“Much Depends on Dinner”: On Students, Food, and Foreigners

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Most faculty organizing abroad programs know to have an opening dinner to help everyone to “bond” at the beginning of a group trip -- and most of us are equally aware of the advantages to having a final meal together before everyone returns home. But instructors do not tend to think about eating and student diet for the intervening weeks. Food and food culture, as we all know, are crucial parts of any ethnography. The food and dining habits of a nation tell us a great deal about its priorities, its lifestyle, and its history. To ignore the food of a nation is to leave that place untried, unknown, untasted. This essay will explore ways in which we can encourage an engagement with the culture in which our students reside by working certain food-oriented events into our field school syllabi and assignments.

“Much Depends on Dinner”: On Students, Food, and Foreigners

Ghislaine McDayter
Bucknell University


. . . all human history attests
That happiness for man,—the hungry sinner!—
Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.
(Lord Byron, Don Juan, canto XIII, stanza 99, lines 6–8)

1.        It is rare, indeed, for the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, to be held up as any kind of an exemplar for healthy eating. His advice on food and diet was notoriously bad, and, as Jane Stabler (among many other critics) has pointed out, he was simultaneously “greedy and fastidious,” given to absurd “diets” of potatoes and vinegar in order to control what T. S. Eliot would less than generously refer to as the poet’s “tendency to corpulence” and “pudgy face” (142). Certainly, references to hock and soda are scattered throughout the poet’s journals and letters, used as a necessary antidote to the previous night’s excesses. And yet, whatever else Byron may have been—fastidious, vain, gormandizing—he was also an experienced and curious traveler. He understood the importance of trying the foods and delicacies of a strange land, and notably, young as he was when washed up on the shore of Haidée’s island, there is never a suggestion that Don Juan would turn up his nose at the “viands” and dainties proffered to him by the beautiful foreigner’s hand. He might have longed for good British comfort food, “chiefly a beef-steak / but beef is rare within these oxless isles” (II.153). But Don Juan was well aware that to refuse the local fare would have been to reject not only Haidée, but also the customs and tastes of his new home. Don Juan knows even this early in his journey that much does depend on dinner—dining and diet are integral parts of any abroad experience, and Byron knew that a single meal can make or break a journey for the average tourist seeking sustenance and local color.

2.        Perhaps it is this unconscious knowledge of the power of food to shape our experience that causes so many American students abroad never to hazard disappointment in their temporary home by risking a “bad” experience with the local cuisine. Instead, they munch stolidly through endless “American” fast food dinners, pizzas, heavily-battered chicken nuggets, and tinned ravioli. Such meals are the heimlich of the tourist menu, offering homely and familiar fare that comforts as it fills. And to be fair, it is also very inexpensive to eat such (if you will) “canny” food. But there is something very sad about an entire coach load of American students stampeding past the neighborhood pub, the curry house, or the open fresh market in Bath in order to buy their bad pizzas or burgers before they hit the road again. History, culture, not to mention good taste and health, are brushed aside in favor of the familiar and the homely. Under the recognizable neon signs of the “big chain” burger joints, students know what to expect. They know what the food will taste like, how to get through the logistics of purchasing it without negotiating any strange foreign practices, and they know (or they think they know) that the food will be quality controlled. For similar reasons, students are far more likely to gravitate towards the vaguely sterile supermarket than the open-air market. Margaret Visser offers a brilliant summary of the appeal of the supermarket to Americans in her classic study of food. Here, she explains:

A North American supermarket is a market place, temple, palace, and parade all rolled into one. It is both expression and the symbol of the goals and means of North American civilization, physically embodying the culture’s yearnings for size, availability, freedom of choice, uniformity, variety, abundance, convenience, cleanliness, speed, and the reduction of hierarchy to quantity: money and amount. (22)
What she does not observe, however, is that the supermarket requires very little of us as consumers. Food is removed from its context of production; we are not asked to ponder the origin of our purchases, nor are we asked to interact with anyone in the process of paying for it. There are no “kilos” to calculate, no odd cuts of meat to pronounce—the economic exchange is one of mute, mutual indifference.

3.        It is precisely this thoughtless indifference that I work so hard to avoid when traveling abroad with my students, whether studying across Greece and Turkey over the space of three weeks, teaching “on the hoof,” or running a six-week course in Bath through a UK-based private provider. I try hard to find ways to encourage if not actually require them to engage in the food culture of the country in which they are residing. Most faculty organizing abroad programs know to have an opening dinner to help everyone to “bond” at the beginning of a group trip—and most of us are equally aware of the advantages to having a final meal together before everyone returns home. But instructors do not tend to think about eating and student diet for the intervening weeks. We diligently march our students off to see the big sites, to lecture to them about historical events, and to file them through art galleries, but in between these “cultural events,” the students slip back into the US of A via a quick pepperoni slice from a fast food joint. Food and food culture, as we all know, are crucial parts of any ethnography. The food and dining habits of a nation tell us a great deal about its priorities, its lifestyle, and its history. To ignore the food of a nation is to leave that place untried, unknown, untasted. And yet, it may be argued, we can’t force students to eat something they don’t like. We cannot and should not police their mealtimes. But we can encourage an engagement with the culture in which the students reside by working certain food-oriented events into our field school syllabi and assignments. We can make them aware of exactly on what dinner depends.

4.        What follows are a few ideas for such field work, should we choose to emphasize the importance of meals and food as they appear in Romantic poetry. Thankfully, the Romantics were unusually vocal on the importance of food and drink, and it is thus easy for all readers of the period to summon up a favorite “foodie moment.” One of my top hits has to be John Keats’s “Eve of St Agnes.” Keats’s long list of seductive dainties gathered by Porphyro in his efforts to win over the sleeping Madeline is a fabulous place to begin a student examination of food in nineteenth-century England:

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender'd,
While he forth from the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr'd
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar'd Lebanon. (262–70)
Granted, this is not the usual diet of the average Brit even in the Regency period, but as the critic John Thieme has convincingly argued, the exotic and unattainable nature of this food is precisely the point (157). Quince, lemon curd, and cinnamon syrops [sic] would have been immediately recognizable to Keats’s readers as part of the burgeoning spice trade emerging in England by the turn of the nineteenth century. As Thieme notes, following the work of Timothy Morton, “the passage involves more than just a fetishistic agglomeration of Oriental foodstuffs: in lines such as ‘Manna and dates, inargosy transferr’d,’ it also emphasizes the extent to which spice is the end-product of a complex trading network” (157). In short, just by focusing on this passage, we can show our students how this narrative poem is not just about two star-crossed lovers, but also about imperialism and orientalism.

5.        Of course, this passage in Keats is highly contested. Some critics, such as Walter Jackson Bate and Jack Stillinger, insist that the sensuality of the spicy banquet can only be understood in juxtaposition to the poem’s preoccupation with a dangerous realm of metaphysical fantasy. While Madeline’s fasting might produce devotion and chastity, Stillinger observes that: “Porphyro’s feast seems intended to produce the opposite results, and there is more than a suggestion of pagan sensuality in the strange affair of eastern luxuries that he heaps as if by magic—‘with glowing hand’—on the table by the bed” (59). Marjorie Levinson, on the other hand, comments on the onanistic nature of the luxurious spread. For her, what Keats’s sensual, middle-class style reveals is the “dream of masturbation”; unlike the wholesome dinner of Milton’s Adam, well-tasted and satisfying, Keats’s food seems to be more about foreplay than about consumption (26). It certainly remains untasted by the characters. But even more fascinating a reading is offered by Timothy Morton, who alerts us to the “ready made” nature of this banquet somehow “acquired” by Porphyro as if obtained fully prepared from a pantry nearby. For Morton, this is “a symptom of the heightened role of the consumer in the Romantic culture. As well as never being consumed (at least not with the mouth), the food is never produced (at least not in the poem)” (Spice 155).

6.        This reading strikes me as being not only absolutely correct, but of vital significance. By the Regency period, England was no longer the gastronomic realm of Fielding’s Tom Jones gnawing voraciously (and lasciviously) on a chicken leg at the local tavern. This has become a country of consumers and gourmands who seek to ogle luxury products as much as to devour them. We might remember, for example, that lovely passage in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park when Mary Crawford, that personification of urban sophistication, is appalled by her sister’s vulgar references to having the turkey dressed for the upcoming dinner party: “‘The sweets of housekeeping in a country village!’ said Miss Crawford archly. ‘Commend me to the nurseryman and poulterer’” (197). Her sister responds with more than a little acidity: “‘My dear child, commend Dr. Grant to the deanery of Westminster or St Paul’s, and I should be as glad of your nurseryman and poulterer as you could be. But we have no such people in Mansfield’” (197). Unlike the country, London has now become a city in which food specialists abound and where delicacies are prepared for consumers, spread out in shop windows for their visual as well as their gastronomic delectation. Part of being an elite Londoner in 1814 was about being a “foodie” who consumes and savors international fare without ever having to sully his or her hands with its preparation. In short, London had become the breeding ground for those now famous food halls of Fortnum and Mason’s and Harrods, which invite in their customers a very different consumer relationship to food. Indeed, what better place to see food and this new nineteenth-century consumerism in action than in these beautiful and opulent halls?

7.        While it is true that the present food hall of Harrods was not built until 1894, Charles Henry Harrod started his first business as a draper/green grocer in 1824 only four years after Keats’s poem was published. Fortnum and Mason’s, however, opened in St. James's Market in 1707. By the mid-eighteenth century, the founders had acquired a Royal Court affiliation and the store began to stock ready-to-eat luxury meals such as those found in Madeline’s bedroom: fresh poultry served in aspic, tea, candied capers, fruits, and chocolate found their way onto the grocery shelves, readily available for any Porphyro to help himself to a take-out spread of delicacies and viands. A fascinating exercise while teaching “St Agnes” would be to send the students off to Fortnum’s and/or Harrods, shopping list in hand, on a mission to track down the candied fruit, cinnamon spices, sugared plums, and dates. The packaging alone for these products will yield some fascinating cultural data and could open a wonderful discussion about Edward Said’s theories of Orientalism and their applicability to the Regency period, right up to the present day.

8.        Another activity would involve students comparing this exotic vision of England to an older, more nationalistic understanding of a British diet in such texts as the remarkably popular song “The Roast Beef of (Old) England” which appeared in Henry Fielding’s Grub Street Opera in 1731:

When mighty roast Beef was the Englishman’s food,
It ennobled our hearts, and enriched our blood;
Our Soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good.
Oh, the roast beef of England. (II.50)
Here is John Bull at his most jingoistic and stodgy, and such celebrations of Britain’s native appetite could also set the stage for a group assignment in which the students gathered at a local pub for a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner, while having a chat about the ways in which this quintessentially English meal continued to be identified with true masculine nobility as late as Squire Hamley’s chauvinistic preference for beef and other “heavy viands” at Hamley Hall in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1865 Wives and Daughters (309). This has always been a popular event when I have taught Victorian literature.

9.        But as we move through the Romantic period, such discourse is not simply about praising the hearty constitution of the British gentry. It begins to evolve into a fascinating and highly contentious discourse on food as a political signifier. Food-oriented political cartoons such as James Gillray’s piece entitled “French Liberty and British Slavery” showing John Bull feasting on roast beef while the scrawny Jacobin soldier chews on a chicken foot would be an excellent introduction to this political discourse, and would lend itself beautifully to a class discussion about the ways in which food and eating came to signify political assignments and class valence by the 1790s (see Fig. 3.1). Here, Gillray shows us a tattered French revolutionary figure who gnaws hungrily upon wilted turnips and greens, the animal fodder of the time, revealing for his anxious British viewers the absurdity of the many epithets in the balloon above the figure’s head which celebrate the supposed success of the young Republic. “No more taxes, no more slavery,” announces the French image. But Gillray’s depiction of French “liberty” offers a stark contrast to the opulence and plenty of Britain. While a rather robust John Bull curses the punishing taxes levied on British citizens, this cartoon makes it clear that such British “tyranny” is nothing compared to the brutality, hardship, and barbarism created by the republican fanaticism in France. John Bull is wise to stay away from such fancy French “progress,” and should instead eat his fill of good solid British traditions. Anything other than the hardy fare of “mighty roast Beef” should be viewed with suspicion by a true Englishman.

French Liberty. British Slavery. London:
                        Pubd. by H. Humphrey, December 21, 1792. With the permission of the
                        National Portrait Gallery.

Figure 1. French Liberty. British Slavery. London: Pubd. by H. Humphrey, December 21, 1792. With the permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

10.        By the nineteenth century, even those male characters in novels who seem too invested in discussions on the composition of a particularly delicious sauce were viewed as problematically Frenchified, (and by association feminized). An anonymous review of William Hazlitt's Political Essays (1819) in the Monthly Review (1820) for example, reminds us that while Hazlitt might be a seductive and stimulating writer, his political “tastes” are far from orthodox:

The taste of the public has, of late years, been accustomed to very high stimulants: no plain wholesome food will go down; and every thing must be hashed and stewed with some “sauce piquante,” which however delicious to one palate, may be very offensive and disgusting to another. Mr. Hazlitt should not cater for such pampered appetites. (256)
In a similar vein, just about any novel written during this period would include an admirable description of a symbolically-charged British tea and, depending on the instructor’s stamina (and the students’ skill level), they could be asked to produce the food for this meal for a class “break” depending on the kitchen facilities available. If all else and energy fails, the refreshment hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum provides an excellent cream tea, complete with high Victorian ambiance. In fact, the Morris, Gamble, and Poynter Rooms (opened in 1863) offered the first museum “restaurant” in the country. A visit here also allows for a leisurely stroll through the design galleries with their exquisite tea sets and paraphernalia dating from the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, my class plan for teaching Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa while in London includes treating the students to a cream tea as we discuss the cultural discourse of tea, coffee, and other stimulants that were being introduced into the British diet at this time. Most famously, figures like Thomas Trotter had begun to describe what would come to be referred to as “the English Malady”—a nervous complaint of modernity, fostered by excessive stimulation by foreign substances. Notes one such “expert,” John Coakley Lettsom, circa 1772:
It stands charged by many able writers, by public opinion, partly derived from experience, with being the cause of many disorders; all that train of distempers included under the name of NERVOUS, are said to be if not the offspring, at least highly aggravated by the use of Tea. To enumerate all these, would be to transcribe volumes. (49)
But while the Regency gentry might have become increasingly enamored of ready-made food, restaurants, and foreign stimulants, there were still plenty of housekeepers, pace Mary Crawford and her class, who were forced to hazard the smells and noise of the British open market to purchase the ingredients for the standard evening meal. It is crucial that the students be taken to an open market to see these, the oldest forms of food commerce and trade existing in England. As I have already noted, markets can be intimidating for those students who are only familiar with sterile supermarkets. It is a wonderful idea to introduce the students to the system of the market by organizing an outing in order to purchase the wherewithal for a picnic “ploughman’s lunch” including fresh bread, pickles, cheese, fruit, and seed or honey cakes. This way, the students will not only be introduced to the local rhythms of their community but will be encouraged to eat the local, organic produce—perhaps on a regular basis. (Be forewarned: American students are generally freaked out by the metric system, so give them a cheat sheet of measurements before you go.) It will also provide a wonderful excuse to go for a hike through the Lake District or Wales to find a beautiful spot upon which to read and study, say, “Tintern Abbey” while munching on a large wedge of Stilton with pickled onions. On one memorable occasion, I had the students take turns reciting the poem as we enjoyed our picnic, much to the amusement of the passing tourists. For dessert, why not purchase some of the summer fruit of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”?
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together. (9–15)
The call of the merchants, “Come buy, come buy” (4), has not, after all, changed that much over the past century, even if the effects of such self-indulgence may no longer be viewed with such trepidation.

11.        The possibilities for educating our students about “tasting” the town are endless, and I would encourage anyone running a study-abroad program to take this issue seriously as so much of the abroad experience is lost when our students refuse to participate in one of the most important social and cultural events of any country—its dining and food customs. If much depends on dinner, it is arguable that just as much depends on the local rituals and preparations that make that dinner possible. Let me, then, return to Byron once more for some words of advice. He writes in his journal entry for December 7, 1813: “When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning—how much remains of downright existence” (3.235). Eating and, as Byron so elegantly puts it, “swilling” take up a significant number of hours in our daily rituals. Why not make sure that this time is also a learning experience since no one wants their summer program to become known as “the summer of a dormouse.”

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Edited by Kathryn Sutherland, Penguin, 2003.

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Harvard UP, 1963.

Broglio, Ron. “‘The Best Machine for Converting Herbage into Money’: Romantic Cattle Culture.” Consuming Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century: Narratives of Consumption 1700–1900, edited by Tamara S. Wagner and Narin Hassan, Lexington Books, 2007, pp. 35–48.

Byron, George Gordon. Byron’s Letters and Journals. Edited by Leslie A. Marchand, vol. 3, Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1973–82.

---. Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works. Edited by Jerome J. McGann, vol. 7, Clarendon P, 1986.

Fielding, Henry. The Works of Henry Fielding Esq.: Henry Fielding. Edited by Leslie Stephen, vol. 2, Smith, Elder and Co., 1882.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Wives and Daughters. Edited by Pam Morris, Penguin Classics, 1996.

Keats, John. The Poems of John Keats. Edited by Miriam Allott, Longman, 1970.

Lettsom, John Coakley. The Natural History of the Tea Tree,with Observations on the Medical Qualities of Tea and on the Effects of Tea Drinking. A new edition, printed by J. Nichols for Charles Dilly, 1799, archive.org/details/b28038605.

Levinson, Marjorie. Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style, Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Mahoney, Charles. “Periodical Indigestion: Hazlitt’s Unpalatable Politics.” Romanticism and Conspiracy, edited by O. Wang, Romantic Circles Praxis Series, Aug. 1997, www.rc.umd.edu.

Morton, Timothy. “Introduction: Consumption as Performance: The Emergence of the Consumer in the Romantic Period.” Cultures of Taste/Theories of Appetite: Eating Romanticism, edited by Timothy Morton, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 1–18.

---. The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic, Cambridge UP, 2000.

“Review of Political Essays.” By William Hazlitt, Monthly Review, 2nd series, vol. 43, Nov. 1820, pp. 250–08.

Rossetti, Christina. Goblin Market and Other Poems. London and Cambridge, MacMillan, 1865.

Stabler, Jane. “Byron’s World of Zest.” Cultures of Taste/Theories of Appetite: Eating Romanticism, edited by Timothy Morton, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 141–60.

Stillinger, Jack. “The Hoodwinking of Madeline.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of the Eve of St. Agnes, edited by Allan Danzig, Prentice-Hall, 1971, pp. 49–71.

Thieme, John. “’Lucent Syrops, Tinct with Cinnamon’: Romantic Spice, Postcolonial Spice.” Literatures in English: Priorities of Research, edited by Wolfgang Zach and Michael Kenneally, Stauffenburg Verlag, 2008, pp. 149–65.

Visser, Margaret. Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal. Grove P, 1999.