Food in Dystopia

So often when food appears in literature, it is designed to appeal to the reader’s senses – to sound delicious, to whet our appetites.  

However, sometimes that isn’t the case. In Jane Eyre the burnt porridge at Lowood School highlights the poor treatment of the orphan girls and also provides a contrast with the delicious seed cake Jane and her fellow pupil, Helen Burns, are treated to by Miss Temple. Whereas in Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life the Todd family’s cook, Mrs Glover, makes often unsuccessful attempts to produce cutting edge dishes reflecting the fashions of the time: her Sole Veronique is described as a ‘surprisingly capricious interpretation‘ whilst a character comments that her Veal Cutlets a la Russe look ‘like the dog’s dinner‘. No reader is likely to feel hungry when coming across these episodes.

However, both Jane Eyre and Life After Life still include a number of references to food that does sound appetising. That is not the case in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell’s dystopian novel, which was published in 1949, offers a disturbing vision of a totalitarian future: a world of surveillance, restrictions and alternative facts, which many might think bears a striking resemblance to some parts of the world in 2017.

In the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four there is a nightmareish quality to every aspect of life, and food is no exception. Boiled cabbage is a staple: when the protagonist, Winston Smith, goes to help his neighbour, Mrs Parsons, with her blocked sink, ‘There was the usual boiled-cabbage smell‘. Sugar is replaced by saccharine and chocolate is rationed and tastes ‘like the smoke of a rubbish fire‘. Other food items – such as fruit – are no longer available. Winston comments to Julia – the young woman in his workplace with whom he embarks on an illicit affair after the pair discover their shared antipathy to the ruling Party – that he can ‘remember lemons‘ when she asks what a lemon is after he quotes the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ to her.

In the workplace a regulation lunch is provided: ‘a metal pannikin of pinkish-grey stew, a hunk of bread, a cube of cheese, a mug of milkless Victory Coffee, and one saccharine tablet.’ The stew, which is described as ‘a filthy liquid mess that had the appearance of vomit‘ is washed down with gin, but even an alcoholic drink is something to endure rather than enjoy, its only seeming benefit being to stimulate the drinker’s appetite so she or he can endure the food:

Winston took up his mug of gin, paused for an instant to collect his nerve, and gulped the oily-tasting stuff down. When he had winked the tears out of his eyes he suddenly discovered that he was hungry. He began swallowing spoonfuls of the stew which, in among its general sloppiness, had cubes of spongy pinkish stuff which was probably a preparation of meat.

However, Winston’s affair with Julia gives him access, not only to love and passion, but also to a number of foodstuffs of which he has been deprived for years. Via the black market Julia is able to access ‘real coffee‘- when it is brewing the smell is ‘so powerful and exciting‘ the couple shut the window ro prevent anyone smelling it – ‘Real sugar. Not saccharine …proper white bread… jam… milk‘ and decent chocolate: ‘The taste was delightful‘.

Since this is a dystopian novel there is, unsurprisingly, no happy ending. In the final chapter Winston is purged of his rebellious tendencies and becomes part of the Party machinery again. His days are now spent in an alcoholic haze, as he consumes countless gins: ‘He took up his glass and sniffed at it. The stuff grew not less but more horrible with every mouthful he drank. But it had become the element he swam in. It was his life, his death, and his resurrection. It was gin that sank him into stupor every night, and gin that revived him every morning.’

With the book ending on that note, it’s difficult to feel inspired to cook any food – particularly not food that revolts.  In the end the only food item I could bring myself to make was the ‘bread and cheese‘ that accompanies Winston Smith’s workplace lunch.

I imagine a dystopian bread and cheese lunch would comprise sliced bread and processed cheese, but the food-lover in me will not stoop to such levels. So here is the bread and cheese Winston Smith would undoubtedly eat had he the choice and the opportunity.

Ingredients (for 1 large loaf):
500g bread flour (I usually use 300g white and 200g wholemeal / granary, but you can do whatever combination – or single flour – you like)
7g sachet instant dried yeast
1 ½ teaspoons salt
310ml lukewarm water
2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine the flour and yeast in a large bowl. Add the salt, followed by the water and oil and, using a wooden spoon or your hands, bring together into a dough.
Knead the dough. If you do it by hand it will take 10-15 minutes; if you’re lucky enough to have a food mixer it will probably take just over 5 minutes. As you knead, the dough will gradually become smoother and more elastic and springy. A good test to see if it is done is to tear off a small piece of dough and gently stretch it out between your fingers. If you can stretch it thinly enough to let light through without breaking, then it is ready.
Put the dough in a large, lightly greased bowl, cover with cling film and leave to rise until doubled in size (at room temperature it will take 1-1 ½ hours).
Empty the dough out of the bowl, knock it back and then shape it as you wish – I usually just make a cob (round loaf) – and place on a greased baking tray. Cover with a clean tea-towel and leave to rise for up to another hour at room temperature. While it is rising the second time, preheat the oven to 220C (Fan 200C / Gas mark 7).
Lightly dust the top of the risen loaf with flour and, using a sharp knife, score a deep cross or row of slits into the loaf. Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes before reducing the temperature to 190C (Fan 170 / Gas mark 5) and bake for a further 20-30 minutes until it has formed a deep golden crust. Leave to cool before slicing and eating with your choice of cheese.


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