The Take-Away in Literature

It was a nice little dinner …being entirely furnished forth from the coffee-house 
(Great Expectations, Charles Dickens)

Until I visited Pompeii – during a holiday on the Amalfi coast a few years ago – I had always assumed take-aways were a recent invention.  But in the ancient Italian city devastated by the  volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD the streets were lined with thermopolia, service counters opening onto the street where people could buy food to take away.  There were more than 200 of these in Pompeii, and the remains of houses show few traces of kitchen and dining areas, suggesting that cooking at home was unusual. Continue reading “The Take-Away in Literature”

Eating Out

I love eating out almost as much as I love cooking.  And living in London as I do, I’m lucky enough to have an amazing array of restaurants within easy reach offering me all types of food.  
And it’s not just dining in fine establishments – which to be honest I hardly ever do – which I enjoy.  I love cafes, pub food, pizza chains and so on.  It’s partly the social element – since my eating out in London is always with friends or family – but also the enjoyment of having someone cook (and perhaps more importantly wash up and tidy away!) for me.

Thinking back over the posts I have written I realise there have been very references to eating out.  Shakespeare’s comic creation Falstaff, whom I wrote about here, eats and drinks regularly at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap and, although I did not blog about it, in Pride and Prejudice Jane and Elizabeth Bennet break a journey from London to Hertfordshire at an inn and dine at ‘a table set out with such cold meat as an inn larder usually affords’.

But references to characters eating out increase in Charles Dickens’ novels.  His most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield (1849-50), features a number of cases of the protagonist eating out, perhaps reflecting Dickens’ own experiences.  As I wrote in an earlier post, on his way to a school in London the young David stops at an inn in Yarmouth where his meal of ‘chops and vegetables’ followed by ‘batter pudding’ is mainly eaten by the charming but unscrupulous waiter.  But David’s ability to consume his own food improves as he grows older.  Following the death of his mother David is taken out of school by his cruel stepfather, Mr Murdstone, and sent to work at his wine warehouse in the city of London.  Lodging with the Micawber family, who are frequently in debt, David often eats out:

When I dined regularly and handsomely, I had a saveloy and a penny loaf, or a fourpenny plate of red beef from a cook’s shop, or a plate of bread and cheese and a glass of beer, from a miserable old public-house opposite our place of business, called the Lion or the Lion and something else that I have forgotten.  Once, I remember carrying my own bread (which I had brought from home in the morning) under my arm, wrapped in a piece of paper… and going to a famous alamode beef-house near Drury Lane, and ordering a ‘small plate’ of that delicacy to eat with it. …

‘My magnificent order at the public-house’ by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) an etching from the original edition of David Copperfield (1849).  Image scan and text by Philip V. Allingham (

Fine dining it most certainly is not.  What we have instead is good basic cheap food for workers that can be consumed on site, reflecting the situation of many 19th century Londoners who people Dickens’ novels.  Characters like Mr Wemmick in Great Expectations ‘commute’ to work in the City from Walworth (near Elephant and Castle in South London), making it impossible to pop home at lunchtime.  Others like Pip and Herbert Pocket in the same novel are unmarried and live in accommodation which is not geared up for cooking, making eating out a necessity rather than a luxury.
And this is the case with David Copperfield.  His dining is not done in restaurants but in a ‘public-house’ and ‘a cook’s shop’.  The first reference to a cook shop is found in a Latin description of London by William FitzStephen, a trusted clerk of Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, who wrote in the late 12th century:

Besides there is in London on the river bank, among the wines in ships and cellars sold by the vintners, a public cook shop; there eatables are to be found every day, according to the season, dishes of meat, roast, fried and boiled, great and small fish, coarser meats for the poor, more delicate for the rich, of game, fowls and small birds. … However great the multitude of soldiers or travellers entering the city, or preparing to go out of it, at any hour of the day or night, – that these may fast not too long and those may not go out supperless, – they turn hither, if they please, where every man can refresh himself in his own way; (from the English translation in John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London)

The cook shop seems to be providing a 24 hour convenience food service, but with a bit more finesse than today’s McDonald’s: FitzStephen noted that those who so desired could dine ‘luxuriously’.  By the 18th century there were a number of cook shops in London, often occupying the ground floors of standard terraced houses and with many, as I will write about it in my next post, providing a take-away service that we are all too familiar with nowadays.

But back to David Copperfield, and his handsome dining of a ‘saveloy and a penny loaf’.  Realising that there was potentially little cooking involved here – saveloys can be bought ready cooked from the deli counters of big supermarkets – I discovered that a traditional accompaniment to saveloys was (and still is in the North of England) pease pudding.  In fact, staying with the Dickensian theme, in Lionel Bart’s Oliver, the musical based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the orphan boys in the workhouse in the song ‘Food Glorious Food’ express their desire for ‘pease pudding and saveloy’: see
So, here is my recipe:

SAVELOYS AND PEASE-PUDDING (serves 2 – or 1 very hungry orphan)

200g yellow split peas (check on the packet if they need pre-soaking overnight)
1 small onion, chopped finely
1 potato, peeled and chopped finely
1 clove garlic, chopped finely
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs thyme
1 knob butter
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

To serve:  4 saveloys (heated through in the oven) and bread and butter

Rinse the split peas thoroughly in fresh cold water.  Place them in a medium-sized saucepan and add enough cold water to cover by about 1 cm.  Bring to the boil and boil briskly for 10 minutes, spooning off any scum that rises to the surface.  Turn down the heat and add the finely chopped potato, onion and garlic, bay leaf and thyme.  Season generously, cover with a lid and cook gently for 45 minutes.  Keep a close eye on it and if it starts to get dry add more water.  When the peas and potato are very tender, remove the bay leaf and thyme, and mash with the butter.  Add more seasoning if need be and stir through some chopped parsley before serving with the saveloys and bread and butter.

Midnight Feasts

When we went upstairs to bed, [Steerforth] produced the whole seven shillings’ worth, and laid it out on my bed in the moonlight, saying: 
‘There you are, young Copperfield, and a royal spread you’ve got.’

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

As a child I longed to go to boarding school.  Not because I hated my family, but because of the books I read about boarding school life.

The ones that stand out in my memory are the Malory Towers and St Clare’s series by Enid Blyton. The varied personalities of the schoolgirls – who always included at least one ‘foreigner’ for added glamour – coupled with the eccentric teachers, created a tantalising world that was  so far removed from my Devon schooldays.  And the ‘fun and mischief’ they got up to – as it says on the blurb of my ancient copy of Third Year at Malory Towers – was equally appealing to my diligent and well-behaved nine year-old self;  I would never dare to be naughty, but I could live vicariously through Blyton’s creations.

It was the midnight feasts I most envied.  The prospect of food was – unsurprisingly – always appealing to me.  And eating it outside of adult-regulated time created an extra frisson, especially as the food was always delicious – fruit and vegetables didn’t seem to feature very often.
I never had a midnight feast as a child.  I think I thought about it, but I have always liked my sleep so the prospect of setting an alarm to get up in the middle of the night – even to eat food – was never particularly appealing.  So, as with fun and mischief in the classroom, my midnight feasts were only ever participated in vicariously through the pages of a book.

Preceding Blyton by almost a century, Charles Dickens also recognised the fascination of illicit food-eating to children.   But the midnight feast he describes in David Copperfield (1849-50) is tinged with coercion and bullying, just as the boarding school Salem House is a far cry from the fantasy boarding schools of Enid Blyton’s books.  When David arrives at his new school, having lost most of his dinner to the hungry waiter at the Yarmouth inn – see my previous post – he encounters what is presumably a type of initiation ritual with the boys’ self-proclaimed leader, Steerforth.

Steerforth, with a friendly air, welcomes David to the school then suggests he hand over all the money he has – seven shillings – so he can take care of it.  David is then persuaded by Steerforth to spend the money on provisions for the boys that they will consume later that evening:

‘Do you want to spend anything now?’ he asked me.
‘No, thank you,’ I replied.
‘You can, if you like, you know,’ said Steerforth. ‘Say the word.’
‘No, thank you, sir,’ I repeated.
‘Perhaps you’d like to spend a couple of shillings or so, in a bottle of currant wine by and by, up in the bedroom?’ said Steerforth.  ‘You belong to my bedroom, I find.’
It certainly had not occurred to me before, but I said, Yes, I should like that. 
‘Very good,’ said Steerforth.  ‘You’ll be glad to spend another shilling or so, in almond cakes, I dare say?’
I said, Yes, I should like that, too. 
‘And another shilling or so in biscuits, and another in fruit, eh?’ said Steerforth.  ‘I say, young Copperfield, you’re going it!’
I smiled because he smiled, but I was a little troubled in my mind, too.

David is right to be troubled.  Not just because he has given away all his money on his first evening, but also because in years to come Steerforth will wreck the life of David’s first love, little Emily.   But that dark event is years away.  And through funding the midnight feast, David has been welcomed into the school community, an absolute essential for a boy who has been, to all intents and purposes, ejected from his family home.

When it came to cooking something for this post, the almond cakes were an obvious choice – especially for someone like me who loves almonds.  They were so good that I think that even an early bird like me would be happy to get up in the middle of the night to eat them.


Ingredients (makes 10-12)
For the cakes
80g plain flour
40g ground almonds
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
a pinch of salt
40g unsalted butter at room temperature
120ml milk
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
A handful of flaked almonds

For the icing
4 tablespoons icing sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon water
2 or 3 drops almond extract

Preheat the oven to 170C (160 fan or Gas mark 3).

If you have a standalone mixer, or an electric whisk, beat together all the cake ingredients – except the milk, egg and almond extract –  on a slow speed until you have a sandy consistency.  (If you are doing this by hand then you will need to rub the butter into the dry ingredients using the tips of your fingers to create the sandy consistency).  Gradually pour in half the milk and beat until it is just incorporated into the mixture.  Then whisk together the remaining milk with the egg and almond extract and beat into the remaining mixture until you have a smooth batter.

Spoon the mixture into cupcake cases in a cupcake tray until each one is 2/3 full.  Sprinkle a few flaked almonds on top of each cake.  Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until light golden in colour, the cake springs back when pressed lightly and a skewer or cake tester inserted into the cake comes out clean.  Leave the cakes to cool slightly before turning onto a wire rack.

Whilst the cakes are cooling make the icing.  Mix the water and almond extract with the icing sugar and drizzle over the top of the cakes.