friday feast: celebrating dickens with a poem, a recipe, and a quiz

“There’s nothing better than a good friend, except a good friend with chocolate.” ~ Linda Grayson, The Pickwick Papers (1837). 


        Daguerreotype by Jeremiah Gurney (circa 1867-68).

Sunday, February 7th, is Charles Dickens’s 198th birthday!!

He’s definitely a man after my own heart. Besides his well-known proclivity for character description, here was a man who filled every one of his novels with luscious, mouth-watering, decidedly poetic descriptions of food, glorious food. Food for Dickens was not only a celebration of life, but also a social and economic statement, and yes, another means of defining character.


Illo from Oliver Twist by J. Mahoney (1857?), from jmsdson’s photostream.

Who can forget little Oliver Twist, brave enough to utter the words, “Please sir, I want some more”? Or Christmas dinner at the Cratchits’: “There never was such a goose. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.” Or what about the tragic wedding breakfast that never was (but lasted decades) in Great Expectations:


Miss Havisham by Steering for North.

The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centerpiece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it.

Poor Miss Havisham! She wins the prize for the stalest, most unpalatable breakfast in all of literature. Speaking of breakfast, Dickens mentioned it more than any other meal in his novels. While he might casually mention luncheon, afternoon tea, and supper, breakfast was often described in elaborate, loving detail. Of course, he also liked a menacing breakfast every now and then, like the one consumed by Mr. Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop:

He ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again.

I wonder who his dentist was. ☺

But today’s Poetry Friday, and we need a poem. One never hears too much about Dickens’s poetry, perhaps because he, himself, eschewed “serious poetry.” But he did write a number of song lyrics, satirical, humorous and sentimental ballads, hymns, prologues, even a comic operetta called, “The Village Coquettes” (1836).


            Original cover when first issued as a 20-part series in 1836 by
Chapman & Hall.

Most of his verses are sprinkled throughout his earlier dramatic works, like the one I’m sharing today. It’s only fitting to cite, The Pickwick Papers (1837), his first novel, since it was the one that brought him immediate and lasting fame. “The Ivy Green” is a verse recited by the old Dingley Dell clergyman at the Card Party in Chapter 6. Its piano accompaniment was composed by Dickens’s brother-in-law, Henry Burnett. This is perhaps Dickens’s most well-known song, and of course, I like the food metaphor.

THE IVY GREEN
by Charles Dickens

Oh, a dainty plant is the Ivy green,
That creepeth o’er ruins old!
Of right choice food are his meals, I ween,
In his cell so lone and cold.
The wall must be crumbled, the stone decayed,
To pleasure his dainty whim:
And the mouldering dust that years have made
Is a merry meal for him.
Creeping where no life is seen,
A rare plant is the Ivy Green.

Fast he stealeth on, though he wears no wings,
And a staunch old heart has he.
How closely he twineth, how tight he clings,
To his friend the huge Oak Tree!
And slily he traileth along the ground,
And his leaves he gently waves,
As he joyously hugs and crawleth round
The rich mould of dead man’s graves.
Creeping where grim death has been,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

Whole ages have fled and their works decayed,
And nations have scattered been;
But the stout old Ivy shall never fade,
From its hale and hearty green.
The brave old plant, in its lonely days,
Shall fatten upon the past:
For the stateliest building man can raise,
Is the Ivy’s food at last.
Creeping on, where time has been,
A rare old plant is the Ivy green.

By the by, there are 35 breakfasts, 32 dinners, 10 luncheons, and 249 references to drink (not all of them alcoholic), in The Pickwick Papers. Lest the author’s personal life and works get confused, it is said Dickens himself (especially in later life) was a light eater, and delighted more in writing about food than actually consuming large quantities of it.


Gad’s Hill Place, Dickens’s country estate near Rochester, Kent, where he lived from 1857 until his death. He first saw the house when he was 9, and dreamed ever after of owning it. Today, it houses a school. (photo by highamvillage.)

So now, let’s toast the man with his own punch recipe. This comes from The Charles Dickens Cookbook by Brenda Marshall (1980), and was likely the punch Mr. Micawber regaled young Davy Copperfield with — makes sense, since Mr. Micawber was based on Dickens’s own father, and David was the character with whom Dickens most closely identified. First the Copperfield quote from Chapter 28 mentioning the punch:

To divert his thoughts from a melancholy subject, I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

Best have the fire marshall on hand if attempting this recipe:

photo by Cehunter1.

Peel into a very common basin (which may be broken in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double handful of lump sugar (good measure [although Dickens had rather small hands]), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass of good old brandy — if it be not a large claret glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. Let it burn three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again.

At this crisis (having skimmed off the lemon pips with a spoon) you may taste. If not sweet enough, add sugar to your liking, but observe that it will be a little sweeter presently. Pour the whole into a jug, tie a leather or coarse cloth over the top, so as to exclude the air completely, and stand it in a hot oven for ten minutes, or on a hot stove one quarter of an hour. Keep it until it comes to table in a warm place near the fire, but not too hot. If it be intended to stand three or four hours, take half the lemon peel out, or it will acquire a bitter taste. The same punch allowed to grow cool by degrees, and then iced, is delicious.

Have no fear, I haven’t forgotten the chocolate from my opening quote:


Chocolate Chip Mint Cupcake by poopoorama.

While you’re munching on that, try this little quiz to see if you can correctly identify first lines from 10 Dickens novels. I am ashamed to admit I only got 7 out of 10 correct. I was a bad English major who did not read Edwin Drood, Our Mutual Friend, or Dombey and Son.


           “The Fat Boy Awake,” by Harold Copping (1924).
(Scanned by Philip V. Allingham.)

Leaving you with Joe the Fat Boy, my favorite character in The Pickwick Papers. He was a glutton, and allegedly suffered from a medical condition now called Pickwickian Syndrome (aka, obesity hypoventilation syndrome). Severely overweight people may have low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels in the blood, which leads to sleep apnea, and constant sleepiness during the day. I don’t advocate obesity by any means, but I’ve harboured a special fondness for Joe ever since I bought this Royal Doulton figurine in Rochester, England:


          Sweet, isn’t he?

When we have people over to dinner, I often award the “Fat Boy” to the guest who ate the most. It’s amazing how most of them deny it.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens! *raises a glass of punch*

The Poetry Friday Roundup is being hosted by Mary Ann at Great Kid Books.


“Dickens’ Dream” by R.W. Buss.

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.

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