- Dinner for Dickens: The Culinary History of Mrs. Charles Dickens's Menu Books, Including a Transcript of What Shall We Have For Dinner? by Lady Maria Clutterbuck
Scholars of many persuasions will find Susan Rossi-Wilcox's Dinner for Dickens to be an informative, entertaining read, especially portions that involve the Dickens's family dynamics. Take, for example, the weeks of frenzy that accompanied the family's move from Devonshire Terrace to Tavistock House. The delayed installation of the kitchen range gave Charles fits, and he railed at his contractor about the range's supplier: "O the perjured, beastly, odious, and incompetent Burton! The Imbecile pretender!!" (132). What the Dickens family ate and with whom, how they managed to live abroad and hire competent cooks, and why Charles felt increasingly inclined to hold supper parties at the Household Words headquarters instead of at home-such stories make for absorbing reading. Scholars of the Victorian press, however, will be most interested in the fresh perspective Rossi-Wilcox offers on Charles's running of Household Words, particularly the magazine's importance in relation to Catherine's book, What Shall We Have for Dinner? Satisfactorily Answered by Numerous Bills of Fare for from Two to Eighteen Persons. Relying on food articles in Household Words, Rossi-Wilcox, perhaps inadvertently, demonstrates how the magazine and What Shall We Have for Dinner? promoted Charles's and Catherine's gastronomic visions for the nation.
In fact, Household Words and What Shall We Have for Dinner? often appear to be in a duet, each commenting in its own fashion on foods [End Page 172] and trends that Charles and Catherine thought to be important to middle-class readers. Rossi-Wilcox shifts expertly between these two productions and in the process reveals much about the neglected topic of the Dickens's own family dinner table and how Catherine and Charles went about trying to improve "the standard of British cooking" (77). Most issues of Household Words contain at least one article devoted to food or food reform. Rossi-Wilcox uses these articles to help contextualize Catherine's 164 menu suggestions in What Shall We Have for Dinner? For example, Charles published Henry Wreford's article "Macaroni-Making" (HW, 1858); Catherine suggests various menus where macaroni be used in soup, for dessert, or for the savory dish that might follow dessert. Rabbit, a favorite food in the Dickens's household, is transformed into an appetizing rabbit pasty in Oliver Twist; Catherine suggests serving jugged hare for dinner, as well as hare hash and hare soup.
Clearly, Charles and Catherine were passionate about food and cooking, and they likely found themselves initially compatible as a result. Numerous letters between the two are full of allusions to meals and to food, and both of them usually embraced and promoted foreign flavors and techniques for cooking in their respective publications. Both also enjoyed entertaining as well, hosting intimate dinners for as few as four guests, and frequently throwing large celebratory meals for holidays such as Twelfth Night and for their children's birthdays.
To deal with the Dickens's increasing marital problems, however, Rossi-Wilcox devotes a chapter to the implications of Catherine's assumed pen name for What Shall We Have for Dinner?, "Lady Clutterbuck." In the process, Rossi-Wilcox discusses the bearing that Charles's amateur theatrical productions had on the couple's marriage and their separation. She suggests that the farcical nature of Used Up, the play from which the name "Lady Clutterbuck" comes, is less farcical when it comes to Catherine's role in the play and in her assuming Lady Clutterbuck's name for her menu book. The joke, Rossi-Wilcox contends, is at Catherine's expense.
Dickens scholars will appreciate Rossi-Wilcox's efforts to reveal more about the still shadowy Catherine Dickens. Culinary historians will appreciate having available for the first time a clean, complete transcript of the rare 1852 edition...