The Ghost of Christmas Present, as originally illustrated by John Leech in 1843.  Image credit: Project Gutenburg.  

The Ghost of Christmas Present, as originally illustrated by John Leech in 1843.  Image credit: Project Gutenburg.  

Christmas Food History Special, Part I:
A Christmas Carol (Starring George C. Scott), 1984

 

A Christmas Carol is really the only place to start this "food in holiday cinema" series!  With its tables groaning with roast geese and plum pudding and vats of punch, its voyages through the Christmas markets with the Ghost of Christmas Present, its prize turkeys as big as Tiny Tim...it wouldn't be Christmas without A Christmas Carol, would it?  

The timeless novella, illustrated by John Leech, was first published by Charles Dickens on December 19, 1843.  By Christmas Eve that year, A Christmas Carol had already sold out!  Dickens himself started giving live readings of his book in 1849, and continued to give these unforgettable performances until he died in 1870. Dickens may have been inspired to write this short story after visiting a school for impoverished children in the London slums, Field Lane Ragged School.   

Masterfully dramatized by Clive Donner in 1984 (despite the unfortunate '80s soundtrack and '80s special effects...well, it was the '80s), the novella has always lent itself very well to both the stage and the silver screen.  And George C. Scott was born to play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.

 

I mean, who else could put the "humbug" in "Bah, humbug" so well??

 

Scrooge's idea of a Christmas Eve feast is a little, well...spartan. Dickens describes his solitary meal of gruel:

Quite satisfied, he closed his door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his cravat; put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and his nightcap; and sat down before the fire to take his gruel. It was a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night. He was obliged to sit close to it, and brood over it, before he could extract the least sensation of warmth from such a handful of fuel.

The Ghost of Christmas Past soon fixes that.  Scrooge finds himself transported to the boisterous Christmas ball at Mr. Fezziwig's, with quite a feast to behold:

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer.

Negus?  Is that a food?  A drink? A small roasted animal?  As it turns out, negus was a popular Victorian hot beverage, similar to mulled wine: you can click here for the recipe!

The Ghost of Christmas Present transports the gruel-eating Scrooge through yet more Christmas markets, and parties, and feasts.    Even this merry ghost's presence is heralded by food:

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.

One of the troubles of dramatizing the written word is that something always gets lost in translation.  We watch in the 1984 rendition as the Ghost of Christmas Present escorts old Scrooge through the Christmas markets and shops, bustling wth activity, and yet it can't possibly do justice to Dickens' gorgeous food writing:

The Grocers’! oh, the Grocers’! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.

Ah, Victorian Christmas fare, with little daws (they're like crows, apparently) hopping around.  Dickens paints such a lovely picture for us of the markets of London in his day.  But there's more: at the humble home of Bob Cratchit we find a roast goose and a glorious Christmas pudding:

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage.

If you want to try tackling a Victorian Christmas pudding yourself this year, you might like this traditional recipe from a food writer in North Yorkshire...I imagine she knows a thing or two about it!  

The Ghost of Christmas Future (naturally) doesn't need to eat anymore, and doesn't have much to say, either.  Scary devil.  Poor old Scrooge is beyond delighted to wake up and discover it is Christmas morning (and, spoiler alert, he hasn't died after all).  He springs into action, ordering the largest turkey he can find for the impoverished Crachit Family:

Where has the parsimonious Scrooge gone?  Dickens describes his delight in ordering (and paying for) the largest turkey in town:

It was a Turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ’em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax. ‘Why, it’s impossible to carry that to Camden Town,’ said Scrooge. ‘You must have a cab.’ The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the Turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.

God bless Us, Every One!

Did you miss the earlier installments of our 2017 Christmas Food History Special?  Please click here to get caught up!