“Yes, We Have No Tomatoes”; Or, Why Food History Matters in Historical Fiction

Lucinda Byatt

Food Research

Dr Annie Gray, No. 1 Royal Crescent, Bath

Lucinda Byatt, with contributions from Martine Bailey and Dr Annie Gray, takes a look at food history.

The title is rather tongue-in-cheek, but it is symptomatic. I shall name the sin, but not the sinner. A recent biography of Machiavelli contained this extraordinary description of food being brought into Florence in the 1470s:

“Other carts bent under boxes of vegetables whose greens and yellows, beneath fragile tomatoes turning misshapen amid an excess ripeness sucked out of the oozy Tuscan blend of hot sun and lava-enriched soil, shone against the granite and marble of the new palaces.”

Most readers would, I think, have shut the book in dismay. Leaving aside the overblown style and other howlers (there was no granite in Renaissance Florence and few traces of volcanic activity in that area of Tuscany), that mention of tomatoes is a cardinal error! Of course, novelists would never fall into that particular trap, would they? The anachronism prompted me to take a closer look at how the explosion of academic and popular food history is reflected in fiction. Because we know more about what we eat today, we enjoy reading and learning about food in the past – and not only about the ingredients, but the whole process of production and supply, retail, preparation, service and consumption. I approached Martine Bailey, whose work was described by Fay Weldon as heralding the birth of “culinary gothic,” and Dr Annie Gray, a well-known and much-broadcast food historian whose first book is due out next year.

Martine’s novels are set in the eighteenth century, and food takes centre stage. The research can be daunting. She says: “When writing about a character who is defined by her work, I think it makes complete sense to immerse yourself in that occupation’s tastes, smells and sensations. As soon as I knew that I wanted to write about an eighteenth-century cook, I discovered a treasure trove of images and recipes on Ivan Day’s website (www.historicfood.com). His Georgian cookery course was full so I rang Ivan and begged for help. He took pity on me and let me join, so I learned about all the processes I didn’t understand – how to cook on an open fire, to use a spit, cauldron and wafer irons, plus unexpected details like stitching lard into meat and using feathers as a pastry brush. He also let me hunt through his library, transporting me to research heaven as I photographed countless recipes on my phone. It was there I found the directions to make the violet pastilles that give An Appetite for Violets (Hodder / Thomas Dunne, 2015) its culinary title.”

Annie is also attracted to the eighteenth century, on the grounds that “life before tea is unthinkable and the fashions are much, much more flattering to wear.” Annie works “at the front end of public history,” reaching out and making people think about the past. When asked what tips she would give historical novelists, she began by “making a division between upstairs and downstairs, or front stage and backstage. When writing about life upstairs, it’s important to get the times of meals right.” Annie remembers reading a book set in the sixteenth century in which a significant plot moment took place in the evening around the dinner table. It jarred because the time was wrong: dinner would have been served in the afternoon. On the other hand, Wolf Hall (Fourth Estate / Henry Holt, 2009) deserves praise because it “gets the details absolutely right and is an excellent example in this respect.” Annie’s advice is that every novelist should own a good general book, and not go near Wikipedia. Interestingly, both Annie and Martine named Sara Paston William’s The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating (National Trust, 1993) as their go-to reference book.

When we move downstairs, it’s essential to visit a precise period kitchen so you can visualise the scene more readily and get a good idea of the layout. In particular, Annie said, “Remember that the kitchen is only one of many rooms that were used for food production. Take note of what is being bought, where it is being prepared and how, who is cooking and where. We often bring our modern assumptions with us and this is a hurdle we have to avoid.”

I wondered about Weldon’s term “culinary gothic,” and when asked, Martine thought that Fay “recognized my combining food writing with gothic fiction, such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. To me, the culinary gothic is a style of writing that uses food to characterise elements of mystery, death and the unnatural. These need not always be grotesque or terrifying.

“In An Appetite for Violets, my cook heroine reflects that recipes are ‘scribbled down like beacons against the coming darkness.’ They are what we now call memorialisations, rich connective materials in social memory.” On the other hand, in The Penny Heart (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015 / published in the US as A Taste for Nightshade, Thomas Dunne, 2016), the “malevolent cook uses remedies such as soporific Poppy Drops and Twilight Sleep, narcotic herbs once used by women in childbirth. I wrote much of the novel in the Antipodes, so my researches included sampling Maori dishes cooked in a hot-stone hangi pit, grubs, sea snails, crocodile and kangaroo.”

There is a risk of overloading your work with detail. “Food is the perfect way to show and not tell,” Martine added, “whether writing about class, wealth, aspiration, desperation or much more. In historical fiction it may be helpful to think of a modern dish – let’s say a pensioner sipping cheap tinned soup – and then imagine the historical equivalent, such as bowl of oat gruel. It can be tempting to let food research dominate and strangle a story, so I try to feature food at a plot’s turning point rather than describe static mealtimes.” When researching, she confessed that “it is hard to beat a living history DVD. Tales from the Green Valley (available on YouTube) introduced the Victorian Farm team to television and is a fine introduction to rural life and cookery in the seventeenth century.”

That said, errors abound. Annie pointed to the well-known anachronism of the female cook and kitchen maid in Downton Abbey. At the time when the programme first starts, an earl would have had a French chef with more than one male assistant in the kitchen, not a woman. “This means that it is very difficult to use a female protagonist in the kitchen. Yet, storyline plays a part too, and readers are willing to overlook inaccuracies provided the experience of cooking is authentic. An excellent example is Babette’s Feast. It should not be that difficult to get these details correct, especially if you’re a historical novelist trying to tell some form of historical truth. Food and food preparation does not involve viewpoint, so it should be straightforward and factually correct.”

Memory and food are a powerful literary trope, and something we can all relate to in our everyday lives. In many ways, food is the perfect vehicle for capturing the past. Martine, too, said that “Memory and memorialisation are what really excite me. I first had the idea to write An Appetite for Violets in the atmospheric kitchen of Erddig Hall, Wrexham. Historic recipes lay scattered on the table and their untutored poetry suggested a powerful new language to write about lost moments in time.”

Annie noted that “the intricacy of the cooking and dining rituals is well beyond our modern take. The reality of sitting of down with dishes pointing in different directions, and all the etiquette about how you were served, and if and when you should serve yourself, is mind-blowing. If you got it wrong you risked not being invited back!” She recommended C. Anne Wilson, Lunch, Nuncheon and Other Meals: Eating with the Victorians (Sutton, 1994) as covering all these aspects; also anything by Pamela Sambrook (e.g., The Country House Servant, Sutton, 1999). Another tip: visit historic properties and, where possible, handle equipment and utensils “in order to experience the spaces, the challenges, and also the sensual impact of the refurbished kitchens.”

I also asked about re-enactment as a form of research. Annie was adamant that mob caps and aprons fixed with velcro strips are not at all helpful. However, she rightly pointed out that even when we use “authentic” utensils and costumes, “it is always us in the modern world recreating the historical experience.” But costume is an important physical reminder of actions and activities that would be very different today – for example, the physicality of bending over to knead dough. “One of the most commonplace health problems in the modern workplace is backache. Corsets support your back when you’re standing all day; they force you to treat your back well by making it impossible to bend from the waist.”

So why does food draw us into the past? “I think it stirs so many primitive emotions: a parent’s love (or resentment), the family hearth or the cold comfort of strangers,” said Martine. “We have all been hungry, sick or supremely sated. Good food writing should speak to everyone’s past. Above all, indulge in the most pleasurable research of all. Get away from the computer and eat something different. And then find the perfect words to convey its appearance, pungency, and texture, to transport your readers to your chosen place and time.” Or, as Annie put it, “Food is a brilliant way to get under the skin of past societies: everyone eats, and the choices we make reflect who we are and what we believe.” Just remember that tomatoes would only have appeared in public Florentine markets a couple of centuries or more after Machiavelli was born.

About the contributors: LUCINDA BYATT is HNR’s Features Coordinator. She enjoys everything related to food and history. www.lucindabyatt.com.

Martine Bailey is the author of the Booklist Top Ten Crime Debut An Appetite for Violets and The Penny Heart. www.martinebailey.com.

Annie Gray is a historian, cook, lecturer, broadcaster, writer and consultant.
Her first book, A Greedy Queen: Eating with Queen Victoria, is due to be published in spring 2017 by Profile Books. www.anniegray.co.uk

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Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 77, August 2016


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