Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Dinner With Dickens - Pen Vogler

There are points in every year when I look at the stacks of books that weigh down every surface in my sitting room (not just my sitting room, but it's their first stop) - normally some time around June, then again in October, and December - when I think 'they've been there since Christmas'. Every year more join them. Since starting to blog in 2009 I probably have neat photographic evidence of all the books that come my way courtesy of a December birthday followed less than 2 weeks later by Christmas. 

Sometimes I look at those untouched piles of books and realise something hasn't moved for a couple of years and feel a little bit bad about it. Though that's more to do with the lack of order than not having read something. I'm mostly resisting buying books at the moment, a lack of money is helping me find some self control, but it's been a (bad) habit for I don't know how long to buy quite a lot of books to relieve the gloom of January, despite having so many new ones Right There in front of me. 

This year, as every year, I'm full of good intentions to read these books quickly but as I type there's Patrick Laurie's 'Native in front of me that I bought in the 1st lockdown, still unopened. It sits on top of a pile of other 'new' books of a similar vintage, so it'll come as no surprise that I haven't even opened some of my Christmas books yet.

I have opened 'Dinner With Dickens' though, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time reading through it over the weekend. Regular readers will know that I really enjoy the links between food, drink, and books. It's the reason I've done all those books and booze matching posts in the past, and for my deep love of Kate Young's Little Library books. It's a big part of the attraction with Regula Ysewijn's books too (her photography and her husbands illustrations are another). Publicity for Pen Vogler's latest book, 'Scoff' (sitting under a chair in my bedroom - not quite sure how it got there from the proper pile on the other side of the bed, but books do like to travel) made me look at her back catalogue, and since then she's turned up all over the place (Radio 4, and Christmas tv about Charles Dickens - where I learnt that Catherine Dickens wrote a cookbook) including in this case as a present from my mother.

There's a lot to like about this book, the first in these isolating times being that there's plenty to read in it apart from recipes, because living alone is not overly compatible with a Dickensian feast. There's details about Dickens life, and about his books. I'm slightly ambivalent about him as a writer, so many of the books are long, and I prefer the sensationalism of Wilkie Collins. I find him more fun over the long haul. Still, reading about the foody elements of Dickens gives his work a resonance for me that's encouraging. Maybe I will read that copy of the Pickwick Papers that's gathering dust on an out of reach top shelf after all...

The second excellent thing about this book is that the recipes have been updated - and tested. Victorian, and earlier, cookbooks assume a lot of general knowledge and an entirely different sort of kitchen and shopping set up. There's no guarantee that recipes had really been tested either, and certainly when you read some things it's hard to imagine how they would work. 'Dinner With Dickens' gives us over 60 recipes that start with the chapter 1 - A Yorkshire Breakfast, inspired by Nicholas Nickleby, and ends with Chapter 10 - Drinks with Dickens (The Pickwick Papers). Inbetween there are family dinners, dining house treats, tea, cakes for giving, food for the poor, for grand occasions, for Christmas and more.

At some point in the future I look forward to making some of the things in here - I want to make jelly and set it in an orange, but doubt I have the patience, there or biscuits that look much more likely for every day consumption. There are also the drinks - especially the punch, wassail, and smoking bishop which are crying out for good company on a winters evening. I really miss cooking, eating, and perhaps most of all drinking with other people, it's not even about alcohol - being able to share a coffee with someone again will be a moment to celebrate. 

Pen Vogler has also given Jane Austen similar treatment in 'Dinner with Mr Darcy which I might casually leave on my wish list for next Christmas - if it's as much fun as this one is it'll be worth having, even if I don't need the help it gives to bring Dickens alive for me.


  1. I wrote a long comment about striped jelly oranges and it disappeared - but the gist was that they'e not as fiddly as you might think!

    1. I'm really pleased to hear it. When the weather is a bit more jelly friendly I'll see about having a go :)

  2. I've read a lot of Dickens and love most of his work because it's so playful and often feels very fresh, as though he wrote it only recently. But... I couldn't get through the Pickwick Papers; I found it truly boring. I can recommend Martin Chuzzlewit though – it's a good read and has a lot of wonderful references to food and drink in it.
    Oh, and 'Drinking with Dickens' and 'Dining with Dickens', both by Cedric Dickens, are lovely books about the food and drink in D's work.

    1. I've quite wanted the Drinking with Dickens book for a while. It keeps being referenced when I'm looking certain things up. I don't have the concentration for a meandering Victorian anything right now, and my problem with Dickens is that his books can be so long, which in the right mood is fine, but right now is not!