At rise of curtain, the four BIRLINGS and GERALD are seated at the table, with ARTHUR BIRLING at one end, his wife at the other, ERIC downstage, and SHEILA and GERALD seated upstage. EDNA, the parlour-maid, is just clearing the table, which has no cloth, of dessert plates and champagne glasses, etc., and then replacing them with decanter of port, cigar box and cigarettes. (J. B. Priestley, An Inspector Calls)
In most of my posts the food I write about plays an important role in the literary text and is described to a greater or lesser extent.
However, when the curtain goes up for the opening of J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls the meal has already been eaten.
Priestley’s play, first performed in 1946, in the aftermath of the Second World War, is set over one evening in Spring 1912 in the home of the wealthy Birling family in Brumley, a fictionalised industrial city in the North Midlands. Arthur and Sybil Birling have held a dinner to celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Sheila, to Gerald Croft.
With the meal finished, and the port, cigars and cigarettes brought in, the women – as tradition dictated – exit the stage, leaving the men to continue to drink and smoke. And at that moment, a visitor – the Inspector of the title – calls at the house. As many will know, he comes to inform the Birlings of the suicide of a young woman, Eva Smith, who it turns out was in contact – in one way or another – with everybody at the celebratory dinner that evening. Without giving away crucial plot details, as the evening unfolds and the Inspector’s interrogation of the diners takes place, it becomes clear to the audience that everyone present at the dinner table when the play opens has, in one way or another, a part to play in Eva’s death.
A key theme of the play is the importance of society and our responsibility for one another. As the Inspector says in his final speech: ‘We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.’ More than seventy years after the play’s first performance, the Inspector’s words still seem relevant.
Back to the food. By opening the play at the end of dinner, Priestley creates a celebratory mood which is subsequently destroyed by the Inspector’s news of Eva Smith’s death. There is also an uncomfortable contrast between the obviously delicious meal the family has just consumed – Arthur says, ‘Good dinner too, Sybil. Tell cook from me.’ – and the fact that Eva kills herself by consuming ‘a lot of strong disinfectant. Burnt her inside out, of course.’ The meal also allows all the play’s characters – with the exception of the Inspector – to be on stage together at the start, but the audience is not distracted by the sight of actual food being eaten – a topic which was discussed in a Guardian article.
With Priestley giving no details about what is consumed at the dinner, I had complete freedom with my chosen dish. Since dessert is alluded to – ‘dessert plates’ – I decided to focus on that. With Arthur Birling working his way up from rather lowly origins – the stage directions note he is ‘rather provincial in his speech’ – I thought he would appreciate a traditional English dessert. At the same time his wife, Sybil, is ‘her husband’s social superior’ so I thought she might favour something slightly more sophisticated. So, I chose to make lemon posset. It fits Arthur Birling’s criteria by dating back to medieval times, when the term was used to refer to a hot drink of spiced milk, curdled with wine or ale. By the mid-18th century eggs were being added to the mixture, as a forerunner of the dessert eaten nowadays. Nowadays posset is made with cream, not eggs, making it an extravagant dessert likely to please Sybil Birling: its richness means it has to be served in small quantities which adds the touch of delicacy I think she would demand.
THE BIRLINGS’ LEMON POSSET
Ingredients (serves 6):
600ml double cream
200g golden caster sugar
3 lemons: zest and 75ml juice
Heat the cream and sugar in a large saucepan over a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved into the cream. Bring the mixture to a simmer and bubble for 1 minute.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the lemon zest and juice. Stir thoroughly and then pour the mixture into ramekins or glasses. Cool to room temperature. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 3 hours before serving.
Serve as it is, or with fruit and/ or home-made shortbread as an accompaniment.