The Denial of Food

When food is referred to in literature, it is usually – not surprisingly – because characters are eating it.  And when characters don’t eat, it is usually because they have been deprived of food or the food is inedible, as is the case with Jane Eyre at boarding school – see

However, there are also literary characters who refuse to eat the food that is set before them, deliberately starving themselves and making themselves ill.  In Jane Austen’s Emma, Jane Fairfax, orphaned niece of the impoverished Miss Bates, has a poor appetite which Miss Bates comments on at any opportunity:  ‘they had to listen to the description of exactly how little bread and butter [Jane] ate for breakfast, and how small a slice of mutton for dinner’ (ch. 20).

Jane Fairfax at the picnic at Box Hill (from the 2009 BBC dramatization)

In the course of the novel Jane’s appetite diminishes further, and as she prepares to leave and take up the post of a governess she becomes quite seriously ill: in addition to having ‘severe headachs [sic], and a nervous fever’, her appetite is ‘quite gone’.  When Emma sends her ‘arrow-root’, an expensive food starch that was used to make a jelly for invalids, Jane rebuffs her act of generosity, sending back the arrow root with a ‘thousand thanks’ but saying ‘it was a thing she could not take – and, moreover, …she was not at all in want of any thing’ (ch. 45).  Shortly after this it is revealed that Jane has been secretly engaged to Frank Churchill, and it seems likely that the pressures of keeping this secret, coupled with Frank’s often cruel and thoughtless treatment of her, have led to her illness and her refusal to eat.

The denial of food owing to emotional distress also features in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847.  In this novel which charts the stormy relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, both characters refuse food when they are upset.  Early on in the novel, when Catherine comes home after spending time with a neighbouring family (the genteel Lintons of Thrushcross Grange, who provide a dramatic contrast to the unruly Earnshaws of Wuthering Heights, and into which family Catherine will subsequently marry), Heathcliff sulks and goes to bed without eating his ‘cake and cheese’ which the narrator notes ‘remained on the table all night, for the fairies’ (vol. 1, ch. 7).  At the end of the novel, Nelly Dean, the narrator and housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, reports how as Heathcliff approaches death he takes so little interest in daily life he barely remembers ‘to eat and drink’ (vol. 2, ch. 19).

But more marked than Heathcliff’s refusal to eat is Catherine’s.  When Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights, following an absence of three years, Catherine, who is now married to Edgar Linton and living at Thrushcross Grange ‘could neither eat nor drink’ (vol. 1, ch. 10), so excited as she is to see him again.  A short while later, following a violent argument between Edgar and Heathcliff, at the end of which Edgar tries to make Catherine choose between himself and Heathcliff, Catherine works herself into a frenzy and begins refusing food, as Nelly reports:
As she never offered to descend to breakfast next morning, I went to ask whether she would have some carried up.
‘No!’ she replied, peremptorily.
The same question was repeated at dinner, and tea; and again on the morrow after, and received the same answer.  (vol. 1, ch. 11)

Catherine watches as Edgar and Heathcliff fight it out (from the 2009 ITV dramatization)

Nelly is convinced that Catherine starves herself to punish her husband: ‘…she fasted pertinaciously, under the idea, probably, that at every meal, Edgar was ready to choke for her absence, and pride alone held him from running to cast himself at her feet; (vol. 1, ch. 12).

There may well be some truth in Nelly’s rather dismissive comments, but as Nelly herself acknowledges she would not have been so dismissive had ‘she known [Catherine’s] true condition’ (vol. 1, ch. 12).  For Catherine is subsequently diagnosed with a ‘brain fever’ (vol. 1, ch. 13) and whilst she does recover, her recovery is only partial: she is permanently weakened and dies a few months later in childbirth.

It might seem rather paradoxical to come up with a recipe at the end of a post about characters refusing to eat, but I was intrigued by the ‘cake and cheese’ that Heathcliff shuns.  Assuming it could not be what we call cake nowadays, I did some research and think it is possibly a reference to havercake, the Yorkshire term for a thick oatcake. One website I consulted – – notes that children were brought up on havercake and cheese, which they ate for supper.  Heathcliff’s ‘cake and cheese’ is an evening snack and, at this stage in the book, he is still a child, so it seems to fit.  So, here it is – Heathcliff’s havercakes – too good to be left for the fairies.


Ingredients (makes approximately 12): 
150g fine or medium oatmeal
One pinch salt
One pinch bicarbonate of soda
50g plain flour
Boiling water
Knob of butter
(optional: Sesame seeds)

Mix together the dry ingredients and then add the butter with enough boiling water to make a pliable dough.  Knead briefly and roll out thinly.  Cut into rounds or triangles and place on a greased baking sheet.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds if desired.  Bake for about 25 minutes at 180C (fan 170C) or gas mark 4 until brown and crisp. Serve buttered with cheese.  


A Danish Break

A deviation from my journey through food in English literature, but after a recent short break in Copenhagen I felt inspired to try my hand at a bit of Danish baking, and blog about it.  So this post is more about moving from the pages of the guidebook – rather than those of literary texts – to the plate.
Copenhagen is a very user-friendly capital city.  With a city population of just over 1, 200, 000, and an area in size of 88.5km2 (almost half the size of London), Copenhagen’s main sites are easily accessible by foot if you stay centrally.  Whilst there are a number of sites to see, Copenhagen is also the kind of city that it is nice – and practical – to wander around in, stopping off now and again for a coffee (and a pastry!).

Interesting sites – literary / culturally – inspired include the following:

The Little Mermaid statue (in Danish, Den Lille Havfrue), inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy story from 1837 which tells of the mermaid who falls in love with the prince she rescues from drowning and sacrifices her voice for human legs (even though having them sentences her to eternal pain).  Failing to win the prince’s love, the mermaid throws herself into the sea, rather than kill the prince which would have restored her to her mermaid self and allowed her to live out a full life in the ocean.  However, she is rewarded for her selflessness by being turned into an airbound spirit.

Christianborg Palace: this building houses all three of Denmark’s branches of government:  the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister’s office.  Its nickname is Borgen, also the title of the popular Danish political TV drama which ran for three series and was broadcast in the UK in 2012 and 2013.  Borgen tells the story of politician Birgitte Nyborg, leader of the Moderate Party, who unexpectedly becomes the first female Prime Minister of Denmark.
Helsingor (English: Elsinore), a 45 minute train journey from Copenhagen, is the home of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  Whilst it is unlikely that Shakespeare ever visited Denmark, Kronborg Castle conjures up the atmosphere of the opening scenes of Hamlet.  As you walk around the battlements you can imagine the terror of Marcellus and Bernard, the soldiers on the night watch, when they encounter the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

But the food in Copenhagen is just as much of a draw, or it certainly was for me.  Home to Noma – the restaurant voted number one in the world in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 – Copenhagen offers world-class Nordic cuisine, not all of which will bankrupt you: Noma has to be booked 6 months in advance and the tasting menu (of approximately 20 small plates) will set you back approximately £250.  Needless to say I did not eat there; I just stood outside and yearned.

But I still ate well.  Among places I visited I can recommend:

Det Lille Apotek, at Store Kannikestraede 15, is Copenhagen’s oldest surviving restaurant. Founded in 1720, the restaurant – whose name means The Little Pharmacy – was frequented by Hans Christian Andersen of The Little Mermaid fame.  It serves typical Danish cuisine, including pickled salmon, herring platter, pork stew and pork schnitzel.
Frk Barners Kaelder, Helgolandsgade 8A, offers authentic Danish cooking from the mid-20th century.  Once again – no surprise – there are plenty of herrings (served on rye bread topped with pork fat – delicious) but also other types of fish and meat dishes.
Granola, at Værnedamsvej 5, was our favourite breakfast haunt though it also offers lunch and dinner.  The Sweet breakfast plate – which includes skyr (Icelandic yoghurt), muesli, cinnamon bread and pancakes – is highly recommended.
Brod, at Enghave Plads 7, is not somewhere you can eat, but a bakery (Brod means bread in Danish) which sells a huge range of fresh breads, plus rolls, buns and pastries.

After eating so well in Copenhagen, I was determined to try my hand at something Nordic in my kitchen, so I thought I would try to make a version of the cinnamon swirl that I had bought from Brod.  It’s a long process, because it uses an enriched dough (a bread dough with added butter and eggs) which slows down the proving process.  My dough took 2 hours to rise, and then the shaped swirls another hour, so you need to give yourself a good 4 hours to make them.  But they’re definitely worth it.

Ingredients (makes 12 buns) 
For the dough:
500g strong white flour
7g instant dried yeast
1 teaspoon salt
40g caster sugar
200ml milk
2 large eggs
60g butter, softened

For the filling: 
80g butter, softened
120g soft light brown sugar
2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon

For the topping: 
1 tablespoon soft light brown sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 egg, beaten

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl, then sprinkle the yeast and sugar on top.
Heat the milk very gently in a pan until it is tepid.  Add the milk, eggs and butter to the dry ingredients and bring together.  At this point you can leave the dough to rest for 15 minutes – to allow it to absorb some of the liquid and become less sticky – though this is not necessary.
Knead the dough for 10-15 minutes by hand (or 5-10 minutes in a mixer) until it is elastic and smooth.  Set aside in a large, greased covered bowl to rise at room temperature until it has doubled in size.  This will take anywhere between 1 and 2 hours.
When the dough has risen, empty it out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface.  Knock or press it back down and then roll out to make a rectangle of approximately 50 x 30 cm.  Make sure the longer edge is facing you – ie. the longer edge should be the horizontal edge.
Beat together the butter, sugar and cinnamon for the filling, and spread it carefully over the dough rectangle, leaving a very thin (1/4”) margin all the way around.
Starting with the long edge that is closer to you, roll up the rectangle into a reasonably tight roll.  When you’ve nearly finished rolling, dampen a finger (or a pastry brush) and use it to stick the remaining long edge to the work surface.  That way, when the dough is rolled onto the final edge, it will stick to itself.
Trim a couple of centimetres off each end to straighten up the roll, and then divide the remaining roll into 12 equally sized slices.
Line a baking tray or roasting dish with baking paper, and then place the slices on it, cut sides facing up so that they are close to one another but not touching.  Leave to prove for another 45-60 minutes until they are puffed up and just touching. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180C, fan 160C, gas mark 4.  When the swirls are ready to go in the oven, brush them with beaten egg and then sprinkle over the cinnamon and sugar mixed together.  Bake for 20-25 minutes.  Leave to cool before eating.  If you cool them on a wire rack, keep them sitting on the baking paper so the gooey filling does not seep all over your kitchen surface (she says from past experience!).
You could try other variations on the fillings: I’m sure chunks of chocolate would work well, and Ruby Tandoh in Crumb (London, 2014) has a version with blueberries and pistachios which is delicious.  You could also use other nuts and dried fruit, including chopped dried apricots.