Story and photos by Richard Hooper
The table was placed close to the fire. At its center stood a “magnificent uncut ham, with a great quarter loaf on one side and a huge Bologna sausage on the other; besides these there were nine eggs, two pyramids of muffins, a great deal of toast, a dozen ship-biscuits and half a pork pie, while a dozen kidneys were spluttering on a spit before the fire, and Betsey held a gridiron covered with mutton chops on the top.”
Betsey was the cook for John Jorrocks, the great creation by the writer Robert Smith Surtees (1805-1864). Jorrocks was a retired, outspoken, sometimes vulgar Cockney grocer who had prospered such that he could dedicate his good fortune to the pleasures of fox hunting.
“Batsay! Bring some more cream, and set the kidneys on the table,” commanded Jorrocks. “Run into the larder and see if your Missis left any of that cold chine of pork last night – and hear! Bring the cold goose, and any cold flesh that you can lay hands on; there are really no wittles on the table.” And this was just breakfast (albeit for someone Jorrocks was trying to make amends with) before hunting with a hack of more than two hours to the meet.
Jorrocks clearly understood the power of food, and Surtees bastes and flavors his stories with meals and feasts.
In the novel “Plain or Ringlets?” (published in 1860), Surtees described a dinner at which a guest is warned off a second veal cutlet because the venison (from the best park in England) was on its way to the table. The venison was passed around…and passed around again. “The Bordeaux, and the Johannesberger, and the Steinberger, and the sparkling, and the old dry Sillery, and the creaming champagnes, presently did duty for the viands.” There was turtle soup and, “At length, the lobster salad, and the ice-pudding, and the jellies, and the creams, and the fritters” were offered. Soon, “Gobble, gobble, gobble, was the order of the day, broken by demands for the jelly or the French beans.” Without so much as an intermission, “some nice fresh parmesan cheese was introduced, to give zest to a glass of Clos Vougeot. This latter was introduced on its side, in the cosy cradle, with all the pomp and circumstance peculiar to Babies and Burgundy.”
Even with the best-set table, there can be an occasional lapse of conviviality and the host or hostess crying out a “view hallo” to move things forward. On the other hand, the good food and copious drink provided by our host or hostess can inspire an appreciative guest, sensing the aforementioned lapse, to spontaneously seek a remedy, such as when Mr. Briggs, a character created by the English illustrator John Leech, excited by too much claret, tried to ride his horse over the dining table. Admittedly this is an extreme example, not recommended by the writer, but is given only to show the far end in a range of possibilities.
Leech illustrated a number of Surtees’ works. He also illustrated the first edition of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” published in 1843. The story is told through Ebenezer Scrooge and visitations by the ghost of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, wrapped in heavy iron chains and money boxes, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come. Scrooge is shown the joy and merriment of his first employer, Mr. Fezziwig, celebrating Christmas. He is shown two bedraggled, malnourished children named Want and Ignorance. He is shown the conditions in the household of one of his employees, Bob Cratchit, in which it is difficult to put enough food on the table, and whose youngest son, Tiny Tim, needs an operation to survive. Cratchit, however, cannot afford the procedure with his meager wages from Scrooge. He is shown a future that includes Tiny Tim’s death as well as his own.
It is, of course, a moral tale, one in which Ebenezer Scrooge repents and accepts a Christmas dinner invitation, previously rejected (“Bah, Humbug”) from his nephew, raises Bob Cratchit’s wages, provides a Christmas turkey for the Cratchit family and arranges saving Tiny Tim.
Whatever is served at your Christmas dinner, may it be accompanied by joy, merriment and conviviality and with hope that there be no lapses requiring drastic remedies.
In the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one.” ML