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.

The Fig in Literature

Driven as I was to cook with figs when they arrived in my organic box a few weeks ago I knew I was on safe ground with them as far as literature was concerned since I had just finished teaching Antony and Cleopatra in which Cleopatra has the poisonous snake that will kill her brought to her concealed in a basket of figs.


The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur (1871-1934); I wonder if the basket on the right, with greenery emerging from it, is supposed to be the figs

Of course in Shakespeare’s play the figs are simply there as a diversionary ruse, and are not eaten at all, so I embarked on my quest to find what literary record there might be of their consumption.

Going back to the beginning of time, it has been suggested that the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which brought about their Fall, was a fig – though, readers of this blog may recall that it has also been suggested that it could have been a quince or an apricot.  However, in the fig’s favour, when Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit, and their eyes were opened, ‘and they knew that they were naked …they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.’  So, whether or not the fig was the forbidden fruit, there were evidently figs growing in the Garden of Eden.

Apart from the figs in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare does include references to figs in other plays.  In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, who has been bewitched and fallen in love with the donkey-eared Nick Bottom, tells her fairy retinue to look after her new love by providing him with all manner of delicious fruit:

Be kind and courteous to this gentleman;
Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes;
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;  (Act III, Scene 1)

However, most of Shakespeare’s other fig references are metaphorical ones, with the word ‘fig’ being used as a derogatory term to contradict something that someone has said – when used in this way the word was apparently often accompanied by a vulgar gesture of shooting the thumb between the first and second fingers.  An example of this use can be found in Act I, Scene 3 of Othello where the villain Iago dismisses his side-kick, Roderigo’s, self-pitying complaint that he cannot help being so fond of Othello’s new wife, Desdemona, claiming it is in his “virtue” (nature) to be this way with the retort, ‘Virtue?  A fig!  ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus’.

A later English writer who refers to figs is D. H. Lawrence in his poem ‘Figs’, from the collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers published in 1923.  The poem – which you can read in its entirety at – was included, in an edited version, in Ken Russell’s film of Lawrence’s Women In Love: the character  Rupert Birkin, speaks the lines to a group of diners, whilst Hermione Roddice eats a fig.  The poem begins by describing two ways to eat a fig – the ‘proper way’ and the ‘vulgar way’ – and then explores the idea of the secrecy of the fig, an allusion I suppose to the fact that from the outside the fig does not look like anything of significance – its true beauty and delight lie within.

And perhaps not surprisingly – this is D. H. Lawrence after all – he then makes a link between the fig and women:

It was always a secret
That’s how it should be, the female is always a secret.

The Italians he notes – rather scathingly – make a link between the fig and the ‘female part’ but Lawrence’s interest lies rather more generally in the idea that women do well if they, like the fig, and like Eve who once once she ‘knew in her mind that she was naked / …quickly sewed fig-leaves’, keep their innermost essence concealed.  However, Lawrence bemoans the fact that concealment is no longer the order of the day for most women and concludes that, just as ripe, burst figs, will not keep, so women ruin themselves once they reveal themselves to the world.

Whether it is the fruit that caused the Fall, a device to conceal a suicide weapon or a metaphor for female behaviour and sexuality, the fig has played an interesting and multi-faceted role in literature.