I’ve been reading a fair bit of Victorian literature lately, mostly Mrs Gaskell. I started with Cranford, inspired by the first season of the BBC series (the second series is pants, unfortunately), and have currently moved on to Wives and Daughters, which handily has the full text available online for anyone inspired to follow up.
Anyway, one of the recurring motifs in the book is that chaps like to eat cheese. Bread and cheese, usually, even if they are lords, and their wives find this vulgar.
There is one character in particular (the widowed Mrs Kirkpatrick) who is concerned about the gentility of cheese-eating, and eating in general. She is horrified to learn that her fiance, Dr Gibson, likes nothing better than a bit of bread and cheese, when she asks his daughter Molly what his preferences are.
‘Papa doesn’t care what he has, if it’s only ready. He would take bread-and- cheese, if cook would only send it in instead of dinner.’
‘Bread-and-cheese! Does Mr Gibson eat cheese?’
‘Yes; he’s very fond of it,’ said Molly, innocently. ‘I’ve known him eat toasted cheese when he has been too tired to fancy anything else.’
‘Oh! but, my dear, we must change all that. I shouldn’t like to think of your father eating cheese; it’s such a strong-smelling, coarse kind of thing. We must get him a cook who can toss him up an omelette, or something elegant. Cheese is only fit for the kitchen.’
‘Papa is very fond of it,’ persevered Molly.
‘Oh! but we will cure him of that. I couldn’t bear the smell of cheese; and I’m sure he would be sorry to annoy me.’
When she marries, she upsets her new household by moving dinner from mid-day to evening, and then she starts in on her husband (who is a busy doctor) and his habit of snatching a snack in the kitchen. The new Mrs Gibson is constantly worried about the smell of food permeating the dining room, but it’s cheese that really agitates her.
Of course, this made me wonder if Mrs Beeton condoned recipes for cheese (toasted or otherwise). Actually, as it turns out, Mrs Beeton is credited with popularizing cheese on toast (aka Scotch Rare-bit), and macaroni cheese, according to some sources. Her recipes include an putting mustard or anchovy paste in cheese sandwiches, and there’s a rather dashing Brillat Savarin fondue recipe replicated verbatim.
Although apparently free from anti-cheese prejudices, given that she does present a number of cheese-based recipes, Mrs Beeton does have a few cautionary words to say:
CHEESE.– It is well known that some persons like cheese in a state of decay, and even “alive.” There is no accounting for tastes, and it maybe hard to show why mould, which is vegetation, should not be eaten as well as salad, or maggots as well as eels. But, generally speaking, decomposing bodies are not wholesome eating, and the line must be drawn somewhere.
That’s a no to casu marzu, then.
The cheese course Mrs Beeton describes seems to be designed for a rather fancy dinner, with little bits of cheese cut up and accompanied by “Rusks, cheese-biscuits, pats or slices of butter, and salad, cucumber, or water-cresses”. This fiddly method of serving would seem to be right up Mrs Gibson’s alley, since she insists on serving a “dessert” of nuts and dried fruit, whether anyone wants to eat it or not.
So, although Molly knew full well, and her stepmother knew full well, and Maria knew full well, that neither Mrs Gibson nor Molly touched dessert, it was set on the table with as much form as if Cynthia had been at home, who delighted in almonds and raisins; or Mr Gibson been there, who never could resist dates, although he always protested against ‘persons in their station of life having a formal dessert set out before them every day.’ And Mrs Gibson herself apologized as it were to Molly to-day, in the same words she had often used to Mr Gibson, – ‘It’s no extravagance, for we need not eat it – I never do. But it looks well, and makes Maria understand what is required in the daily life of every family of position.’
Mrs Beeton does allude to bread and cheese as being filling and thus popular with labourers, in her recipe for cheese sandwiches, which is perhaps the source of Mrs Gibson’s horror at the doctor’s overt enjoyment of such a meal.
Mrs Gaskell seems quite fond of using food and food preferences as a way of giving an insight into her characters’ social and economic status. The ladies in Cranford, for instance, have a hilarious pretense of being surprised by the contents of meals they have cooked themselves. Here, she’s clearly building up what eventually becomes a very unflattering portrait of a shallow and materialistic woman in Mrs Gibson, who is desperately trying to appear of a higher status than she is, while her husband, confident in his own character and merits, sends her into conniptions by eating bread and cheese in the kitchen.