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

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.

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To Diet Like Kant — A Categorical Imperative?

Emil Doerstling (1859-1940), Kant and His Friends at Table
Emil Doerstling (1859-1940), Kant and His Friends at Table via Wikimedia Commons

The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, native of the Prussian town of Königsberg and a towering figure in Western thought, was in life a rather diminutive man. His writing reveals that he rued his stature, his “flat and narrow chest” in particular. Yet his negative opinion of it appears to have rested on concerns of well-being rather than personal vanity: A chest as slight as his, he wrote, accommodated but “little movement for the heart and lungs.” Similarly cramped must have been his stomach, for it often troubled him. Such complaints notwithstanding, Kant would frequently put to friends the question, “Is it possible to conceive a human being with more perfect health than myself?” Though the question may be thought to mask a boast, it’s likely Kant really sought validation of his daily habits, which were as regular as they were salubrious.

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Slow Food

Of the various impressions made on the English man of letters Joseph Addison during a 1702 visit to a Freiburg monastery, one that lingered longest was the delight its inmates took in eating snails. A thick ragout they would prepare into which they would toss these creatures by the dozen. A great wooden box called an escargotiere ensured a reliable supply, its interior lined with greens in which nestled snails often as large as a child’s fist. “I do not remember to have met with any thing of the same in other countries,” Addison wrote in reference to this ingenious contrivance. In these boxes the snails reposed and ate, ate and reposed, until such time as the cook came and shook out a hundred or two of them for supper.

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