Let’s enjoy the carnival of the inflation. It’s loads of fun and paper, printed paper, flimsy stuff — do they still call it money? … Krupp and Stinnes get rid of their debts, we of our savings. The profiteers dance in the palace hotels.
–Klaus Mann (1923)
The capital of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919–1933), Berlin alone was home to some twenty thousand eateries. The immense number reflected not so much a diversity of tastes for cuisine as a panoply of preferences for entertainment. In keeping with the spirit of the times, those latter tastes often ran to the grotesque and the perverse. Many of the metropolis’s restaurateurs augmented their bill of fare, top-heavy with hearty German staples, with marvels astonishing and often terrible to behold. A restaurant’s real draw was not so much the tenderness of its roast pork nor the pungency of its sauerkraut as it was the arresting spectacle of its stage show.
I heard the planes go over With shuttle and with roar The moon looked down on Dover And lit the winding shore. It filled the night with beauty, Our tired world’s release: Old wardens at their duty Invoked a prayer for peace. –T. A. Agius, O.S.B., “Wartime Christmas,”
A sprig of mistletoe was all Pam Ashford wanted for Christmas, 1941. It surely would’ve livened up the office of the Glasgow coal-shipping firm for which the 38-year-old worked — an office she described at one point as “death heated up.” And it would’ve marked a welcome addition to the tin of shortbread biscuits and tiny cash bonus given to her by the firm’s honchos. At the very least, the bit of seasonal greenery would’ve leavened dull routine with a dash of the aleatory. Pam Ashford wanted it “just to see what would happen,” as she confided to a colleague. Later in private she walked back this wish. “But certainly I could never rise to that level of audacity,” she wrote in her diary.
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.