“The Gambits of Conversation Derived from Food”
In the Mapp and Lucia group on Facebook, the members quite often discuss the different foods and drink that make appearances in the stories about Tilling and Riseholme. Without these being “foodie” books, it is interesting to note how many times food gets mentioned very specifically, often to make a plot point, or to highlight some aspect of a character.
Not only do we have the famous Lobster à la Riseholme, the secrets of which are never fully revealed, but we also learn about dear Diva’s sardine tartlets and her pastry-fingers, and Susan Leg’s cream-wafers. And then there are those little chocolate cakes, of so cloying and substantial a nature, Diva’s passion for nougat, and then eggs and chestnut ice, both à la Capri. Captain Puffin sadly drowns in his soup – but not just any soup. “Lungs full of ox-tail”. Even quaint Irene is spotted with a lobster in her marketing-basket.
Of course, there’s always that “wretched supper, consisting largely of tomato-salad” – rather out of character for Lucia to treat her guests so meanly.
And who can forget Elizabeth’s store-cupboard, storing food against the possibility of a coal-strike (remember that a coal-strike would have paralysed the railways at that time, and therefore food distribution would have ground to a halt).
And then we have Elizabeth and Benjy-boy entertaining Rudolph da Vinci to dinner. Described witheringly by Diva as:
Tomato soup, middle-cut of Salmon sent over from Hornbridge [note: is this because Elizabeth no longer buys from Hopkins, or what?], a brace of grouse from Rice’s, Melba peaches, but only bottled with custard instead of cream, and tinned caviar.
I could continue with the foods produced and eaten in Tilling, but let’s stop there.
In Riseholme, not only does the Guru produce some delicious little curries for Daisy and Robert, but we get a good idea of how Lucia entertains from the provisions she orders for her smart London guests when she hosts a house-party.
…several pounds of salmon, dozens (“Literally dozens,” said Mrs Boucher, “for I saw the basket”) of eggs, two chickens, a leg of lamb, as well as countless other provisions unidentified…
Then there is Mrs Weston who feeds Colonel Boucher a dinner consisting of brill (a fish we don’t see much these days] “for they hadn’t got an ounce of turbot”, a partridge, a bit of cold ham and a savoury.
Lucia often eats “macaroni” (but it seems from the description that some other kind of pasta is meant here, probably spaghetti) in tribute to her Italian leanings.
Again, these are only a few of the times in which food makes its appearance in these stories.
Can we draw anything from all of these? I think that the frequent mention of food helps us realise several important points about the inhabitants of Riseholme and Tilling:
- The principal characters are quite clearly well-off by most standards. The presence of game and salmon on the menus, as well as the quantity of courses, indicate this. Of course, all practice economy on the quiet, but in public, a little showiness is called for.
- Remember, these people didn’t prepare their own food (unless it was Lucia playing at being a cook in the final preparation of her (in)famous lobster dish. Servants did all the hard work of preparation – and washing up afterwards (the picture comes from Downton Abbey, but you can imagine similar scenes in the kitchens of Mallards and Grebe)!
- They enjoyed their food. Even Robert Quantock, who throws his food about a bit when he doesn’t like it. With very few exceptions, none of them have jobs. Gossip and food are among their principal joys in life. And as many of us trapped in lockdown here in the UK are aware, meals and food take on a new importance at such times (to the detriment of some waistlines!).
- We should remember that when these books, especially the early ones, Britain had just escaped by the skin of its teeth from starvation caused by the U-boat blockade. Benson was writing escapism, and the escapism includes food, in much the same way that Dorothy L. Sayers provided Lord Peter Wimsey with a fast car and luxurious meals when she was commuting on crowded buses and living off poached eggs on toast.
Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on food in the Mapp and Lucia books. I’m fascinated to know what others’ favourite foods are in these stories. Please leave comments below.