Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Charles Dickens in Boston

1842 & 1925

Charles Dickens was enthusiastically fêted when he visited the United States in 1842 and 1867-68.  For many years afterward, these grand affairs lingered in the collective memory of the novelist’s most ardent admirers, as revealed by a menu from a dinner of the Dickens’ Fellowship in Boston in 1925.

The lackluster fare that evening was perhaps a notch above the norm during the Prohibition era. The most adventuresome dish was cold slaw [sic] Mexicanne that would have then incorporated ingredients like tomatoes, green peppers, and possibly a touch of cayenne pepper.

The menu also reproduced the bill of fare from a lavish banquet in Boston honoring Charles Dickens on February 1, 1842, six days before the author turned thirty. Two-hundred prominent guests, including Harvard professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and lawyer Charles Sumner, paid $15 (about $500 today) to attend this dinner at Papantis Hall on Tremont Street. During the trip, Dickens became particularly fond of American oysters. Although raw oysters on the half shell were too commonplace to be served as the opening course, the bivalves can be found in more sophisticated guises, such as an ornately-decorated cold dish in which they were encased in aspic. The entrée named vol au vent aux huitres comprised small puff pastry cases, each filled with a poached oyster and béchamel sauce.  

The program below states the after-dinner speeches in 1925 were “identical” to the ones in 1842 that were later published. One of the original orators was Richard Henry Dana Jr. whose memoir Two Years Before the Mast had been released two years earlier. However, it was the remarks made by the guest of honor that created a stir. Aggrieved that Americans were producing pirated editions of his work, Dickens used this opportunity to tactfully urge the United States to join the copyright convention, a proposal that met strong resistance in the popular press.

On his return to England, Dickens published two books about the trip. While he found much to admire in 
the fledgling nation, he also enumerated its flaws. In the travelogue American Notes for General Circulation, Dickens described Mid-Westerners at dinner as “so many fellow animals” who “strip social sacraments of everything but the mere satisfaction of natural cravings.” Such criticisms caused an uproar. Nevertheless, he was again given a magnificent reception when he returned 25 years later. He quickly made amends and all was forgiven. “Dickens’ second coming was needed to disperse every cloud and every doubt,” proclaimed the New York Tribune, “and to place his name undimmed in the silver sunshine of American admiration.”

1. The fellowship dinner on 7 February 1925 marked the 112th anniversary of the Charles Dickens birth.
2. Menus were just beginning to come into general use in the United States in 1842. In this early example, the game dishes are shown under the roasts. It later became the norm to show the game in a separate section. The sense of variety and sophistication is enhanced by variously employing English and French, such as cods head that is accompanied by an oyster sauce and turkey by sauce aux huitres.

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