins (red cooking apples), squab and swarthy.”  (p. 65)  The market also had tea, coffee, raisins, almonds, cinnamon sticks and other spices, candied fruit, figs, and French plums.  (p. 66)  The pleasing aura and aroma of the place must have been like no other.

Later still, the Ghost of Christmas Present took Scrooge into the home of his employee Bob Cratchit.  They observed Mr. Cratchit, his family, and the love that they displayed toward one another, despite being very poor.  The author describes their modest but special Christmas dinner.  “Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked.  Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.  Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family.”  (p. 74)  Later, it was time for “the pudding!  In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered–flushed, but smiling proudly–with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”  (p. 75)

In the end, Scrooge saw the error of his ways.  Upon bestowing on Mr. Cratchit a generous raise, he told him that “we’ll discuss your affairs this afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop.”  (p. 129)  (Bishop is a dish of hot pork seasoned with oranges, sugar, and cloves.)

Some of these foods are similar to those that we enjoy today, and others are different.  But even for those that we still enjoy, one can be sure that the foods that Mr. Dickens describes are far different in character.  Because the story was set in a time well before the industrialization of food, most were grown naturally, grown with attention to quality, brought to market from a nearby grower, often exchanged between grower and consumer with a friendly smile or a respecting handshake, and enjoyed fresh and in-season.  In addition, as was more customary at the time, the foods were prepared in the home with love and care, prepared in a manner consistent with age-old traditions, and enjoyed with the camaraderie of family and friends.

A traditional food system, like that which existed in Mr. Dickens’ time, embodies the Christmas spirit.  It depends and thrives on familiarity and respect between grower and buyer and each’s concern for best interests of the other.  The growers want their customers to be nourished by their food, and the customers want the growers to be successful and happy.  In addition, people in a traditional food culture use the act of eating as an occasion to develop their relationships with those close to them.  A healthy food culture thrives on different types of inter-personal relationships.

In contrast, our modern industrial food system is characterized by the same indifference toward others that Scrooge displayed in the early parts of Mr. Dickens’ story.  In our modern system, food producers and customers don’t know each other and have little regard for the well-being of the other.   Customers have no knowledge of how their food was produced and often have no means of obtaining such knowledge.  The system generates great profit for certain producers but leaves others in poverty.  Consumers often eat their food in front of a television rather than in the company of loved ones.  Unlike traditional food systems of the past, our modern food system thrives on ignorance, anonymity, and disconnectedness.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, our food culture must regain the Christmas spirit.  An essential part of doing so is obtaining a renewed appreciation for the essential role that  human relationships play in a healthy and traditional food system.

 

Source:  A Christmas Carol, 1914 Reprint, by Charles Dickens, The DesignHouse (2009).

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