Saturday, 14 May 2016

The Take-Away in Literature

It was a nice little dinner ...being entirely furnished forth from the coffee-house 
(Great Expectations, Charles Dickens)

Until I visited Pompeii - during a holiday on the Amalfi coast a few years ago - I had always assumed take-aways were a recent invention.  But in the ancient Italian city devastated by the  volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD the streets were lined with thermopolia, service counters opening onto the street where people could buy food to take away.  There were more than 200 of these in Pompeii, and the remains of houses show few traces of kitchen and dining areas, suggesting that cooking at home was unusual.

I subsequently discovered that street vendors selling pies, hot cakes, pancakes and French wine were widespread in medieval London, reminding me of Chaucer's cook - whom I wrote about here - who is described as selling repeatedly warmed-up pies and pasties drained of their gravy, reflecting contemporary complaints about cooks' unhygienic practices.

Take-away food also features in Charles Dickens's novels.  In a previous post I wrote about the many cook and pastry shops in 19th century London in which Dickens's male workers eat.  But as well as going to these shops and taverns to eat their lunch, characters are also described as buying ready-made food from them to eat either at home or in the workplace.

David Copperfield describes what seems to be the precursor of the 21st century Starbucks or Costa, recounting how in his tea break, when he had money, he 'used to get half-a-pint of ready-made coffee and a slice of bread and butter' (ch. 11).  But these shops offer more than take-away drinks and snacks.  Further on in the novel, when David moves back to London to study law, he takes up lodgings with a Mrs Crupp and invites his old schoolfriend Steerforth - he who persuaded the young David to spend all his money on blackcurrant wine and almond cakes (here) - plus two of his friends to dinner.  Mrs Crupp's culinary skills are limited, since she is only able to cook 'chops and mashed potatoes', so she recommends the following menu instead:

A pair of hot roast fowls - from the pastrycook's; a dish of stewed beef, with vegetables - from the pastrycook's; two little corner things, as a raised pie and a dish of kidneys - from the pastrycook's; a tart, and (if I liked) a shape of jelly - from the pastrycook's (ch. 24).

In Dickens's later novel, Great Expectations (1861), the protagonist Pip arrives in London having received a considerable fortune from a mysterious benefactor who desires him to 'be brought up as a gentleman'.  Arriving at his lodgings at Barnard's Inn - in Holborn - he meets his 'flatmate', Herbert Pocket, whom he had previously fought with as a young child.  Herbert has laid on a feast for Pip 'from the coffee-house', with the added extra of a waiter hired for the occasion, but without taking into account the lack of space in their bachelor dwellings:

It was a nice little dinner ... heightened by a certain gipsy character that set the banquet off; for, while the table was ... the lap of luxury - being entirely furnished forth from the coffee-house - the circumjacent region of sitting-room was of a comparatively pastureless and shifty character: imposing on the waiter the wandering habits of putting the covers on the floor (where he fell over them), the melted butter in the arm-chair, the bread on the bookshelves, the cheese in the coal scuttle, and the boiled fowl into my bed in the next room - where I found much of its parsley and butter in a state of congelation when I retired for the night (ch. 22).

The meal is obviously a memorable one for Pip, less for its taste - the 'boiled fowl' and congealed 'parsley and butter' sound far from appealing - but rather for what it symbolises: his movement into adulthood and a new phase in his life.  As he notes before the description of the actual food: 'it acquired additional relish from being eaten under those independent circumstances, with no old people by, and with London all around us.'  Embarrassed by his lower-class origins and his awkward brother-in-law, Joe Gargery, Pip relishes the joy of eating independently in this new environment.

'Look here,' said Herbert, by John McLenan, 1861
Scanned by Philip V. Allingham,
Ingredients (per person): 
1 skinless chicken breast
300ml vegetable stock
50ml white wine
Knob butter
Small handful chopped parsley

Place the chicken breast, stock and wine in a large saucepan over a moderate heat.  Bring to the boil, place a lid on the saucepan, lower the heat and let it simmer for 30 minutes.  Keep an eye on the level of liquid, making sure the chicken is covered with liquid, and top up with more stock if required.
Remove the chicken  from the saucepan and wrap in foil to keep warm.  Turn up the heat and reduce the liquid in the pan to approximately 2 tablespoons worth.  Taste and season if necessary (depending on the amount of salt in the stock the sauce might not need any additional seasoning).  Stir in a knob of butter and a small handful of chopped parsley.
Serve the chicken breast on a bed of mashed potato and pour the sauce on top.


  1. Can I take that away from your house to mine please?

  2. Delivery might take a while - are you happy to have it on the cool side?