“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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Of Anarchists, Empresses, and Dieting

Empress Sisi and dog circa 1864
Empress Sisi and dog circa 1864, from gogmsite.net

Only those who work are entitled to eat!

Such was the statement made to police by 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni when asked why he had just stabbed Elisabeth Amelie Eugenie, the Empress Consort of Franz Joseph I of Austria. He intended the act as a “great deed” to redeem the ignominy of his hard life. Born an orphan, he had gone from foster home to foster home, and then, as he grew older, from job to job. Shortly before his crime, he had lost his position as a servant in the home of an Italian duke. Homeless and half-starved, with little prospect of getting another job, he avenged himself on someone he thought knew no such suffering.

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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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