To paraphrase Dickens’s description of the four Pickwickian adventurers, over the past week I have been running around as brisk as a bee, if not altogether as light as a fairy, towards Christmas Day. I have left behind me a trail of opened envelopes, empty mulled wine glasses, cake crumbs, sheets of piano music, and receipts. Despite my rush, there is one aspect of Christmas which I have taken the time to savour: my first reading of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Although I have seen the Muppets version so many times that I can repeat the dialogue verbatim, to my shame this is the first time I have actually read this magnificent celebration of the seasonal spirit. I have also made my first foray into the expansive pages of The Pickwick Papers.
The idealised image of the festive season which is now embedded within British culture owes much to Dickens. Among other Dickensian works, A Christmas Carol celebrates opportunities for spending time with family and friends, for being generous to the poor, and – above all – for feasting. Dickens revels in descriptions of festive food, heaping up small mountains of savoury and sweet treats for the characters to enjoy. When the Ghost of Christmas Present first appears on the scene, he is sitting on a throne of ‘turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth cakes, and seething bowls of punch’. The contrast with Scrooge’s mean bowl of gruel (the food famously eaten by the eponymous Oliver Twist) is stark. Equally striking is the fact that when Scrooge undergoes a revolutionary change of character, he marks this by sending a prize turkey to Bob Cratchit.
Unlike in A Christmas Carol, in The Pickwick Papers Dickens paints the Christmas dining table in broad strokes. We gain a sense of the sheer volume of ‘choice morsels’ on offer, but few foods are specifically named. One item which is mentioned is that ‘marmite food’ (you either love it or hate it): the mince pie. As I was researching this blogpost I discovered that the history of the mince pie was longer and more complex than I had realised. Food historian Joan Alcock tells us that they originated in the ‘shred pie’ of the medieval period, so called because the ingredients included shredded fat (suet) and various types of meat. These were preserved for winter months by being baked with a mixture of fruit, brandy, and spices. The pie’s traditional oval shape was linked with the Biblical manger and the cases were often decorated with a pastry Jesus – and were therefore denounced as idolatrous by the Puritans in the seventeenth century. By the time of the publication of Pickwick (1836-7), A Christmas Carol (1843), and the compilation of Mrs. Beeton’s formidable Book of Household Management (1861) the pies were generally sweet and meatless.
Dickens does not refrain from emphasising the pure sensory enjoyment his characters (and particularly Cratchit’s children) gain from eating at Christmas time. As the servant in Pickwick slips a mince pie from the dining table, Dickens’s narrator relishes the fact that it was a ‘particularly fine’ specimen. Indeed, honest delight in food seems to be a virtue in Dickens’s world. In contrast, characters who are denigrated by Dickens often seem to have a negative relationship with food. Bleak House’s Mr Skimpole indulges in exotic fruit whilst unpaid tradesmen bang on the door. Mr Bumble’s portly belly is tellingly juxtaposed with Oliver Twist’s skinny frame. When Pip first meets Magwich in Great Expectations, the ex-convict violently gobbles the stolen food. The moralist in Dickens would have his readers enjoy and share food this Christmas, rather than indulge as selfishly as Skimpole, Bumble, and Magwich. And of course, mince pies are perfect for sharing. We hope you have fun making and eating the recipe below, which is adapted from Mrs Beeton’s advice for ‘excellent mincemeat’. And so we wish you a very Merry Christmas and hope to see you in the Literary Kitchen in the New Year for Fitzgerald, Rossetti, Ciaran Carson, and more!
700g dried fruit (a mixture of raisin, currants, dried peel)
100g butter or suet
200g muscovado sugar (if you are on a budget, caster or granulated will do!)
2tsp mixed spice (or a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg to taste)
1 teacupful (Mrs.Beeton’s measurement!) of brandy (I actually used orange juice for an alcohol-free version)
N.B. If you are going to go to the trouble of making your own mincemeat, it is probably worth making quite a lot! This recipe will probably make about 48. However, you can easily scale down the quantities.
200g plain flour
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 whisked egg white (for glazing)
N.B. This pastry will make 12 pies.
1 greased muffin/cupcake tray
Circular and star cutters
- Heat the mincemeat ingredients in a large pan and simmer for 10 minutes. It is best to do this at least the day before. However, you can make this is and store in sterilised, sealed jars several weeks beforehand. You can also buy ready-made mincemeat!
- Make the pastry. Mix the flour and sugar and rub in the butter. Add the egg yolk and bring the dough together. Add a little cold water if necessary to make the dough hold together. Wrap in clingfilm and put in fridge for 20 minutes.
- Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.
- Roll the pastry to about 5mm thick and cut out 12 pastry circles. Press these into the greased muffin tray and fill with mincemeat.
- Re-roll the pastry and cut out 12 stars (or whatever decoration you prefer). Put these on top of the mincemeat and glaze with the egg white.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes.
Mrs Beeton, TheBook of Household Management (1859-61). Available on Project Gutenberg.
Joan Alcock, ‘The Ambiguity of Authenticity’, in Authenticity in the Kitchen, ed. by Richard Hosking (Totnes: Prospect Books, 2006), pp. 33-43.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings (London: Penguin, 2003)
— The Pickwick Papers (Oxford: OUP, 1948)
Photo credit: Peter Thompson