Pleasures of the Table: A Literary Anthology selected by Christina Hardyment

Pleasures of the TableFood, glorious food…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another beautifully illustrated book published by the British Library, this makes a fine companion piece to London: A Literary Anthology, which I reviewed a few months back. This time the focus is on food, with extracts from many familiar and not-so-familiar authors. There is a mix of both poetry and prose, grouped together under headings such as: The Art of Hospitality, Love Bites, Childish Things, etc. In each section, the extracts go roughly from older to newer – for example, Dazzling All Beholders runs from Robert May writing in the 17th century to F Scott Fitzgerald in the 20th. As well as giant literary figures – Dickens, Flaubert, Proust and his famous madeleines (which frankly left me thinking ‘Meh! Is that what all the fuss is about really?), DH Lawrence, et al – there are food writers, such as Brillat-Savarin and Hannah Glasse.

“Weal pie,” said Mr Weller, soliloquising, as he arranged the eatables on the grass. “Wery good thing is weal pie, when you know the lady as made it, and is quite sure it ain’t kittens; and arter all though, where’s the odds, when they’re so like weal the wery piemen themselves don’t know the difference?”

Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers

Pickwick

Most of the extracts are fairly short – no more than a couple of pages, and to be honest I didn’t find them quite as mouth-watering on the whole as I was expecting. Often the pieces are more about things associated with food, rather than food itself – restaurants, dining rooms, dinner companions. The balance is very heavily weighted towards older writers, with very few, if any, contemporary writers making an appearance. I think the most recent extract is from about the 1930s. This may be for copyright reasons, at a guess, but it means that none of the exciting food writers of the last few decades are included, nor any modern literary writers.

“That is indeed an excellent suggestion,” said the Water Rat, and hurried off home. There he got out the luncheon basket, and packed a simple meal, in which, remembering the stranger’s origin and preferences, he took care to include a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which laid down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes.

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Childish Things

Without a doubt my favourite section was Childish Things, taking me back to many books I loved. Ratty’s picnic from The Wind in the Willows, the Turkish Delight from Narnia, lashings of ginger beer courtesy of Enid Blyton, and Heidi’s first taste of toasted cheese – all great scenes that really have lived in my memory since childhood. There’s a section on fabulous feasting, with lists of enough dead animals to make a vegetarian faint, and I was glad to get from there to Simple Pleasures, on such delights as tea and hot, buttered toast. And Distant Times and Places brings us travellers’ tales, from Gulliver to Captain Scott.

Afterwards the tables were covered with meats, antelopes with their horns, peacocks with their feathers, whole sheep cooked in sweet wine, haunches of she-camels and buffaloes, hedgehogs with garum, fried grasshoppers, and preserved dormice. Large pieces of fat floated in the midst of saffron in bowls of Tamrapanni wood. Everything was running over with wine, truffles, and asafoetida. Pyramids of fruit were crumbling upon honeycombs, and they had not forgotten a few of those plump little dogs with pink silky hair and fattened on olive lees…

Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô

Heidi

The book is beautifully illustrated, if not quite so lavishly as the London anthology. Most of the illustrations come from the British Library’s own collection, and they are often the specific original illustrations that match the text. Each extract is headed with a short introduction giving the date of writing, which I appreciated, having remarked on the lack of this information in the London book. The list of illustrations is at the back of the book, so requires flicking backwards and forwards if the reader wants to know more about them. The physical quality of the book is wonderful. The cover is gorgeous and pleasingly tactile, the pages are printed on high quality paper and the font and layout are clean and clear. A book that would make a great gift for any food-lover, the more adventurous of whom might want to try out some of the recipes in the final section. I’m not sure I want to eat Alexandre Dumas’ Arab Omelette (made from ostrich and flamenco eggs) but Emily Dickinson’s Gingerbread would go nicely with George Orwell’s Nice Cup of Tea…

Herring à la Rob Roy

Well wash and clean a red herring, wipe it dry and place it in a pie dish, having cut off the head, and split it in two up the back, put a gill or two of whisky over the herring, according to size, hold it on one side of the dish, so that it is covered with the spirit, set it alight, and when the flame goes out the fish is done.

Alexis Soyer in tribute to Sir Walter Scott

Feast

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, The British Library.

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50 thoughts on “Pleasures of the Table: A Literary Anthology selected by Christina Hardyment

  1. Childish Things section sounds like my cup of tea. The menu from Ratty’s picnic from The Wind in the Willows…I wish I could remember this! Weal pie sounds awful. It weally does.

    • I love The Wind in the Willows and read it so often as a kid that I remember huge swatches of it – whereas I’ve completely forgotten the books I read two weeks ago! Haha! I have to say the kittens were not pleased about the weal pie quote – not pleased at all! 😉

  2. Lovely change of pace! I do believe I have read those stories, but not with an eye for the food. I do remember Pip’s pork pie that he stole to give to the convict. So…what’s for tea today? 😉

  3. What a great idea for a theme! Glad you mostly enjoyed this, FictionFan, and of course, there’s nothing like food to resonate with just about everyone. Interesting that the things associated with food (rather than the food itself) take the stage here. Certainly sounds mouth-watering…

    • These are lovely books – I always think of them in terms of gifts, but they’re just as nice to acquire for oneself! I didn’t drool over the food descriptions quite as much as I expected, but the illustrations are superb.

  4. This looks BRILLIANT. I always keep a careful eye out for food and meals in books and include it in my own writing where I can. I am feeling an almost spiritual connection with this book…

  5. Ratty’s picnic is one of my favourite food lists, but I always enjoy descriptions of food (wonder why). Apart from Flaubert’s dogs and Dickens’ kittens this book sounds quite tasty (sorry!).

    • I think it might have been the emphasis on picnic food that made The Wind in the Willows one of my childhood favourites – along with Enid Blyton’s boiled eggs and lashings of ginger beer! I’m a simple soul at heart…

  6. I really SHOULDN’T be liking this, with your kindly warning ‘with lists of enough dead animals to make a vegetarian faint’ not to mention that savagely upsetting Flaubert entry. I’m afraid I ran away, brokenly sobbing, at the horned antelopes.

    So, maybe this won’t be one for me, after all, but the like will get it onto my ‘posts I like’ widget (and i will try to ignore that it is there’, for the benefit of those of my readers who are more……..red-blooded in their culinary tastes than my own delicately green variety!

    Shame really. Some kind soul ought to produce a bowdlerised/censored version for vegetarians with large areas of graphics of carrots, bunches of parsley, bowls of lentils etc obscuring the bloody fur, fin and feather sections

    Even Ratty eats sausages – and I bet they weren’t vegetarian ones. It’s all very upsetting……

    I think it’s time to console myself with some vegetarian pate…………..

    • I’m glad you liked that quote – I selected it especially for you! I knew you’d particularly love the bit about the “plump little dogs with pink silky hair and fattened on olive lees…”. Just the thing to remove the taste of those little kittens in the weal pie. But look on the bright side – after the Flaubert quote even I was dreaming of a nice light salad…

    • The illustrations are fab, especially the ones that relate directly to the extracts. Like Heidi and the cheese, one I remember from a beautiful illustrated copy I had as a child.

  7. I suppose this is one of those reference style of books, not something one might savor cover to cover, right? If that’s the case, why, it looks like it has succeeded!

    • Yes, it’s the kind of thing that would probably be better to dip in and out of. Being a review copy I did read it from cover to cover, but I wouldn’t have read it that way if I wasn’t on a ‘deadline’. Lovely illustrations though…

    • You mean you haven’t read the book!!!? *adds it* I think you’re quite like Ratty in many ways. I’m Moley. Your turn to make the picnic…

      Hoots, mon! Ah dinnae ken wherefore ye hae sae muckle trouble wi’ the patter… ye cannae be a Hielan laddie!

        • Oh good! All the more for me then! *laughs at the ‘refuses it’ bit and moves it up the Professorial TBR* You’ll love it! You’ll love all the stuff about Mr Toad, and the war against the stoats and the weasels. It’s a book that can be enjoyed by ancient people like you just as much as kids!

          *eats a bit of deep-fried Mars Bar and smiles*

  8. It sounds like a wonderful read/admire but the part I like the sound of most is the childish things. Like you say those memories from the books I read as a child have lingered, I remember asking my Grandmother for Turkish Delight as I’d never eaten any and it wasn’t until I saw it in a shop I realised it was a real item!

  9. This book would be lovely to have. I absolutely love Wind in the Willows and loved Pickwick Papers the first time I read it.
    A friend bought Turkish Delight when I worked on a book about C. S. Lewis. 🙂

    • It made me want to re-read all the childrens books – The Wind in the Willows is so great and I used to have a lovely illustrated copy of Heidi when I was a kid – not sure what I’d think of that one as an adult though. But I’ve always wanted to toast cheese at an open fire…

  10. This looks like such a beautiful book, especially the illustrations and the childish delights section, it must have brought back so many memories ohhh the Turkish Delight from Narnia! Great review, as always. 🙂

  11. This sounds like an interesting book! Some of my favourite literary quotes about food and drink come from Jane Austen’s letters, in particular one to her sister, Cassandra, in which she writes:

    “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today. You will kindly make allowance therefore for any indistinctness of writing, by attributing it to this venial error”.

    I can’t help but smile, imagining a drunk Jane Austen!

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