Food and Identity

In my last post I wrote about the fried food eaten at the Jewish festival of Hannukah; the food laws and various culinary traditions of Judaism provide a key way in which Jews signal their identity to the wider world.

But you don’t have to follow strict food rules and practices to tell people who you are via the food you eat. Like the clothes we wear and the music we listen to, the food we eat sends out clear signals about our identity. Continue reading “Food and Identity”

Charlotte Bronte and food

Today marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, the eldest of the three novelist sisters.  Having previously blogged about food in Jane Eyre (published 1847), I thought that today would be a good opportunity to revisit these posts and what we learn about food in Bronte’s best-known novel.

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte at the Bronte Parsonage Museum

As I reread these posts I noticed the way Jane’s relationship with food in the novel mirrors her journey to self-realization as a woman able to lead her life as she chooses.

In the novel’s early chapters describing her childhood, Jane is the recipient of food, the quality of which reflects her relationship with the giver.  At her harsh boarding school, Lowood, presided over by the cruel Mr Brocklehurst the food is dreadful and in limited supply .  The breakfast porridge is frequently burnt,  in the winter months the children grow faint through lack of food and bullying – over food – prevails:

Many a time I have shared between two claimants the precious morsel of brown bread distributed at teatime, and after relinquishing to a third half the contents of my mug of coffee, I have swallowed the remainder with an accompaniment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger.
                                                                                                                  (Chapter 7)

But hope comes in the figure of Miss Temple, the school superintendent.  As well as providing Jane with warmth and guidance – she is the nearest to a mother figure Jane will have – she also provides her with better food.  When the porridge is burnt, Miss Temple sees to it that the pupils receive bread and cheese for lunch as compensation.  And when Jane is upset after a public reprimand by Mr Brocklehurst, Miss Temple comforts her and her friend Helen Burns giving them tea and slices of seed cake cut ‘with a generous hand’: see this post.

When Jane leaves Lowood School following Miss Temple’s marriage, she takes up the position of governess to Mr Rochester’s ward at Thornfield Hall.  Whilst she has some independence in that she is working and earning her own living, she is still dependent on an employer to pay her salary.  And whilst a governess was socially superior to other household occupations such as cook and housekeeper, since it demanded education and a certain level of gentility, it was nonetheless a paid position rendering the occupant inferior to other women who did not need to earn a living.  Jane’s awkward, and difficult to categorise, position in society is then reflected in her relationship with food.  Whilst for the most part she eats food cooked for her by the kitchen staff at Thornfield Hall, she is called on to help with the cooking when Mr Rochester brings a party of “fine people” to stay.   Jane notes:

Mrs Fairfax (the housekeeper) had pressed me into her service, and I was all day in 
the storeroom, helping (or hindering) her and the cook; learning to make custards 
and cheese-cakes and French pastry, to truss game and garnish dessert-dishes. 
                                                                                                      (Chapter 17)

Whilst Jane’s higher social status means she is not used to cooking, and certainly does not know how to cook the more complicated dishes required,  her position as governess means she is expected to ‘muck in’ when the situation requires it: see this post.

After her departure from Thornfield Hall – in the wake of her discovery (on the day of her marriage) of Mr Rochester’s living wife  – Jane seeks refuge with the Rivers family who turn out to be her relations.  When she comes into an unexpected fortune, following the death of an uncle in Madeira, the newly independent Jane thanks her new-found family by spending some of her fortune on them and on the Christmas arrangements, including the making of the Christmas cake, promising that she and Hannah (the housekeeper) will devote two days to “such a beating of eggs, sorting of currants, grating of spices, compounding of Christmas cakes, chopping up of materials for mince pies, and solemnizing of other culinary rites...” (Chapter 34) .  Free at last to live her life as she wishes, Jane can now choose to cook what she wants for the people she loves: see this post.

Christmas Cake

Christmas is a favourite time of year in literature, with its appearance serving many different narrative functions.  It provides an occasion for characters to be reunited – as in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) where Tom Tulliver returns from school to his family.  Christmas can also provide drama, such as the Christmas meal in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), during which the soldiers hunting the escaped prisoners – including Magwitch, whom the protagonist Pip has supplied with his sister’s Christmas pork pie – arrive and disrupt proceedings.  In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published 18 years earlier in 1843 Christmas provides the motivation and opportunity for personal change, with the miserly Scrooge learning to love and give after he is visited by an array of ghosts.

And of course Christmas scenes give writers the opportunity to describe Christmas food.  In  A Christmas Carol Bob Cratchit, Dickens’ poorly paid employee, his wife and six children, including the lame Tiny  Tim, although forced by penury to share one goose amongst them, treat their  Christmas meal – ‘eked out by …apple-sauce and mashed potatoes’ – as a veritable feast.  Likewise the family greet the arrival of the Christmas pudding, brought in by Mrs Cratchit, with great joy, calling it a ‘wonderful pudding’, and ‘nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family.’

The Wonderful Pudding by Sol Eytinge, 1869
(Scanned image and text by Philip V, Allingham

In The Mill on the Floss the narrator notes that ‘the dessert was as splendid as ever with its golden oranges, brown nuts, and the crystalline light and dark of apple jelly and damson cheese.’  The familiarity of the Christmas food provides some comfort for Tom Tulliver who finds other changes in his family since his absence.

At the heart of food – and particularly Christmas food – is of course the idea of generosity: of giving to others, and sharing with them.  This is illustrated in the efforts Jane Eyre makes in preparing Christmas food for her newly adopted family in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel.  It is towards the end of the novel and Jane has fled her home, Thornfield, following the discovery that the man she was about to marry, Mr Rochester, is already married.  In great distress, with no money and nowhere to go, Jane takes refuge with the Rivers family: the clergyman, St John, and his sisters Diana and Mary.    During her stay there, just before Christmas, Jane receives two welcome pieces of news:   her uncle in Madeira has died and left her a fortune; and the Rivers are in fact her cousins.  Keen to thank her new-found family for their hospitality, and desiring to particularly show her love to Diana and Mary who are away but soon to return, Jane – as well as planning to share her fortune with them – decides that the Christmas arrangements will be undertaken by her, as she tells St John:

My first aim will be … to clean down Moor House from chamber to cellar; my next to rub it up with beeswax, oil, and an indefinite number of cloths, till it glitters again; my third, to arrange every chair, table, bed, carpet, with mathematical precision, afterwards I shall go near to ruin you in coals and peat to keep up good fires in every room; and lastly, the two days preceding that on which your sisters are expected will be devoted by Hannah (the housekeeper) and me to such a beating of eggs, sorting of currants, grating of spices, compounding of Christmas cakes, chopping up of materials for mince pies, and solemnizing of other culinary rites…

Last year I blogged about making mince pies, with reference to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – see here.  So this year I thought it was time for a Christmas cake recipe.  I have made my family Christmas Cake for over 20 years.  Like all long-standing recipes, it reflects our particular tastes – some of my family are not big fans of dried fruit, particularly currants, so I just use raisins and an abundance of glace cherries.  And nuts – once disliked by one of my brothers – have been omitted.  And since my Mum always made our Christmas cake with guinness, rather than brandy, so do I.  But provided you keep the quantity of the ingredients the same, you can adapt the recipe below to suit your tastes.

I usually make my Christmas cake the last weekend in November – though this one was made a week earlier – but it could be made even earlier, or later.  Marzipan and icing instructions to follow as Christmas approaches.


450g raisins
450g glace cherries, rinsed, dried and halved
3 tablespoons  Guinness
225g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
225g unsalted butter
225g soft brown sugar (I use 100g light brown and 125g dark brown)
4 large eggs
1 dessertspoon black treacle
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange

The evening before you want to bake the cake, put the raisins and cherries in a mixing bowl and mix in the Guinness.  Cover the bowl with a tea-cloth or cling film and leave for at least 12 hours.
The next day, begin by preparing the cake tin.  Grease a 20cm loose-based round cake tin and line both the sides and the base with baking parchment.  Tie a band of baking parchment around the outside of the tin for extra protection.

Pre-heat the oven to 140C (Fan 120C) or Gas mark 1.  Sift the flour, salt and spices into a large mixing bowl.  In a separate large mixing bowl cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat the eggs in a separate bowl.  Add them to the butter and sugar mixture 1 tablespoonful at a time, adding 1 tablespoon of the flour and spice mixture between each spoonful of egg to avoid the mixture curdling.  Then fold in the remaining flour and spices, followed by the fruit, treacle and finally  the lemon and orange zest.

Spoon the cake mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top.  Cover the top of the cake with a double square of double square of baking parchment with a £2 coin-sized hole in the middle.  Because the cake cooks for such a long period of time, extra protection is needed.  Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 4 – 5 hours.

Cool the cake in the tin for at least 30 minutes, and then remove it to a wire rack to finish cooling.  When it is cold, use a skewer or cake tester to prick holes into the cake and ‘feed’ the cake with about 1 tablespoon of Guinness.  Then wrap the cake in a double layer of baking parchment and 1 layer of foil, or store in an airtight box.  Feed it on a weekly basis until you are ready to decorate the cake.