Today, February 13th …
The first instalment of Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge was released on this day in 1841. One of the main characters was a rather silly, vain, coquettish girl called Dolly Varden, who for some reason particularly captured the imagination of Dickens’ Victorian readers. In gratitude, they bestowed the ultimate compliment on her and gave her name to a variety of everyday things. It will forever be a mystery to me why one of those things was the brake van of a railway train, although a flamboyant beribboned hat and a bright spotted dress fabric are quite obvious. Naturally too, there is a food connection. Actually there are two food connections – a colourful spotted trout, and a cake.
There is much rich food prose scattered throughout Dickens’ novels. He is almost single-handedly responsible for our traditional Christmas food fantasy, thanks to A Christmas Carol, which stands as the virtual secular text for the season. He mentions many, many foods with great relish, and although I cannot find a reference to trout (I stand ready to be educated here), he does mention cake several times.
In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, on Christmas Eve in Cloisterham it is Twelfth Cake – a rather miserable cake in this case:
Lavish profusion is in the shops: particularly in the articles of currants, raisins, spices, candied peel, and moist sugar. An unusual air of gallantry and dissipation is abroad; evinced in an immense bunch of mistletoe hanging in the greengrocer's shop doorway, and a poor little Twelfth Cake, culminating in the figure of a Harlequin - such a very poor little Twelfth Cake, that one would rather called it a Twenty-fourth Cake or a Forty-eighth Cake - to be raffled for at the pastrycook's, terms one shilling per member..
In The Old Curiosity Shop, it is plum cake:
Mr Swiveller replied by taking from his pocket a small and very greasy parcel, slowly unfolding it, and displaying a little slab of plum-cake extremely indigestible in appearance, and bordered with a paste of white sugar an inch and a half deep.
In David Copperfield, seed cake:
Miss Lavinia and Miss Clarissa partook, in their way, of my joy. It was the pleasantest tea-table in the world. Miss Clarissa presided. I cut and handed the sweet seed-cake - the little sisters had a bird-like fondness for picking up seeds and pecking at sugar.
And in Martin Chuzzlewit, a ‘highly geological home-made cake’:
Here a great change had taken place; for festive preparations on a rather extensive scale were already completed, and the two Miss Pecksniffs were awaiting their return with hospitable looks. There were two bottles of currant wine, white and red; a dish of sandwiches (very long and very slim); another of apples; another of captain's biscuits (which are always a moist and jovial sort of viand). a plate of oranges cut up small and gritty; with powdered sugar, and a highly geological home-made cake. The magnitude of these preparations quite took away Tom Pinch's breath: for though the new pupils were usually let down softly, as one may say, particularly in the wine department, which had so many stages of declension, that sometimes a young gentleman was a whole fortnight in getting to the pump; still this was a banquet; a sort of Lord Mayor's feast in private life; a something to think of, and hold on by, afterwards.
Dickens also mentions almond cake and gingerbread, and perhaps others, but there is no obvious cake-connection to Dolly Varden. It seems that one of his large contingent of American fans was responsible for naming the trout and another for inventing the cake. It is a pretty, cheery cake, layered - as was Dolly’s colourful gown - one layer spotted with dried fruit. I do not know when the first recipe appeared, but one is present in the manuscript collection of a nineteenth century Army wife in Texas. The collection was published in 1972 under the heading of ‘Resourceful recipes and practical home remedies compiled by Alice Kirk Grierson from the 1850s to the 1880s.’
The Dolly Varden Cake.
2 coffee cups of sugar; 1 coffee cup of butter; ¾ coffee cup of milk; 3 ½ coffee cups of flour; 4 eggs; 2 spoons of baking powder.
Divide in three parts. To one part add one teaspoon of ground cloves, cinnamon, a little nutmeg, and currants, raisins, and citron to taste. Bake in three common long head pans each third separately, two thirds being white, one black. When done, put together with jelly and frosting, in three layers like a jelly cake. It is very pretty when sliced across the loaf, the dark part forming the middle layer. I flavor all with any extract I wish before I divide it.
Dolly would have loved it.
Tomorrow’s Story …
A Lusty Tart.
A Previous Story for this Day …
Flowery, Fishy, and Fried.
Quotation for the Day …
There is a country, which I will show you when I get into maps, where the children have everything their own way. It is a most delightful country to live in. The grown-up people are obliged to obey the children, and are never allowed to sit up to supper, except on their birthdays. The children order them to make jam and jelly and marmalade, and tarts and pies and puddings, and all manner of pastry. If they say they won't, they are put in the corner till they do. They are sometimes allowed to have some; but when they have some, they generally have powders given them afterwards. Charles Dickens, Holiday Romance.
Wonderful article, thank you. I remember eating seed cake, made with caraway seeds in the '60's & 70's. I like it in an odd sort of way. You never know, it may do the "orange & poppy seed cake " thing and come back into favour. White Wings may even put it into a packet mix ! I remember another later example of Dolly Varden having a cake named after her. A sponge was baked in a pudding bowl,brightly iced and decorated - and then had a a dolly's head and torso stuck into it, so the finished cake looked like a beautiful lady in a crinoline skirt...
Hello Angela, I've always wondered too why the seed cake went into such a complete and utter decline. I can never quite decide whether or not I like caraways or not, but I agree it is time for a seed-cake revival. I might post a mini-collection of recipes for "seed cake through the ages" now that you have given me the idea!
I rather suspect I have a family seed cake recipe from the 1850s, if you want it. (And I'm about to post about Dolly Varden and link to you - I thought you'd like some warning this time.)
Excellent article on Dickens. After reading this I think I will get back into reading him - nothing compares.
Hello Sherry Trifle ... I intend one day to re-read Dickens in consecutive correct order of publication. Think I might need to wait till after I retire!
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