Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I’ve been reading Nicholson Baker’s filthy new novel House of Holes.  Above are respectively the UK and US covers by which you might judge it.  It certainly contains lots of sex and madness, but not much food, and mouths are generally involved with things other than eating.  Still the book reminds us – if you need reminding - that a sherry cobbler was served to Charles Dickens when he made his speaking tour of America in 1842.  Baker, or rather his characters, also tell us it was the first drink made with crushed ice, that Dickens loved it and had his character Martin Chuzzlewit drink one, and that in 1850 Dickens bought five pounds’ worth of Wenham Lake ice, the transatlantic ice trade then being big business.

The passage from Martin Chuzzlewit runs as follows.  It seems the term ice cube had yet to be invented.

He produced a very large tumbler, piled up to the brim with little blocks of clear transparent ice, through which one or two thin slices of lemon, and a golden liquid of delicious appearance, appealed from the still depths below, to the loving eye of the spectator.
 ‘What do you call this?’ said Martin.
But Mr. Tapley made no answer; merely plunging a reed into the mixture — which caused a pleasant commotion among the pieces of ice — and signifying by an expressive gesture that it was to be pumped up through that agency by the enraptured drinker.
Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop.
“There sir,” said Mark, taking it from him with a triumphant face, “If you should ever happen to be dead beat again, when I ain’t in the way, all you’ve got to do is, to ask the nearest man to go fetch a cobbler.”
         “Go and fetch a cobbler!” said Martin.

A character in House of Holes also says, “You know the English talk a good game, but they’re such hypocrites.  All that business about how vulgar it is to have ice in drinks.” This, as the English would say, is bollocks.  They English are not hypocritical about vulgarity: they’re proud of it.  It’s true that the English use less ice than Americans, and the Scots very definitely don’t want ice in their whisky, but it’s got nothing to do with any imagined vulgarity, it’s because they don’t want their booze diluted.  It’s the same reason that Americans don’t want ice in their martinis.  But hey, the English don’t need me to defend them.

It seems the sherry cobbler did indeed enjoy a vogue in the late nineteenth century.  Recipes, of course, vary, but a typical one involves 3 oz sherry, 1/3 oz triple sec, 2 oz soda water, 1/4 oz sugar syrup.   I can’t say it really gets my juices flowing, but an awful lot is going to depend on what kind of sherry you use.

What Dickens actually wrote in American Notes was this:

“The planter’s house was an airy, rustic dwelling, that brought Defoe’s description of such places strongly to my recollection. The day was very warm, but the blinds being all closed, and the windows and doors set wide open, a shady coolness rustled through the rooms, which was exquisitely refreshing after the glare and heat without. Before the windows was an open piazza, where, in what they call the hot weather — whatever that may be — they sling hammocks, and drink and doze luxuriously. I do not know how their cool rejections may taste within the hammocks, but, having experience, I can report that, out of them, the mounds of ices and the bowls of mint-julep and sherry-cobbler they make in these latitudes, are refreshments never to be thought of afterwards, in summer, by those who would preserve contented minds.”

I don’t know what he means.  Is his mind discontent because he can’t recreate the drink?  Surely he could.  Or does he think the drinks are so vile that the mere thought of them sets his mind in a whirl?  Perhaps there’s a deliberate ambiguity.

And yes, that “planter’s house” is a giveaway - Dickens was on a slave plantation, though he says of the owner,  “I believe that this gentleman is a considerate and excellent master, who inherited his fifty slaves, and is neither a buyer nor a seller of human stock; and I am sure, from my own observation and conviction, that he is a kind-hearted, worthy man.”

Incidentally when Dickens made his second visit to the United States, in 1867, Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico’s in New York, created a number of dishes bearing his name, including “veal pie a la Dickens” and “beetroot fritters a la Dickens.”  There was also a dinner at Delmonico’s in his honor where “timbales a la Dickens” was served, though not the veal pie or the beetroot.  The menu, which appears in Ranhofer’s book, The Epicure, makes no mention of sherry cobbler.

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