Literary Vignettes a la Francaise
“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
―Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Several years ago, I went to an off-off Broadway production of A Christmas Carol. Perhaps it was the limited set, the inexperienced actors, or the fact that I was feeling a bit pessimistic about life at the moment, but whatever the cause, my mind wandered away from the stage and I found myself pondering the age-old question: can a leopard change his spots? In this case, I seriously doubted that Scrooge, a life-long miser, could be transformed, in one night’s time, into a benevolent, loving, and empathic mensch. Despite the fright (and insight) bestowed upon him by Marley and the three spirits, I thought Ebenezer needed much more mind-wiring to stave off a relapse. And so I decided to give it to him, on paper, that is, first writing a short story—Scrooge in Psychotherapy—and then adapting it into a full-length play with the help of my friend Jack Gwaltney.
In creating the play, Jack and I aim to honor Dickens’ original masterpiece, but also to satirize it. We’re not saying Dickens was wrong to have Scrooge be reborn, so to speak, but he wrote this in the mid 1800’s, when extremely different challenges were facing an extremely different society, and the message needed by readers then is not exactly the one readers need now. So Jack and I are trotting out three new spirits to take on Scrooge’s issues—Sigmund Freud as Christmas Past, Karl Marx as Christmas Present, and Charles Darwin as Christmas Future—with the hope they can duplicate the transformative work of their ghoulish predecessors, but in a way that resonates more closely with modern audiences.
At least that’s our plan. But in the meantime, we are having fun studying Dickens’ text, finding with each read increasing depth and complex meaning in his words. Like the above quote—all that stuff about beef and mustard and cheese. Here’s Jack’s take on why Dickens put these caloric-laden words into Scrooge’s mouth: “Dickens is using food as a way to (deny) the Ghost Marley’s existence (and the truths of the British working class around him). Scrooge is saying that Marley, threatening him with eternal damnation if he does not (reform), might merely be a hallucination brought on by indigestion.” Jack, who has become somewhat of a Dickensian scholar since we began this project, added: “Scrooge, like many folks in denial of what is apparent to there senses, deflects what he sees and feels with (among other things) wit and rationalizations. His ignoring the issues of poverty, ignorance and British Poor Laws and their causes serve his personal agenda (and, those of wealth like him.) Not until he is stripped of all of the tricks and bits of armor we use with our denial does he see with wide open humane eyes.”
While I agree with Jack, one never knows what’s truly behind an author’s creativity. Perhaps Dickens was merely stuffed to the gills and queasy when he wrote about all that food, or even drunk on Hot Smoking Bishop, a mulled punch that makes as many appearances in A Christmas Carol as “Bah Hum Bug!” Nevertheless, the impact of Scrooge’s gastronomical tirade is powerful, drawing the reader into the action on the page while giving opportunity for reflection off of it.
Using Dickens as a benchmark, I sampled a few other famous writers I admire and found several passages from their works where the mention of food also helps to transcend the writing. As a bow to Dickens, I am serving these literary vignettes to you a la Francaise, the Victorian-era custom for dinner parties where the course was placed in front of the hostess, who then carved and passed the food around the table.
Holmes, in disguise as a groom (a servant who looks after horses), discovered a great deal about Irene Adler, a fascinating woman who refused to part with a photograph that compromised the King of Bohemia. Holmes often drank beer during his undercover work as a labourer, and in such situations he also likely ate his share of pickled eggs, as they were a common accompaniment to beer…
―Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Scandal in Bohemia
Mrs. Montgomery gave a high shriek. “Why, this is porridge, cold porridge.”
“Real Scotch porridge. You should appreciate it, with your Scotch name.” Doctor Fischer gave himself a helping of caviar and poured himself out a glass of vodka.
It will destroy all our appetite,” Deane said.
“Don’t be afraid of that. There is nothing to follow.”
“This is going too far, Doctor Fischer,” Mrs. Montgomery said. “Cold porridge. Why, it’s totally incredible.”
“Don’t eat it then. Don’t eat it, Mrs. Montgomery. By the rules you will only lose your little present. To tell you the truth I ordered porridge especially for Jones. I had thought of some partridges, but how could he have managed with one hand?”
― Graham Green, Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party
“Winston’s job was to rectify the original figures by making them agree with the later ones. As for the third message, it referred to a very simple error which could be set right in a couple of minutes. As short a time ago as February, the Ministry of Plenty had issued a promise (a “categorical pledge” were the official words) that there would be no reduction of the chocolate ration during 1984. Actually, as Winston was aware, the chocolate ration was to be reduced from thirty grams to twenty at the end of the present week. All that was needed was to substitute for the original promise a warning that it would probably be necessary to reduce the ration at some time in April…”
― George Orwell, 1984
We dined at a restaurant in the Bois. It was a good dinner. Food had an excellent place in the count’s values. So did wine. The count was in fine form during the meal. So was Brett. It was a good party.
“Where would you like to go?” asked the count after dinner. We were the only people left in the restaurant. The two waiters were standing over against the door. They wanted to go home.
“We might go up on the hill,” Brett said. “Haven’t we had a splendid party?”
The count was beaming. He was very happy.
“You are very nice people,” he said. He was smoking a cigar again. “Why don’t you get married, you two?”
“We want to lead our own lives,” I said.
“We have our careers,” Brett said. “Come on. Let’s get out of this.”
“Have another brandy,” the count said.
“Get it on the hill.”
“No. Have it here where it is quiet.”
“You and your quiet,” said Brett. “What is it men feel about quiet?”
“We like it,” said the count. “Like you like noise, my deer.”
“All right,” said Brett. “Let’s have one.”
“Sommelier!” the count called.
“What is the oldest brandy you have?”
“Eighteen eleven, sir.”
“Bring us a bottle.”
“I say. Don’t be so ostentatious. Call him off, Jake.”
“Listen, my dear. I get more value for my money in old brandy than in any other antiquities.”
“Got many antiquities?”
“I got a houseful.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises