“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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Fanfare for a Common Fungus: The "Trumpet of Death"

Depending on the region, June heralds the arrival of a coal-black mushroom known variously as the “trumpet of death,” the “horn of plenty” or “black chanterelles.” The fruiting bodies of this mushroom encircle oaks and tend to bunch under rhododendrons, proliferating seemingly overnight and disappearing usually within a week.

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"Bean" Down So Long that It Looks Like Beef to Me

Here’s a tasty and economical dish from A Veggie Venture. There’s nothing cheaper, and more nutritious, than beans. The ham bone adds a touch of flavor — leave it out if you prefer your soup vegetarian. Serve this with a hunk of wholegrain sourdough bread. The price: About $6.50 for the entire meal. Not bad!

15-Bean Soup

Hands-on time: 5 minutes the night before, 15 minutes the next day
Time to table: 12 – 24 hours
Makes 11 cups

20 ounces assorted beans
1 big ham bone (my choice, but could use a couple of ham hocks or some sliced ham)
1 large onion, chopped
15 ounces canned diced tomato
1 teaspoon chili powder
Juice of a lemon (don’t skip this)
1 – 2 cloves garlic, minced (I used a tablespoon from a jar)
SPICE PACKET – I ignored this

NIGHT BEFORE: Rinse the beans and pick out any dried beans. Cover with 2 quarts of water and leave to soak overnight. The beans will expand about 3X so be sure your pot is big enough. Drain the water.

DAY OF: Put the beans in a very large pot or Dutch oven. Cover with two quarts of new water. Add the ham bone (or whatever you’re using) and onion. (The bag says to add the onion just a half hour before serving. To my taste, the onion was completely raw like that.) Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for 2 1/2 hours. If a kind of scummy foam rises to the top, scrape it off with a slotted spoon and discard.

Add the tomatoes, garlic, chili powder and lemon juice and let simmer for another 30 – 60 minutes. At this point, Mary some times adds a can of drained and rinsed beans.