Sunday, 25 January 2015

Food and Social Status

From the groaning tables of King Arthur's court in the fourteenth century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ( through to Mrs Portman’s pea soup in Thackeray’s short story, “A Little Dinner at Timmins” ( , food has been used by writers as an indicator of wealth and social status. 
Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel, Pamela, first published in 1740, is greatly concerned with social status and the possibilities of social mobility.  Pamela Andrews, the novel's 15 year-old protagonist, is a maidservant in a country house in which she has worked since the age of 12.  When the novel opens, Pamela's mistress has just died, leaving her in the service of Mr B____ (his full surname is never given), her former mistress's son.   Mr B___________ is attracted to Pamela but since she is not his social equal, instead of proposing marriage to her, he does everything in his power to seduce her.  He offers her money, hides in her closet, abducts and imprisons her and threatens her when she refuses his offer to become his mistress. 
Mr B____ finds Pamela Writing by Joseph Highmore (1743-4)
Despite Mr B________’s attempts, Pamela is determined to keep her virtue.  Whilst Richardson’s emphasis on Pamela’s sexual purity may seem rather old-fashioned and priggish nowadays, his giving a voice to a servant girl and making her the protagonist of his novel was a radical move.  At a time when servants would have been considered almost the property of their masters, and expected to obey their every wish, Pamela’s insistence on her right to do as she likes with her body and her refusal to succumb to his desires or accept his money marks her out as extremely brave.  As she says to Mr B____, when he reprimands her for speaking so bluntly to him and forgetting her place, “Well may I forget that I am your servant, when you forget what belongs to a master.”  She also challenges the prevailing belief that her low social status makes her an acceptable object for his depravity, “O Sir! My soul is of equal importance with the soul of a princess; though my quality is inferior to that of the meanest slave.”  

One of Mr B________’s methods of seduction is to offer to elevate Pamela socially if she does as he wishes: he promises to make her a gentlewoman.  He offers her money, buys her costly dresses and provides her with foodstuffs that mark her out as having ‘gentle’ status.  Early on in the novel, Mr B_______ appears to relent to Pamela’s demands and agrees that Pamela may return home.  He provides her with a carriage and she is given “some plum cakes, and diet bread … and some sweet-meats and six bottles of Canary wine” to take with her.  Diet bread was a special bread made for invalids from very finely ground – and thus more expensive - flour, and plum cakes (which, despite the name, contain no plums, but dried fruit instead) were usually made for Christmas and weddings: both foodstuffs thus mark Pamela’s special status.
Of course Mr B_________ only has his own interests at heart.  The carriage does not take Pamela home, but rather to his Lincolnshire estate where she is kept prisoner.  Whilst she is put through a terrible experience, I hope the food might have provided some consolation.  And in honour of the feisty Pamela, I present a plum cake.  Extant recipes from the period include those found in The Experienced English Housewife by Elizabeth Raffald (1769) and in Mrs Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery (1806), the latter requiring the cook to beat the mixture for one hour before putting it in the oven! Needless to say I didn’t!  Mrs Rundell’s recipe also includes an icing made of icing sugar, egg white and orange-flower water; I used icing sugar and lemon juice instead, and it tasted fine.
170g currants
170g raisins
4 tablespoons brandy
225g self-raising flour
¾ tsp ground mace
¾ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp allspice
225g butter
115g soft dark brown sugar
110g caster sugar
Grated zest of ½ lemon
4 eggs beaten
60g ground almonds
60g flaked almonds
60ml milk
Soak the dried fruit in the brandy overnight.
Preheat the oven to 150C / Gas mark 2.  Grease and line a deep 8 inch / 20cm cake tin with a removable base.  Line the outside with a double layer of foil or greaseproof paper and tie with string. 
Sift the flour and spices into a bowl.
In a separate bowl cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs a little at a time, adding 1 tablespoon of flour after each addition to avoid the mixture curdling.
Fold in the remaining flour and then stir in the remaining ingredients.
Spoon the mixture into the cake tin and bake for 2 ½ - 3 hours until a skewer or cake tester inserted into the centre comes out clean. 
When the cake is cold, dribble icing made with the juice of half a lemon mixed with approximately 4 tablespoons sifted icing sugar over the top, allowing it to drip down the sides of the cake. 

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