What Charles Dickens Ate at Christmas
By Heather Redmond, Author of the Dickens of a Crime series
Charles Dickens loved to write about food. Even his letters include descriptions of his dining habits, dashed off in typical Dickensian style, such as this example from a letter to his wife in 1838: “We have had for breakfast, toast, cakes, a Yorkshire pie, a piece of beef about the size and much the shape of my portmanteau, tea, coffee, ham, and eggs … .”
From the earliest days of his young adulthood, he loved to throw a party, even when the gustatory centerpiece was nothing more than spirits and cigars, as can be seen in more than one of his surviving letters from the 1830s, instead of fancy victuals.
After his marriage in 1836, his wife proudly presided over their dinner parties. In the 1850s, several editions of her own meal planner/cookbook came out, titled What Should We Have for Dinner? The first edition arrived in 1851. Dinner for Dickens by Susan M. Rosse-Wilcox includes the text of Mrs. Dickens’s work, as well as a scholarly examination. The Charles Dickens Museum in London, located in a former Dickens family residence, has one of only four surviving copies of the original book.
When we think of British holiday foods, plum pudding and mince pies come immediately to mind. Dickens loved both, though neither were purely a holiday food in his day. Plum pudding, to which he could prove he knew all the ingredients, was an inexpensive, common dessert, purchasable on the street (though in a less refined version than might be made at home). Dickens himself had a role in elevating it to the Christmas staple it is today.
What might have been on the holiday table he presided over? Mrs. Dickens might have provided a bill of fare such as this:
- Hot Mulled Wine
- Lamb and Sweetbreads with Mushroom Sauce
- Large Roast of Beef
- Beefsteak Pudding
- Mashed Potatoes
- Twelfth Night Cake
- Mincemeat Pie (Christmas Pie)
- Toasted Cheese
Hot alcoholic drinks are frequently referred to in both Dickens’s letters and novels. Cod was popular in the winter season, and leftovers could be remade as réchauffé the next day. Mutton was a common meat, as was beef. The best cuts of beef came from shorthorn cattle. There are many recipes for beefsteak puddings. Some included seafood, such as oysters, and even vegetables, including mushrooms.
Would you have thought that the Victorians ate turkey? They did. Truffled turkey was a holiday delicacy, and a fifteen-pound bird was seen as the perfect choice.
Potatoes were extremely common in the London diet, despite the Irish famines. Mrs. Dickens’s menus include simple as well as mashed and ball preparations.
What dessert treats might you find? Other than the famed plum pudding and mincemeat pie, I hope you would find a Twelfth Night Cake, a boozy, magnificently decorated fruitcake, to celebrate the end of the season. You might even find a special Epiphany Tart, such as I featured in the first A Dickens of A Crime book, A Tale of Two Murders. Filled with twelve different kinds of jam, I wouldn’t say it is a tart fit to modern tastes, but recreating it is amusing.
Guess what? Dessert wouldn’t end a Victorian meal. The Dickens family completed their feast with a savory treat. This would be a dish of toasted cheese or, after their travels to Italy, even a pasta dish. Macaroni, in particular, had become popular in England.
What do you think? Would you want to travel back in time to join the large, boisterous Dickens family at their table?
Heather Redmond is the author of the Dickens of a Crime series and the Journaling Mysteries, as well as historical and contemporary romances written under the name Heather Hiestand. Though her last known British ancestor departed London in the 1920s, she is a committed Anglophile, Dickens devotee, and lover of all things nineteenth century. She has lived in Illinois, California, and Texas, and now resides in a small town in Washington State with her husband and son. The president of the Columbia River Chapter of Sisters in Crime, she can be found online at www.HeatherRedmond.com.
ABOUT THE DICKENS OF A CRIME SERIES
Charles Dickens is one of the most famous and influential writers of English literature and is most reverently remembered as the middle-aged author at the height of his powers. In his early twenties, he was equally magnetic and brilliant, but he wasn’t writing fiction yet and didn’t know what he wanted to do for a career. Author Heather Redmond was inspired to pen a historical mystery series starring a younger Charles Dickens before he became famous and poses the question: “What if Dickens had also solved crimes?”
Redmond’s clever reimagining catches Dickens between the Regency and Victorian eras in the time period before Queen Victoria came to the throne, when England was on the cusp of a new identity. The first book, A Tale of Two Murders, introduces us to the young journalist Charles, who is invited to dinner at the estate of the Evening Chronicle’s co-editor, where he meets and is smitten with boss’s daughter Kate Hogarth. But the murder of Kate’s neighbor compels Charles to investigate when he finds out that a very similar mysterious death happened a year ago to the date. The third installment of Redmond’s Dickens of a Crime series, A Christmas Carol Murder, finds young Charles Dickens suspecting a miser of pushing his partner out a window, but his fiancé Kate Hogarth takes a more charitable view of the old man’s innocence in a crafty spin of the writer’s most well-known work of art, A Christmas Carol.