A Dickensian Christmas Dinner

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management
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One of my favorite primary sources to use in European history classes is Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Written by Isabella Beeton and published in 1861 (after first appearing as supplements to several issues of a women’s magazine), Mrs Beeton’s Book sought to provide the young, middle-class housewife advice on how to manage servants, pay bills, and treat childhood illness, and generally provides great insight into the Victorian ideal of “domesticity.”

And, of course, it has pages and pages of recipes. So I’ve taken to offering five points of extra credit to any student in HIS354 Modern Europe who takes the time to research a recipe, cook it, and present the results to class with a bit of explanation. We had three students take me up on that offer this year, but while they all chose desserts of some sort, the approach of Christmas reminds me that Mrs. Beeton’s repertoire went far beyond sweets.

So if you’re the kind of person who would read, say, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and think to yourself, “I wonder what the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner tasted like?”, then this post is for you!

Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course; and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows! But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witnesses — to take the pudding up, and bring it in. (Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” ch. 3)

Now, if you wanted to imitate a Christmas dinner from higher up the Victorian social hierarchy, you might begin with raw oysters and turtle soup. But to keep things simple (and, in the case of the oysters, less likely to cause food poisoning), here’s the Cratchits’ menu with the relevant recipes in Mrs Beeton’s Book:

Your shopping list for the whole meal:

  • 1 goose
  • 8 oz. lean beef
  • 12 oz. suet
  • 4 large onions (though the Victorian “large” is probably more like our “medium”)
  • 1 shallot
  • 6 “good sized” apples
  • 10 sage leaves
  • 3 lbs. potatoes
  • Arrowroot (or cornstarch or flour as thickener for gravy)
  • 1 lb. bread crumbs
  • 1 1/2 lbs. raisins
  • 8 oz. currants
  • 12 oz. candied peel (orange, lemon, or citron)
  • Brandy
  • Harvey’s sauce or mushroom ketchup
  • Sugar
  • Salt, pepper, and allspice
  • 5 oz. Butter
  • Milk
  • 9 eggs

And your total cost according to Mrs. Beeton’s estimate… 8 shillings, 6 pence… Or about $2.12 in 1861 dollars… Which is approximately $53 today.

Enjoy!

– Chris Gehrz

Cross-posted at The Pietist Schoolman

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