Was Charles Dickens turning vegetarian or fruitarian, if not vegan, when he wrote A Christmas Carol — in 1843?
That thought is unlikely to have occurred to anyone before this year beginning to drift into the past, in which Tom Parker Bowles — the stepson of Britain’s apparent heir to the throne — has actually published a review of vegan alternatives to the traditional Christmas meats. ‘Ban this sick filth,’ his verdict on one offering, includes the word furky for reasons that anyone curious enough will want to read about independently. About a seemingly inoffensive butternut, almond and pecan nut roast, he thunders in deepest gloom: ‘If this looked at me in the street, I’d cross the road to avoid it.’
A quick trawl through Dickens’s Christmas story, in the hope of rereading a luscious tribute to a crisp-skinned, succulent, (de-)feathered beast — surely one appeared on the Cratchit family’s table to a chorus of oohs and aahs? — proved pointless. It contains nothing of the kind. What Dickens says about ‘the Turkey’ that the newly reformed Scrooge buys at the novella’s end makes it merely a tragicomic victim of gigantism, or morbid obesity: ‘He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ‘em, short off, in a minute, like sticks of sealing wax.’ In the scene that Scrooge is served by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Queen Victoria’s favourite writer states simply — about the goose that the Cratchits feast on — that its ‘tenderness and flavor, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration.’
No — hard as it is to believe — the foods for which Dickens reserved his peerless powers of evocation are virtually all fruits:
There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples clustered high in blooming pyramids, there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water, gratis, as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown: recalling in their fragrance ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shuffling, ankle deep, through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.
Now, compare those enchanting flights of imagination with Dickens’s repetitive sizeism, whenever his Turkey is mentioned:
[ Scrooge ] was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer, ding, dong, bell: bell, dong, ding, hammer, clang, clash!
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head.
… ’What’s to day?’ cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
‘EH?’ returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
‘What’s to day, my fine fellow!’ said Scrooge.
‘Today!’ replied the boy. ‘Why, CHRISTMAS DAY!’
… ‘Do you know the Poulterer’s in the next street but one, at the corner?’ Scrooge inquired.
‘I should hope I did,’ replied the lad.
‘An intelligent boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there; not the little prize turkey, the big one?’
‘What, the one as big as me!’ returned the boy.
‘What a delightful boy!’ said Scrooge. ‘It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck!’
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