Saturday, 9 January 2016

Eating someone else's food

When we had done, [the waiter] brought me a pudding, and having set it before me, seemed to ruminate, and to become absent in his mind for some moments.
'How's the pie?' he said, rousing himself.
'It's a pudding', I made answer. 
'Pudding!' he exclaimed.  'Why, bless me, so it is!  What!' looking at it nearer.  'You don't mean to say it's a batter-pudding!'
'Yes, it is indeed.'
'Why, a batter-pudding,' he said, taking up a table-spoon, 'is my favourite pudding!  Ain't that lucky?  Come on, little 'un, and let's see who'll get most.'
The waiter certainly got most.   David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Why is it so often the case that what someone else is eating is so much more enticing than what is on our own plate?   I have vivid memories of primary school lunches when I would have done just about anything to eat my friend's white sliced bread sandwiches and chocolate bar rather than my Mum's home-made soup, though nowadays I think I got the better deal.

And how much more difficult it must be if you have nothing to eat, but all around you is food, as is the case with the waiter in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (1849-50).

The episode comes early in the novel.  Young David Copperfield has been sent off to school in London by his new nasty stepfather, Mr Murdstone.  He breaks his journey at an inn in Yarmouth where a meal is provided for him.  Overwhelmed both by the grief of leaving his home and his beloved mother and by his new strange surroundings, David struggles with the experience of eating chops and vegetables in the presence of his overly attentive waiter:

I ...found it extremely difficult to handle my knife and fork with anything like dexterity, or to avoid splashing myself with the gravy, while he was standing opposite, staring so hard, and making me blush in the most dreadful manner every time I caught his eye.  

Persuading David not to drink his ale by telling him the story of a man who had dropped down dead after drinking it the previous day, the waiter offers to do the honours himself and, having rapidly downed the drink, informs David that "a chop's the very thing to take off the bad effects of that beer" and thus helps himself to David's dinner:

So he took a chop by the bone in one hand, and a potato in the other, and ate away with a very good appetite, to my extreme satisfaction.  He afterwards took another chop, and another potato; and after that, another chop and another potato.  

And having polished off David's main course, he sets to work on the pudding, as above.

Steel etching by Phiz (Halbot K. Browne) for the second instalment of David Copperfield (1849)

(Image scan by Philip V. Allingham,
Now, as readers are probably aware, Dickens was extremely concerned with the plight of the poor and disadvantaged in 19th century England, so perhaps in this episode he is drawing attention to the appalling way waiters were starved and treated by their employers at this time!

However, I think it is far more likely that the episode serves to highlight the vulnerability of the young child sent into the world with no-one to guide him and doing his utmost to please those he encounters.  David shows himself willing to give food and drink to others on more than one occasion.  On the first leg of his journey to his new school he shares the cakes that Peggotty, his nursemaid, has made for him with Barkis, the carrier.  And, on arriving at his school, Salem House, he uncomplainingly allows Steerforth, one of the older boys at the school, to pressure him into spending the little money he has on currant wine and almond cakes for the other boys.

See my next post for a recipe for David Copperfield's batter-pudding.

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