“‘It wasn’t the wine,’ murmured Mr Snodgrass, in a broken voice. ‘It was the salmon.’ (Somehow or other, it never is the wine, in these cases.)” The Pickwick Papers, 1836
While indisputably fond of alcohol and fervently against teetotalers, Charles Dickens preached moderation. Even so, a recent biographer, Claire Tomalin, describes him as a heavy drinker – as well as a womanizer and tyrant – and his final American tour (in 1868) included alcohol at almost every turn: fresh cream and two tablespoons of rum at seven in the morning; a Sherry Cobbler (sherry, sugar and slices of orange) with a biscuit at noon; a pint of Champagne at three; and an egg beaten into a glass of sherry before his evening performance.
Texan academic Robert Patten, the scholar in residence at the Dickens House Museum in London, rattles off a bevy of alcoholic concoctions from Dickens’ novels – ranging from a Smoking Bishop (red wine and ruby port), Sherry Punch (port, sherry and brandy), Negus (port) and Wassail (dry sherry, cider and brandy), to the red wine rushing into a Paris street that serves as a metaphor for soon-to-be-spilt blood in "A Tale of Two Cities."
“Some men kneeled down, made scoops of their two hands joined, and sipped, or tried to help women, who bent over their shoulders, to sip ... Others, men and women, dipped in the puddles with little mugs of mutilated earthenware, or even with handkerchiefs from women’s heads, which were squeezed dry into infants’ mouths.” A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
Patten, the professor in humanities at Rice University in Houston, points out that while alcohol features regularly in Dickens’ work, it was drunk because “the water everywhere, and particularly in London, was unsanitary. You can imagine that everyone was out drinking, but it was healthier than effluvium from the Thames.”
Beer and ale were the drinks of the lower classes, along with gin, says Patten, while the upper classes opted for “wines and sherries and other reinforced liquors. The middle classes would do punches because they had boiling water in them.” He adds: “Those punches are disgusting.”
In an 1847 letter, Dickens gave his own recipe for a punch:
"Peel into a very common basin (which may be broken in case of accident, without damage to the owner's peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit attached. Add a double handful of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass of good old brandy; if it be not a large claret glass, say two.
Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. Let it burn three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this punch was not served at an official dinner at London’s Mansion House on February 7 – the date of Dickens’ birth – which launched the bicentennial celebrations. The evening began with a sherry reception, followed by a three-course meal and “Dickensian entertainment” led by actor Sir Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard in "Star Trek"), whose one-man adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" was a hit on both Broadway and the London stage.
“'A merry Christmas, Bob!’ said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!’” A Christmas Carol, 1843
The Mansion House menu included:
London hot smoked salmon with horseradish pancake and pickled beets + 2011 The War Horse Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Roasted saddle of Cornish lamb, pressed shoulder cromesqui, rosemary scented jus and onion tatin + 2009 Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Yelcho, Chile
Bramley apple & cinnamon-dusted doughnuts, with blackberry & vanilla
Coffee and handmade chocolates
In a nod to Victorian times, the dinner invitation added: “Carriages at 10.30pm.”
The sherries were supplied by Bodegas Williams & Humbert, which also sponsored a later tasting where Jerez-based academic José Luis Jiménez spoke about “Sherry with Dickens.” In recognition of the great Victorian writer's love of Jerez sherry, the Spanish city last year named a street in his honor.
“The host had gone below to the cellar, and had brought up bottles of ruby, straw-coloured, and golden drinks, which had ripened long ago in lands where no fogs are, and had since lain slumbering in the shade. Sparkling and tingling after so long a nap, they pushed at their corks to help the corkscrew (like prisoners helping rioters to force their gates), and danced out gaily.” The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870
Dickens' great-great-great-granddaughter Lucinda Dickens Hawsley will attend a bicentennial event staged by the Guernsey Literary Festival in September. Guests at the Dickensian dinner are being encouraged to wear Victorian costumes or dress as a Dickens character. The dinner is entitled "Please, sir, I want some more," and a gin punch reception will feature Oliver Twist gin, made by a Guernsey-based company. The festivities will include a performance by Dickens entertainer Mark Wallis.
The organizers of the Guernsey festival describe Dickens as a "superb novelist, campaigning journalist, philanthropist and social reformer who helped to bring about enormous changes to British society and the world at large."
Professor Patten is equally enthusiastic in his praise. He became enamored of Dickens’ work as the poorly, 9-year-old son of a struggling single mother in Los Angeles. Reading the great writer's tales of redemption proved to him that “an unhappy beginning to a life would not necessarily doom it.” For Patten, the food in Dickens’ novels is as significant as the wine. He contrasts the meals provided in "Our Mutual Friend" by the Veneerings – “a very wealthy, nouveau-riche family that entertains lavishly” – to the Cratchits' meager goose dinner in "A Christmas Carol."
“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!” A Christmas Carol
“That burns into my consciousness,” says Patten. “All the way through, the family are waiting and biting their napkins so they don’t shriek before it’s served, because they’re so hungry. The use of 'sufficient' tells you what it was like for 95 percent of the people in Britain at that time.”
“I believe that passage contains some of the most moving words in all of Dickens.”
For many Dickens fans, it’s the writer’s social conscience – as much as his novels – that is being so widely celebrated this year.
* The Charles Dickens Museum, in the author's 19th-century home in Doughty St, central London, is closed until December for a £3.1 million ($4.8 million) refurbishment to mark the bicentenary. Dickens' country retreat in Kent, Gads Hill Place, which is now a school, is open until August 19.