In the mid-1980’s, a British pub-restaurant was about to open here in Raleigh called “The Dickens Corner.” I had recently started my citywide reading club devoted to You-Know-Who. I had named it the rather religious-sounding “Dickens Disciples” (denomination? Charles, of course) and publicized it so heavily in the area that the owner of the new restaurant called me asking for Dickensian names for some of the items that would soon appear on his menu.
He already had concocted an Oliver Twist Olive Tapenade and a Tiny Tim Turkey Tetrazzini but confessed that his favorite Dickens character was the heroine of A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Lucie Manette. “Really?” I thought, “that vapid, bloodless, idealized model of femininity?” Nobody does unbelievable virtuous heroines worse than Dickens does. But he insisted that we come up with some menu item spiritually akin to her. Given her utter blandness, it only took me a moment to voice my inspired choice: The Lucie Manette Cottage-Cheese Diet Platter.
He was not amused and instead decided to hold a pre-Christmas, pre-opening TALE OF TWO CITIES dessert night, with sweets to represent both London and Paris. I was invited, and as I entered, the owner directed me to an area of several seating tables and announced that the waiters would soon be delivering “an array of English and French delectables.” The place was packed.
For the next thirty minutes, we watched waiters snail past, lugging heavy trays and heavier attitudes. None stopped, nor did there seem any likelihood of attracting their attention; it put me in mind of Ogden Nash’s wonderful Epitaph for a Waiter — “By and by / God caught his eye.” Finally a tired old man deposited a platter in front of each of us and muttered: “Enjoy your mousse, soufflé, trifle, and spotted dick [don't ask] " with a tone of such ennui that it sounded more like a dare than a request. All the desserts, though soft and sweet, lacked any allure or panache. They were as dull and insipid as Lucie herself. I returned home hours later sugared but surly.
I thought perhaps I’d zip open an Alka-Seltzer packet to soothe my stomach but instead I opened A Christmas Carol to soothe my soul. And there was the antidote to my disappointing evening.
It was the entrance of Mrs. Cratchit with the Christmas pudding “like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”
Who knew that this most famous dessert in all of Dickens was actually a poor cousin of the ostentatious soufflé and mousse that I’d indulged in earlier? They, too, in spite of their fancy French names, were mere puddings — defined as “boiled or baked soft food desserts with a cereal base.” But Dickens made his humble Christmas dessert immortal by uniquely comparing it to a speckled cannonball and then adding that it was with holly bedight — an archaic term meaning “adorned” but somehow connoting an almost religious glow. Though my stomach was glutted with mediocre mousse, I went to bed that night savoring a Christmas pudding that never existed except in Dickens’ dazzling imagination.
I have always admired the humanity, humility, and humor of Dickens’ characters, the vast majority of whom came from the Cratchit’s lower-middle class, the social class that the English call “shabby genteel.” Thanks to his own father’s prodigality, Dickens grew up in a family equally poor and humble. And I think Dickens may have decided that the pudding was the perfect symbol for the sweetness and comfort that can still reside within families of reduced circumstances. As a dessert, pudding is the original humble pie, a thrifty way to recycle the day-old bread and cake that became the cereal base for most English puddings -- including, of course, the humbly named ‘trifle.’ And what could be a more suitable national dessert, since it embraces all those ingredients we think of as uniquely and divinely English: clotted creams, fresh berries, currant jellies, and lemon curd? Yum.
It was Miguel Cervantes in Don Quixote in 1605 who first penned the now famous phrase: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” And, sure enough, The Dickens Corner was out of business within a year of its opening. Enough people ate there and then spread the word that the desserts and other lovely-sounding and lovely-looking menu items may have been a treat to the ear and the eye but were a sorrow on the tongue. I admit that Dickens too can be an acquired taste for some readers, a never-acquired taste for many others, but a perpetual banquet for THIS reader who has devoured all of his 3,859,231 words—yes, some computer tabulated them—and yet, like little Oliver Twist, still hungrily asks for “more.”