Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Dinner


Somebody has remarked that there is the greatest difference in the world between dining and getting your dinner. The world is a large place; suppose we test the saying at some representative spot. What, for instance, is the central point of measurement to us English people? How do we best express our position anywhere on the globe? Are not all distances reckoned from Greenwich? Does not that town, or some magic spot in that parish, provide the true unit of reckoning, and stand for the starting post of wanderings and voyages? Is it not the conventional boss or navel of the world? Thence the navigator counts his degrees. Thence the chronometer derives the “time.” There, also, we may consult the statute yard—inch and foot. There, also, for a month or two, the gourmet finds the ideal dinner. It is the centre of the culinary system. Whatever it may be in the “world,” there is, at Greenwich, the greatest difference between dining and getting your dinner. I am not going to describe that meal at the Ship or Trafalgar. Mr. Quartermaine would not thank me for a stale version of the result of his elaborate and piquant experience. It must be judged by other powers than the eye or the ear. How can I explain, even to myself, the succession of dishes which lead the gratified but buoyant appetite up to the culminating, characteristic focus of a whitebait dinner. Can I—though I had the skill of the subtlest analyst—define the combined operation of wines, sauces, and brown bread and butter on the jaded or virgin palate? Epicures would smile at my attempt, hunger would despise my finesse. I will, therefore, let the delicate subject alone, and ask you merely to digest with me some of the reflections which occur to philosophers like ourselves in connection with a dinner at Greenwich. In the first place I remark that the prevailing object of the town is to put the satisfaction of even the humblest appetite in as pleasant a light as possible. Do you wish to luxuriate on copper? Walk from the water-side to the park, and listen to the invitations which greet you at every door:

“Tea, sir; nice tea and a summer-house. Walk in, sir; private apartment—beautiful view!”

The mistresses of these establishments stand at their thresholds, the tea-things are exhibited in the windows over head, hanging like the signs of old London at right angles to your path. On the house-fronts—like more modern advertisements—cunning placards offer silently to the eye what the hostesses pour into the ear. The fare is cheap: you may bring your own tea screwed up in a page of “London Journal,” and combine it with “hot water and a cool garden, at twopence per head.”

Between this and a dinner at the Ship what room for the imaginative palate to wander!—what variety of meals! Some incapable of classification under any title in use between breakfast and supper, others scientifically distinctive. Some men dine flying—“snatch a mouthful”—we, suppose, as the travelling post-office does a bag at a small station, full speed; others, having no occupation, dawdle on slowly, spreading the sensation over as much time and palate as they can. Dinners! Think of the omnibus man’s, who drives fourteen hours a-day—Sundays included—and, when all goes right, gets twenty minutes for that meal; but when all goes wrong barely ten. Ten minutes for dinner in a period of fourteen hours!—the hinge is too weak—the pivot is too small for such machinery to revolve on. He gets down, though, no inconsiderable bulk of meat and potatoes. Give a cabman ten minutes, elbow room, and a leg of mutton, and you will have a fresh illustration of the value of time.

Critics in eating have remarked, disparagingly, on the sameness of English dinners, as compared, for instance, with French. Their strictures, however, apply only to the feeding of certain classes,—the entertainments which are given in certain society, where the grand set the pattern and the mean hobble after it. Beyond the stereotyped conventional “dinner,” the soups, fish, flesh, fowl, &c., there is perhaps a greater variety of meals consumed under that title in England than in France. There the poor man’s meal is made to resemble the rich man’s in some degree by a change, if not variety of dishes, say by a little meagre soup. They are also related through the accompanying “wine.” There is a common ideal to them both.

Take any promiscuous hundred Frenchmen, and their notions of dinner would show much more uniformity than those of a hundred Englishmen.

I was led into this train of thought one day last summer at Greenwich. A friend carried me down there to dine. Where we dined—below, not many yards off—visible from the open window of our room, was a man “getting his dinner” in a coal-barge. His fingers showed black upon the victuals he tore. When he wiped his mouth with his sleeve he partially cleansed the lower part of his face. He was very hot. He drank out of a battered tin can which had been standing in the sun. After that he sighed deeply, and shouldered a sack of coals. Not that he sighed from sorrow, it was from satisfaction; a rude unspoken grace was offered to the lord of work, who had now satisfied his appetite for a time. He shouldered a sack. My friend suggested cigars on the balcony, and waiter set out some chairs for us.

Now, methought, what a variety of dinners there are between ours and the bargee’s. Dinner filled my mind—Greenwich put it into my mouth—so pray forgive a ruminative chat. Dinners: let us see—these are hot and cold; they are always hot on board steamers. I suppose there is necessarily something more grateful to the palate in a hot joint. The food is tasted without an effort. On this account a bad hot dinner is abominable, and thus packet-dinners are most offensive. The reeking heap of greens and the large, boiled, underdone leg of mutton, which are always prominent on these occasions, have a reeking intensity of flavour such as no two other dishes ever combined. The cold dinner has a character which it does not deserve; being socially despised, it is often served without care.

Such, however, is the way of the world. The man who has little but plain sense to recommend him is made the worst of; he is used—not welcomed, like cold boiled mutton, without pickles or grace, while the sappy joint gathers around it all the care of cookery and support of sauces. Help to the strong; and as for the weak, you may kick him securely—he has got no friends.

Second-rate cookshops have a wonderful power of developing greasiness; every item shines. The very hungry, however, who go there generally need greasy food—I mean physically; fat makes fat and warmth. I confess, though, that on hearing a wise man the other day remark how Greenlanders ate blubber to produce “carbon,” I could not help saying (to myself, of course, for he was a great medical authority) that they probably ate it because they could not get anything else. I am a great believer, nevertheless, in nature as guide and caterer in eating. She not only provides oil and fat for the inhabitant of the Polar regions, but takes away from him the extreme disgust we should feel at such food. Indeed, I believe that the palate is the truest regulator of our diet. What we like best agrees with us best—in moderation—there is the rub. Dainty dishes are sometimes abused, because they tempt us to eat too much. Their daintiness is not their defect. The same bulk of nasty food would disagree with us much more than the same bulk of nice food. Some people, indeed, profess that they don’t care what they eat. They are generally mistaken; but if not, all I can say is, they ought to be ashamed of themselves. To affect superiority to one of the senses God has given us is questionable, but so to change oneself as to be really insensible is unnatural. Don’t care what they eat! Take an extreme case. There must be something wrong about a man who would munch with uniform indifference a pine-apple or a carrot. Those, however, who profess not to care for delicacies, when it comes to the proof are often found to mean that they don’t care for what other people esteem delicacies, having themselves a particular appetite for and enjoyment in tasting some vulgar dish—such as sheep’s-head and trotters. In fact, their boast generally ends in establishing only the coarseness of their own taste. It would be curious—yes, instructive—to inquire how far epicures help to educate and civilise a people. Man has been defined as a cooking animal. Delicate eating accompanies other refinements. But how far is its cookery the measure of a nation’s worth? I leave my readers to pursue these thoughts, noticing myself one apparent good result from dainty and expensive feeding. Every fruit and vegetable sold at a large price is a reward of skilful scientific gardening. Did no one really care for very early peas, or what not, probably few or none would be grown. Horticulture, as a science, would want its strongest support if there were no bon-vivants. Think how much stimulus is given to gardening as well as to cookery by an elaborate and expensive meal. A dinner at so many guineas a-head represents genuine talent and work in several professions, though it may imply some sensuality in the guests. In forming a fair judgment on the matter we must consider those who produce, quite as much as those who consume. If, as Sydney Smith says, the object of all government is roast mutton, what the newspapers call “recherché entertainments” may be closely allied with political power, and the Ministerial Fish-dinner measure the strength of the cabinet.

There is, no doubt, a waste of supporting power in the cookery of many poor people. I do not refer merely to the material—the meat which is burnt or the gravy which is spilt—but to the small solace and comfort got in proportion to the bulk of food which is prepared at last. It is not so nice, and therefore not so nutritious, as it might be. Soyer was one of the greatest of philanthropists; but even his shilling book is too elaborate for very uneducated people. The thousands which have been sold must have cheered many a home; we want, however, something simpler—best of all, more practical elementary teaching about cookery in connection with national schools. If inspectors required less physical geography and had an examination in (say) boiling potatoes, it would be a step in the right direction. I would have the girls bring up their exercises in clean wooden bowls. The children should be allowed only such cooking means as they had at home. In the upper classes there might be prizes for puddings and other portions, cheap though not nasty.

Indeed, without some practical knowledge of the art, books on cookery are almost useless, just as the juiciest description of a dinner is thrown away on those unnatural people who do not care what they eat.

As an illustration of the influence of cookery, I will mention an anecdote which you may have stumbled on yourself. A great eater, famed more for capacity than discernment, bet that he would consume in ten minutes any two shillings’ worth of wholesome human food, however combined. His adversary took four pots of threepenny ale, and emptied them into a very large pie-dish, then he soaked in it twelve penny rolls, and, presenting the result to the eater, with a spoon, bade him begin. He did so, but could not finish the mess within the wagered limit.

Of course there is much more to be said about dinner. Under what forms does dinner appear? The greedy debauch—the prolonged civic feast—the sudden, but complete meal, quite French, that which is provided, say at Macon, for travellers between Paris and Geneva, or Marseilles, where you find the cork of your bottle of wine ready drawn, and see the last plate or two of soup poured out as the train “arrests itself,” and the guard says “Macon,” “vingt minutes.”

Then there is the lunch-dinner,—a delusive compound. The monotonous chop, over which the unimaginative bachelor grins, day after day. The heavy tea—also a mistake. The felon’s dinner rations—sullen hunger, and a scraped pannikin.

Some persons object to the smell of cooking. That depends. Who does not recollect Dickens’s description of the stew-pot at the Jolly Sandboys, in “The Old Curiosity Shop”? How, when the cunning landlord took off the lid, and the savour of the mess filled the room, not a traveller but made up his mind to stop,—altogether dismissing what feeble thought he had about pushing on another mile or two that night. As for the smell of dinner, I say that depends. One man rings the bell violently, and is fierce about the kitchen door; another sniffs, and is silent.

Which is best? A good appetite, and a bad dinner; or bad appetite, and a good dinner?

Don’t answer without thinking. There are good sauces besides hunger. A bad dinner is not only unpleasant, but unwholesome. Conceive great appetites and bad dinners universal. The blacks in Australia will eat eight or ten pounds of strong kangaroo at one go. There is much to be said in favour of less hunger and better food. Well! I suppose there is a medium in the matter,—as the hearsay philosopher affirms.

At any rate, please don’t pretend a contempt for cookery. There is nothing in the world, my good friend, which you could so ill afford to lose. You don’t care what you eat! You deserve to have every spit, range, and pot pass out of creation, and to die of scurvy!

Charity dinners are, though not exclusively, yet eminently English. There is first, the fact of dinner on which to build, around which the floating philanthropy gathers, under which it developes itself. The feeder of the hungry must first be fed himself. There is, I say, first the realisation of the charity in company with the word “dinner,” then the actual influence of the food upon the donor. The old Madeira—the mellow speech of the honourable chairman—the donation—the—well, I suppose I had better be honest—the curtain lecture—. But I must have done, though I might say much more. The subject is endless: every one is more or less a competent critic. I have been too bold to write on such a theme.

Courteous reader, in rising from the table, let me express a hope that you see a very great difference between “dining” and “getting your dinner.” May you never sit down to one without an appetite,—may you never hunger without being able to dine.