Despite the cornucopia of Christmas programming this time of year, including those poorly acted, mushy Hallmark Channel offerings and the ad infinitum showings of “Miracle on 34th Street,” no one spins a Christmas story better than Charles Dickens. He wrote many Christmas stories, but most notably “A Christmas Carol,” published in 1843.
Although most children today know of the Grinch who stole Christmas, Dickens gave us the original Grinch in the form of Ebenezer Scrooge, whose approach to Christmas was “Bah, humbug!” until he had the bejesus scared out of him by visits from three ghostly characters: Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future.
Charles Dickens writes with great pathos of Victorian England. He was a child of poverty whose father went to prison for failure to pay his debts. Dickens was forced to leave school at age 12 and go to work to help the family financially.
Dickens was obviously brilliant. Prior to his father going to debtor’s prison, he was afforded a decent education. He was an avid reader.
By his late teens and early 20s he was working as a journalist and writing for periodicals. He became a colossus of Victorian literature.
Dickens was likely the first Victorian foodie. In all of his novels he writes vividly of food. This ability to describe food in such fine detail likely has to do with the deprivation he suffered as a child.
In “A Christmas Carol,” he writes of the moment before Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge opens the door to be greeted by a strange voice calling him by name. He enters the chamber to find that he is in his own room — but it has gone through a surprising transformation.
Scrooge finds heaped upon the floor “turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn (meat from a pig’s or calf’s head), great joints of meat, suckling 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.”
While Dickens despaired of the prevalent alcoholism of the disenfranchised of his day, he did imbibe a bit. He was likely the first Victorian oenophile.
A summary of the contents of his wine cellar at his home, Gad’s Hill, was compiled after his death in a catalog for a sale in August of 1870. This catalog reveals his cellar contained the equivalent of over 2,200 bottles, including dozens of bottles and magnums of Champagne and Port.
One catalog entry lists 18 magnums of Port, extra quality, vintage 1851. Another lists 5 dozen bottles of vintage 1834 Port, while yet another entry lists 17 dozen bottles of champagne from the region of Bouzy.
References to alcohol abound in Dickens novels. While he had an inordinate amount of Port in his cellar, it should be noted that a man of his fame and fortune entertained frequently. Dickens, as did other Victorians, was known to have a fondness for hot mulled punch, which often involved copious amounts of Port.
In “A Christmas Carol,” when Scrooge recognizes his ill treatment of his employee Bob Cratchit, he says he and Cratchit will get together to discuss his future over a bowl of Smoking Bishop — a libation known to be favored by Dickens.
If you want to put a bit of Dickens in your Christmas this year, here is a recipe for Smoking Bishop, courtesy of Cedric Dickens, great-grandson of Charles Dickens, in his book “Drinking with Dickens.”
6 Seville oranges
½ pound sugar
1 bottle Portuguese red wine
1 bottle of Port
To assemble, bake oranges in oven until they are pale brown, then place in a warmed earthenware bowl with five cloves pricked into each orange.
Add the sugar and pour in the Portuguese red wine but not the Port. Cover and leave in a warm place for about a day.
Squeeze the oranges into the wine and pour through a sieve. Add the Port and heat, but do not boil. Serve in warm goblets and drink hot.
Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.