Dinner with the Cratchit family.
Throughout his body of work, Charles Dickens took great delight in celebrating the culinary specialties of Victorian England. Drinking is also ubiquitous in his works, which accurately reflects the fact that in Dickens’ day, alcohol was considerably safer to drink than water.
Dickens himself was a moderate drinker, but he apparently had little patience with rabid teetotalers. To an irate advocate of abstinence, he once replied, “I have no doubt whatever that the warm stuff in the jug at Bob Cratchit’s Christmas dinner had a very pleasant effect on the simple party. I am certain that if I had been at Mr. Fezziwig’s ball, I should have taken a little negus—and possibly not a little beer—and been none the worse for it, in heart or in head. I am very sure that the working people of this country have not too many household enjoyments, and I could not, in my fancy or in actual deed, deprive them of this one when it is so innocently shared.”
Read on to learn more about the foods and refreshments referenced in A Christmas Carol.
Bob Cratchit: He’ll have a kidney pie and pudding at the Hound and Thorn.
Kidney Pie is a traditional British dish consisting of a cooked mixture of chopped beef, kidneys, mushrooms, onions and beef stock. This mixture is placed in a pie or casserole dish, covered with a pastry crust and baked until crisp and brown. Sometimes potatoes, hard-cooked eggs or oysters are also added to the dish. The baked dish is popular all year round, but at Christmas time, butchers all over England will make a pile of these delectable savory pies for the Christmas buffet, to be served with pickles and chutneys.
Bob Cratchit: On the way home, Tim and I smelled our goose cooking at the baker’s.
Goose was the main course of Winter Solstice feasts from the time of the ancient Egyptians. England's King Henry VIII is credited with replacing goose with turkey—that exotic new bird from North America. Fruit from an exotic American plant called the cranberry was also added to English Christmas dinners.
Peter Cratchit: Papa, why is Mama so worried about the pudding?
Bob Cratchit: Well, Peter—and you, too, Tim—if ever you want to make some woman a good husband, you must not only not ask such questions, you also must learn how to receive the pudding. Just watch your father and learn.
(Mrs. Cratchit returns with the pudding, walking slowly with it held in front of her. She sets it carefully on the table. Mr. Cratchit leads the children in applause for the pudding.)
Bob Cratchit: My dear, my joys with you have been many, but I can honestly say that I believe this pudding to be the greatest success, aside from our children, you have achieved since our marriage.
Mrs. Cratchit with her prized plum pudding.
Christmas Plum Pudding was still made from meat in some parts of the British Isles as late as the early 1800s and the so-called plums, from which it drew its name, were actually raisins, not the plump, juicy fruits the name suggests to us today. Pudding was an excellent dish for those without much money because it didn’t require as much fat to prepare as other pastries require. An English Christmas dinner is not complete without a serving of this dense, moist, heavily fruited steamed cake. There are many customs associated with Christmas Pudding: stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon and making a wish, placing charms in the mixture such as a sixpence or a ring (which meant marriage), a thimble (which meant spinsterhood for a girl), a button (bachelorhood for a man) and pouring brandy over the pudding and lighting as it’s served.
Mr. Fezziwig: Get out of that hat and coat, Ebenezer, and we’ll warm you with a cup of punch.
Punch was the preferred alternative to drinking water, which was avoided for fear of contamination. It came to the British colonies in America from the British colonies in India. The word "punch," which comes either from the Hindu word panch, the Sanskrit word panchan or the Persian word panj, meaning "five." This refers to the number of ingredients originally used in the drink: tea, liquor, sugar, fruit and water. Two popular punches called Purl (beer heated to near-boiling then flavored with gin, sugar and ginger) and Bishop (heated red wine, oranges, sugar and spices) were regularly consumed by Victorian partygoers of all ages. Using the word alone one expects it to be hot; if cold, the word is qualified by iced. Of all the spirits that can be used to make a punch, rum is the one that most quickly comes to mind; and of all fruits, the lime was the most popular.
Mrs. Fezziwig: What about the shepherd’s pie, Mr. Fezziwig?
Fezziwig: Done, Mrs. Fezziwig.
Mrs. Fezziwig: The gingerbread scones? The holiday trifle?
Fezziwig: Done and done. It’s all done, my dear.
Mrs. Fezziwig: The porter, Mr. Fezziwig?
Fezziwig: The porter and negus and cold roast and pies! Done! You must fortify yourself! The party begins!
Joe peddles his punch.
Shepherd’s Pie dates back to King Henry VIII. Legend has it that the British ruler was livid when he found out that one of his abbots was building an elaborate and expensive kitchen. The wise abbot abated the King’s anger by sending him a delicious, warm pie. Two early examples were shepherd’s pie and cottage pie. Shepherd’s pie was made with lamb and vegetables while cottage pie was made with beef and vegetables. Both are topped with potatoes and baked until the mixture is hot and the potato crust browns. Shepherd’s pie is also an economical way to use leftovers from the ubiquitous Sunday roast.
Gingerbread Scones derive from the Scottish bannock, which was a soft cake of barley meal baked on an iron plate known as a girdle—the forerunner to the hotplate. The round-shaped bannock was cut into four pieces, the individual triangles of which are called scones. Gingerbread products date back some eight centuries in the United Kingdom; the use of ginger as a spice dates back even further centuries before its appearance in Britain. Gingerbread evolved through the addition of ginger, honey and fat to coarse meal dough. The light texture was achieved by natural fermentation of the dough. The church helped the popularity of gingerbread because the first breads were shaped as religious figures or figures of saints, which may be how the first Gingerbread men were born.
Holiday Trifle was once described by early 20th-century Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as “that most wonderful object of domestic art . . .with its charming confusion of cream and cake and almonds and jam and jelly and wine and cinnamon and froth.” The first trifles were very much like fruit fools (old confections of pureed fruit mixed with cream) and, indeed, the two terms were used almost interchangeably for many years. The very first known recipe from 1596 bears almost no resemblance to what we now call a trifle, which comes from the Old French “trufle,” and literally means something whimsical or of little consequence. Trifles are not just for Christmas; in Britain, the trifle is a popular year-round party dish, particularly with children who love all the layers of cake, fruit, custard and cream, and the bold pattern of the decoration on top.
Porter was introduced into England in 1720. It differs from beer because of the kind of malt used. At the time, it was common for a customer in a tavern to order a pint of “three threads,” which was equal portions of ale, beer and two-penny (the strongest beer, costing two-pence a quart). Because each one of these liquors had to be drawn from a separate vat, a brewer named Harwood devised a plan of brewing a drink that would yield the same flavor as these three combined ingredients. The drink originally was called “entire” or “entire butt” because it was taken from one butt, or vat, but when the drink became popular and ordered frequently by porters, it soon took on that profession’s name. Extra-strong porter that was known as “stout porter” and, eventually, “stout.”
The "Turkey Boy" experiences some of Scrooge's early change of heart.
Negus is a warm, wine punch first concocted in Queen Anne’s Day by Col. Frances Negus, who mixed sugar and water with a wine, such as port or sherry. Negus was a popular drink for guests at balls and dances, where its flavor was improved by adding a dash of nutmeg. In Victorian England, children were served wine in small glasses at the dinner table and, at parties, wine was added to the youngsters’ party punch cups. The wine served to children wasn’t aged or expensive; it was a sweet wine, such as port or sherry.
Roast Beef is the most popular traditional dinner associated with England, usually accompanied by two or three vegetables and Yorkshire pudding. Variations on this theme include roast chicken, roast pork and roast lamb. One sure sign that this is still one of the most-revered traditional dishes is that in 2000, the National Gallery in London had an art exhibition dedicated to the mouthwatering subject, entitled “Roast Beef."
Ebenezer Scrooge: I can’t understand how I managed it, but I purchased a turkey for Christmas and had already accepted an invitation to dinner. The bird won’t keep, of course, and you’d do me the greatest favor if you and your family could use it today.
Turkey was brought back to Europe by Sebastian Cabot when he returned from his travels to the New World; it began to appear on British Christmas menus around 1650. When the pilgrims and other settlers arrived in North America, they were already familiar with raising and eating turkey and naturally included it as part of their Thanksgiving feast. The big bird got its name after merchants from Turkey made it a popular dish. Prior to this, swan, goose, peacock and boar were part of the traditional Christmas feast. Although Victorian Christmas festivities are often associated with roast goose, the meatier turkey was more affordable (and more preferred).
A toast—with Wassail
Scrooge: (toasting) To Christmas. Wassail!
Wassail is a drink made of hot ale, cream, spices and beaten eggs that is served to enhance the merriment of the season. The word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon phrase waes hael, meaning “good health.” Like many ancient customs, wassailing has a legend to explain its origin. According to ancient lore, a beautiful Saxon maiden named Rowena presented a bowl of wine to Prince Vortigen and toasted him with the words “Waes hael.” Over the centuries, much ceremony has developed around the custom of drinking wassail. The bowl is carried into a room with great fanfare, a traditional carol about the drink is sung and, finally, the steaming hot beverage is served. Wassailing is usually accompanied by the song, “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” which is a Christmas classic loved by many, but understood by few. It is often misinterpreted and likened to the act of singing, leading to “Here We Come A-Caroling” being substituted for the first line of the popular carol. Although wassailing is traditionally observed during the Christmas holiday season, it also is performed at weddings and other events where community and family are celebrated.
Learn more about A Christmas Carol and purchase tickets.