Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A Mighty Spread.

April 2 ..

It is unarguable that Charles Dickens had a way with words – and a large number of his words concern food: his novels are wonderfully embellished and enriched with food incidents and food stories – as are his letters and journals.

On this day in 1842, he was in America, on his second day aboard the steamboat Messenger en route from Pittsburg to Cincinatti.

“We are to be on board the Messenger three days: arriving at Cincinnati (barring accidents) on Monday morning. There are three meals a day. Breakfast at seven, dinner at half-past twelve, supper about six. At each, there are a great many small dishes and plates upon the table, with very little in them; so that although there is every appearance of a mighty 'spread,' there is seldom really more than a joint: except for those who fancy slices of beet-root, shreds of dried beef, complicated entanglements of yellow pickle; maize, Indian corn, apple-sauce, and pumpkin. Some people fancy all these little dainties together (and sweet preserves beside), by way of relish to their roast pig. They are generally those dyspeptic ladies and gentlemen who eat unheard-of quantities of hot corn bread (almost as good for the digestion as a kneaded pin-cushion), for breakfast, and for supper. Those who do not observe this custom, and who help themselves several times instead, usually suck their knives and forks meditatively, until they have decided what to take next: then pull them out of their mouths: put them in the dish; help themselves; and fall to work again. At dinner, there is nothing to drink upon the table, but great jugs full of cold water. Nobody says anything, at any meal, to anybody. All the passengers are very dismal, and seem to have tremendous secrets weighing on their minds. There is no conversation, no laughter, no cheerfulness, no sociality, except in spitting; and that is done in silent fellowship round the stove, when the meal is over. Every man sits down, dull and languid; swallows his fare as if breakfasts, dinners, and suppers, were necessities of nature never to be coupled with recreation or enjoyment; and having bolted his food in a gloomy silence, bolts himself, in the same state. But for these animal observances, you might suppose the whole male portion of the company to be the melancholy ghosts of departed book-keepers, who had fallen dead at the desk: such is their weary air of business and calculation. Undertakers on duty would be sprightly beside them; and a collation of funeral-baked meats, in comparison with these meals, would be a sparkling festivity.”

The separate listing of ‘maize’ and ‘Indian corn’ is a little baffling, but what would a Victorian Englishman be expected to know about the strange American substitute for ‘English corn’ or wheat? Perhaps someone with more expertise in the maize department can shed some light on what two variations he might have seen on the table?

I do hope that Dickens had some better experiences with corn-bread at some other time during his stay. We have had several recipes for corn-bread in the past, so today I give you an alternative use for corn – perhaps Dickens would have enjoyed these fritters more than the bread?

Corn Fritters: American.
Take 12 small ears of corn, free from all silk; cut the grains down the centre, and scrape all the corn and milk off the cob; add about 2 table-spoonsful of flour, 2 eggs well beaten, pepper and salt to your taste, and mix the whole well together. Put a table-spoonful of this mixture at a time in a frying-pan with hot lard or butter; when brown, turn them, and serve them hot. If the corn is large it will require 3 eggs, if very milky, a little extra flour. It should be thicker than pancake batter; a hot fire will cook them in 5 minutes. They are excellent for breakfast, and may be mixed the night before. For dessert put in sugar instead of salt and pepper, and eat them with your favorite sauce.
[The ladies' new book of cookery … Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, 1852]

Tomorrow’s Story …

A Good Old Idea.

Quotation for the Day …

It is not elegant to gnaw Indian corn. The kernels should be scored with a knife, scraped off into the plate, and then eaten with a fork. Ladies should be particularly careful how they manage so ticklish a dainty, lest the exhibition rub off a little desirable romance. Charles Day, 1844.

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