“A Solemn and an Awful Thing”: Dining with Americans Sickens Dickens

Dickens's Dream by Robert William Buss 1875
Buss, Robert William; Dickens’s Dream (1875)

To the distinction between dining and merely feeding no one was more alive than Charles Dickens. For him, any refreshment to be gotten from a meal was merely incidental. The true importance of dinner lay not in the dishes that laden the table but in the fellowship to be had around it.

In believing that conviviality trumped digestion, Dickens showed himself quintessentially a Victorian gentleman. Dining in company became cherished entertainment in the nineteenth century, Victorian appetites grown keener for the wit and charm of friends and family than for any cutlet or custard. You can imagine, then, Dickens’s horror upon visiting the United States in 1842 for a comprehensive tour and discovering that Americans reduced mealtime to a barren silence punctuated only by the moist mechanics of ingestion.

Yes, Americans, Dickens observed, tended to eat quickly and quietly, altogether oblivious, or perhaps indifferent, to the delights of prandial banter. Labeled by him as “yahoos” in American Notes (1842), the record of his travels, they would empty their “troughs” with gruff dispatch “and then slink sullenly away.” No witticisms, no charming anecdotes graced any meal. The spirit of the occasion was, rather, “mere greedy satisfaction of the natural cravings.” These “funereal feasts,” as Dickens described them, went “so against the grain” of his sensibilities that he saw them as a “waking nightmare,” the recollection of which he feared would haunt him the rest of his days.

This waking nightmare would at least haunt him through the composition of his 1844 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. A scene in it takes place at an American dinner party whose members fall on their food with the same laconic frenzy mentioned in American Notes, all “knives and forks … working away at a rate that was quite alarming” and “very few words … spoken.” To Dickens’s narrator, “everybody seemed to eat his utmost in self-defence, as if a famine were expected to set in before breakfast-time to-morrow morning, and it had become high time to assert the first law of nature.” A turkey, a pair of ducks, and two fowls disappeared “as rapidly as if every bird had had the use of its wings, and had flown in desperation down a human throat.” Oysters “slid by scores into the mouths of the assembly.” Pots of pickles, piles of cucumbers, and even great heaps of “indigestible matter melted away as ice before the sun.” The rude, gluttonous display struck the titular Martin Chuzzlewit, himself on a visit from London, as “a solemn and an awful thing to see.”

It could be said that Dickens was unduly harsh. Not all Americans preferred to gobble matter, indigestible or otherwise. French gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, traveling through the mid-Atlantic states during the 1790s, marveled at the abundance and good cheer he found. In Connecticut he stayed with a farmer whose company he found most amenable. Brillat-Savarin praised his host’s charming hospitality, as well as his “superb piece of corned beef,” “magnificent leg of mutton,” and “abundance of vegetables,” all of which were eaten with the utmost politeness and conviviality.

Perhaps only a fellow revolutionary like Brillat-Savarin could appreciate the discrete charms of the American board. Yet Dickens was dyspeptic over more than uncouth table manners. He had come to the United States hoping to refute the sour observations of British novelist Francis Trollope, whose son Anthony would also go on to a writing life. In her own account of time spent in the U.S. in the late 1820s, Trollope judged the country’s sociopolitical arrangements as much of a letdown as its prevailing manners. (The Yankees’ penchant for “eating half-baked hot rolls morning and evening” particularly rankled her.) Dickens refused to believe Trollope’s dismissive assessment. In his imagination, the United States endured as a vibrant democracy, an enlightened republic peopled by sensitive, fair-minded men and women. He hoped, moreover, that it offered an alternative to the oppressive, class-based system of Victorian England, with its feckless aristocracy and unwieldy Parliament — not to mention its cruelty toward the poor. “What are the Great United States for … if not for the regeneration of man?”, asks one of the characters of Martin Chuzzlewit, his question no doubt echoing one that occupied his creator.

The sad answer was that man’s regeneration would have to await another time and place. Jostling gluttony stood as the least vice of Dickens’s American hosts; they showed other, more serious, malignancies. Dickens marveled at how easily Americans cheated their friends and neighbors through real estate speculation and fraud. He hated their obsession with petty politics and yellow journalism. And he found the institution of slavery so appalling that he refused to visit the southern states. “All [Americans’] cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars,” he lamented: “life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down.”

Dickens boarded his ship home to England a disillusioned man. “This is not the Republic I came to see,” he declared. “This is not the Republic of my imagination.”

Yet in one of life’s many ironies, Americans found the living Dickens to correspond quite faithfully to the man as they imagined him. They loved him fiercely, believing him an “embodied protest against what was believed to be worst in the institutions of England.” That he also became the same for the United States, they didn’t seem to mind.

While traveling between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Dickens did speak fondly of canvasback ducks. He found them “most delicious eating.” It was one of the few occasions he spoke with enthusiasm of the local cuisine. Here’s a recipe for duck, canvasback or otherwise, from Modern American Cookery (1831):

A Duck with Green Pease

Put a deep stew pan over the fire, with a piece of fresh butter; singe the duck, and flour it, turn it in the pan for two or three minutes, pour out all the fat, but let the duck remain in the pan; put to it a pint of good gravy, a pint of pease, two lettuces cut small, a bundle of sweet herbs, and a little pepper and salt; cover close, and let them stew for half an hour; now and then give the pan a shake. When they are nearly done, grate in a little nutmeg, and put in a little beaten mace, and thicken it either with a piece of butter rolled in flour, or the yolk of an egg beaten up with two or three spoonfuls of cream; shake the whole together for three or four minutes, take out the sweet herbs, lay the duck in a dish, and pour the sauce over it. Garnish with boiled mint.

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