Orwell’s food journeys 

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Orwell’s food journeys 

Author Eric Arthur Blair, "George Orwell". (1903 - 1950).

The austere, ascetic and rather gaunt George Orwell had a surprising interest in food. His accounts do not evoke the hedonistic ambience of Ford Madox Ford’s Provence, AJ Liebling’s Between Meals and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. His characters, like himself, are often hungry, and his descriptions are both literary and autobiographical. He portrays meals, a touchstone of existence, to reveal personality, express ideas, convey a mood, set a scene and evoke the spirit of a place. His personae move around a lot and you can tell where they are by what they eat. 

Orwell took a Swiftian delight in describing disgusting meals and his catalogues of revolting fare are meant to shock and even nauseate his readers. No connoisseur of world cuisine, he never traveled in Asia during his leaves in Burma, never visited Italy or Greece. He disliked foreign dishes and saw Continental countries under the worst conditions: France as an impoverished wage-slave, Spain as a soldier during the Civil War, Germany as a journalist amid the chaos and starvation after World War Two. Suspicious of fancy and expensive restaurants, he associated food with economic status rather than with pleasure. 

Orwell was born in India where his father, a government official, had exported opium to stupefy the Chinese addicts. In Coming Up For Air he satirised the old India hands in his family, who tried to recreate the exotic atmosphere in England with fiery curries and red-hot pickles. In his prep school, which he eviscerated in Such, Such Were the Joys, the food was ghastly, yet the portions too small. “Never before or since,” he wrote, “have I seen butter or jam scraped on bread so thinly.” Half-starved, he risked beatings to steal stale bread from the pantry or “left-over scraps of bacon rind or fried potato” from the masters’ plates. The sanitary conditions were equally revolting. He recalled with horror the pewter bowls whose overhanging rims had “accumulations of sour porridge, which could be flaked off in long strips” and forks that stubbornly retained “old food between the prongs.” Conditions were also exiguous at Eton: in the afternoon “he was given only tea and bread and butter, and at eight o’clock he was given a miserable supper of soup or fried fish, or more often bread and cheese, with water to drink” (Works 19:368-70).

Eating well as a first-class passenger on the 1922 ship to Burma, where he served for five years in the police, he recalled his thefts in prep school. He was astonished to see the European who steered the ship scurrying along the deck and trying to conceal a stolen custard pudding. Recognising the disparity between the helmsman’s responsible job and his low pay, he could scarcely believe that a highly-skilled craftsman, who might literally hold all their lives in his hands, was glad to steal scraps of food from our table (Meyers 49).

In Burmese Days the satiric portrayal of exotic food reveals the locale and greedy character of the villain. Most Burmese are poor and thin. Orwell uses food similes to describe the corrupt magistrate U Po Kyin (also his physical opposite) who is symmetrically fat, like swelling fruit, and walks like a fish porter adjusting his load. In the opening chapter Orwell describes U Po Kyin’s gross appetite, lavish breakfast and crude ingestion: “Violent pangs of hunger, which attacked him punctually at this hour every morning, began to torment his belly. . . .A table was already set out with a huge bowl of rice and a dozen plates containing curries, dried prawns and sliced green mangoes. U Po Kyin waddled to the table, sat down with a grunt and at once threw himself on the food.” He does not deserve this gluttonous feast, which could have fed several families. “With the bowl close to his nose he stuffed the food into himself with swift greasy fingers, breathing fast. All his meals were swift, passionate and enormous; they were not meals so much as orgies, debauches of curry and rice,” described as if he were having self-indulgent sex (2:10).

In The Nasty Bits, the well-known chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain is fascinated by Orwell’s grim experiences in a posh hotel and by the resentment of the oppressed employees: “Down and Out in Paris and London was a revelation to me when I first . . . encountered Orwell’s descriptions of his life as a plongeur (dishwasher) and prep cook at the pseudonymous Hotel ‘X’ in 1920s Paris. . . . Orwell’s later adventures in a faux-Normande bistro, a filthy, corner-cutting, ill-equipped cesspit, make for hilarious reading for anyone who’s worked . . . where sanitation and quality were not premium considerations” (96-97).

Anthony Bourdain (Shutterstock)

Penniless and starving, Orwell first recounts his marginal existence in Paris: “meals are the worst difficulty of all. . . . Your food is bread and margarine, or bread and wine. . . . You have to buy rye bread instead of household bread, because the rye loaves, though dearer, are round and can be smuggled in your pockets.” In his seedy hotel, boiling the milk paid for with his last eighty centimes, he writes that “a bug runs down your forearm; you give the bug a flick with your nail, and it falls plop! straight into the milk.” Both crude and fastidious, instead of drinking the buggy milk he throws it away and goes hungry. Looking into the bountiful shop windows, he finds the “food insulting you in huge, wasteful piles; whole dead pigs, baskets of hot loaves, great yellow blocks of butter, strings of sausages, mountains of potatoes, vast Gruyère cheeses.” He admires but can never eat this luxurious food, which provides a mouth-watering contrast to his own repas frugal. He’s tempted to steal a loaf and eat it on the run before he’s caught, but he’s afraid of arrest and loses his nerve. When his friend Boris steals food for him, “the minced veal, a wedge of Camembert cheese, bread and an éclair were all jumbled together” in an inedible mess (1:13-15, 52). 

When he gets the dishwasher’s job, he’s amazed by the disgusting filth in the kitchen, just a few feet from the elegant dining room, and the way the hostile workers pollute the food. He’s shocked to discover that “a French chef will spit in the soup” and the waiter will “dip his fingers into the gravy—his nasty, greasy fingers which he is forever running through his brilliantined hair.” Another waiter proudly told him that “he had sometimes wrung a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup before taking it in, just to be revenged upon a member of the bourgeoisie.” The waiter not only upset the expectations of haute cuisine, but also took grim pleasure in watching the customer consume the polluted soup. Orwell caustically concludes, “the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it” (1:78-79).

In June 1936 Orwell married Eileen O’Shaughnessy and moved to a country village—Wallington, Hertfordshire—where they grew their own food, raised chickens and milked goats, and ran a general store. Like the young George Bowling in Coming Up For Air, Orwell learned to “work the bacon slicer, carve ham . . . dust eggs without breaking them. . . judge a pound of cheese by eye . . . whack a slab of butter into shape” (7:99). But he retained a sense of propriety about his own food. Despite the primitive cottage and Spartan life, when Eileen put a pot of jam on the table, he insisted that she serve it properly in a dish. An Eton friend who came for a meal reported that “we had some cold lunch and some very good pickles [always a favourite] that Blair and his wife were very proud of” (Meyers 125). In an autobiographical note Orwell said he liked vegetable gardening, “English cookery and English beer, French red wines, Spanish white wines, Indian tea ” (12:148). Imitating proletarian habits, he poured tea into his saucer and blew on it. He angled for coarse fish in the Thames, and for trout and lobster in the lochs and ocean around the Scottish island of Jura.

Orwell’s rented cottage in Wallington. (PA Images)

The Road to Wigan Pier is Orwell’s personal investigation of the mining country during the Depression. Extremely tolerant of dirt and eager to experience the horrors in order to write about them, he took the worst room he could find, above a smelly tripe shop, but was overwhelmed by filth that was more than he could bear. One morning he found a full chamber pot under the breakfast table. Another visitor remembered a dozen layers of the local evening newspaper, sodden with tea and greasy with tripe, serving as a tablecloth. Orwell, who relished discomfort, notes, “Several bottles of Worcester Sauce and a half-full jar of marmalade lived permanently on the table. It was usual to souse everything, even a piece of cheese, with Worcester Sauce, but I never saw anyone brave the marmalade jar” (5:12-13).

As an antidote to all this, Orwell stresses the importance of proper food. But he begins his sound advice in an idiosyncratic way by insisting that “a human being is primarily a bag for putting food into,” which inevitably comes out from the lower end. The miners spend very little on vegetables and milk, nothing on fruit. The basis of their appalling diet “is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potatoes.” But poverty influences diet and appetite. When you’re unemployed, bored and miserable, “you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’ ” (5:84, 88).

In Homage to Catalonia Orwell describes the food available in the barracks, the train to the front and the trenches. Though he was not used to rough Spanish food cooked in oil and spiced with garlic, he was usually hungry and ate whatever he could get: “All food seemed good, even the eternal haricot beans which everyone in Spain finally learned to hate the sight of.” In Barcelona meat was scarce, milk almost unobtainable and people had to wait in long queues for bread. He regrets that “there was frightful wastage of food, especially of bread. From my barrack-room alone a basketful of bread was thrown away at every meal—a disgraceful thing when the civilian population was short of it.” Boarding the train to Aragon, a friend’s well-intentioned wife gave him “a bottle of wine and a foot of that bright red [chorizo] sausage which tastes of soap and gives you diarrhoea.” At the front he was hit with “the characteristic smell of war—in my experience a smell of excrement and decaying food,” too awful to eat and turn into excrement. He incongruously lists the five most important things in trench warfare, putting heat first in the cold winter mountains: “firewood, food, tobacco, candles and the enemy” (6:41, 6, 12-13, 15, 22). These provisions are essential for survival, though comrades killed by the enemy no longer need them. 

In Coming Up For Air food symbolises the decay of standards in modern life. George Bowling contrasts the disgusting ersatz sausage he eats in a snack bar with the homely food his mother once made: “The frankfurter had a rubber skin. . . . And then suddenly—pop! The thing burst in my mouth like a rotten pear. A sort of horrible soft stuff was oozing all over my tongue. But the taste! For moment I just couldn’t believe it. Then I rolled my tongue round it again and had another try. It was fish! A sausage, a thing calling itself a frankfurter, filled with fish” (7:23). As in Burmese Days, the explosion wittily suggests a sexual ejaculation.

During World War Two, when food was scarce and strictly rationed, the sickly Orwell, in a typically altruistic gesture, gave away part of his food so that others—people he didn’t know—would have more to eat. He took delight in the dreadful wartime food, which allowed him to suffer with the soldiers at the front. The more wretched the dish, the more cheerful he became. In the BBC canteen he’d gobble up over-boiled cod with bitter turnip tops and deliberately provoke his companions by masochistically remarking, “I’d never have thought they’d have gone so well together!” (Meyers 196). He even ate boiled eels that Eileen had left for the cat and found them quite tasty.

During the war, when Orwell invited the touchy HG Wells to dinner, Eileen prepared a special meal. According to their mutual friend Michael Meyer, Wells “began by warning them that he had stomach trouble and could not eat anything rich. ‘Oh dear,’ said Eileen, ‘I’ve cooked a curry.’ ‘I mustn’t touch that,’ said Wells. ‘Just give me very little.’ He ate two huge helpings. . . . She also made plum cake but Wells said, ‘I don’t think I could manage that,’ but also observed that it looked uncommonly good and took two slices.” Wells became violently ill in the taxi going home and later sent a furious letter that addressed Orwell as “you shit” and exclaimed, “You knew I was ill and on a diet, yet deliberately plied me with food and drink.” When Orwell, the genial host, refused to play the nanny and restrain him, the greedy Wells blamed him for his illness and never wanted to see him again (Meyer 128-9).

H G Wells (PA Images).

Just after the war Orwell idealised his favourite, poetically-named public-house and its humble English food: “You cannot get dinner at the Moon Under Water, but there is always the snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels (a specialty of the house), cheese, pickles and those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses. Upstairs, six days a week, you can get a good, solid lunch—for example, a cut off the joint, two vegetables and boiled jam roll—for about three shillings” (18:99). Most foreigners would not find this description terribly appealing. Though the solid lunch is better than the meat that causes diarrhoea, the liver-sausage seems worse than the spicy pork chorizo.

Orwell’s essay In Defence of English Cooking, published in 1945 during strict post-war rationing, was more patriotic than persuasive. He concedes, “It is commonly said, even by the English themselves, that English cooking is the worst in the world.” He denies this and praises quintessential English food: “kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets. . . . Bread sauce, horseradish sauce, mint sauce and apple sauce,” potatoes, cheeses, jams and bread—even the stomach-turning Scotch haggis. None of this food would attract a gourmet, and he is forced to conclude: “The expensive restaurants and hotels almost all imitate French cookery and write their [pretentious] menus in French, while if you want a good cheap meal you gravitate naturally towards a Greek, Italian or Chinese restaurant” (17:446-7). [Author’s footnote: I remember, in Edinburgh in 1957, George’s Hungarian restaurant, where hungry students escaping the poor food in their digs could get good goulash for 1/6.] English food did not improve until the 1960s when the Mediterranean influence became fashionable.

There’s a subtly delightful moment in Animal Farm when the ruling pigs take over Farmer Jones’ house and “some hams hanging in the kitchen were taken out for burial.” On this mock-solemn occasion, made worse by the “hanging” of the hams, the remains of the slaughtered relatives, cured and transformed into human food, are discreetly removed from sight and given a decent interment.

The canteen of the wartime BBC, where Orwell worked as a radio propagandist and relished the revolting sustenance, supplied the details of the canteen in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The filthy utensils matched those in his prep school and were perfectly suited to the quality of the food: “bent spoons, dented trays, coarse white mugs; all surfaces greasy, grime in every crack; and a sourish, composite smell of bad gin and bad coffee and metallic stew. . . . Bread dark-coloured, tea a rarity, coffee filthy-tasting, cigarettes insufficient—nothing cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin,” which, like plentiful vodka in Soviet Russia, keeps the masses obediently inebriated (9.62-3).

Several friends recalled Orwell’s particular preference for heavy, spicy food, which did not follow his prescribed fruit-and-vegetable diet in Wigan Pier. Rayner Heppenstall, who shared a London flat with him in 1935, admired his skill as a chef and knowledge of wine: “He cooked for us himself. He gave us very good steak, and we drank beer out of tree-pattern mugs, which he was collecting. I also met him in restaurants. There he would order red wine, feeling the bottle and then sending it away to have the chill taken off, a proceeding by which I was greatly impressed” (51). His taste in restaurants ran to Spanish, Greek, Hungarian and French: the Bodega, Akropolis, Czardas and Elysée in Soho. Toward the end of his life and with posh friends, he was also at home when invited to expensive restaurants, Boulestin and Rules.

Rules in Covent Garden (Shutterstock)

The half-starved poet Paul Potts, who’d eat anything and thought he’d seen the Promised Land, painted a Dickensian picture of high tea with Orwell on a winter’s evening in Canonbury Square in 1946: “The table was crowded with marvellous things, Gentleman’s Relish [anchovy paste] and various jams, kippers, crumpets and toast” (40). But Arthur Koestler, who’d been brought up on Continental cuisine, thought the man who loved boiled cod with bitter turnips “had no taste in food.” Orwell’s housekeeper filled in the gory details: “He liked northern English cooking. Kippers were a prime favourite or black pudding [blood sausage] boiled first, then fried with onions and served on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes. Then there would be Gentleman’s Relish on toast, or brown bread and butter or home-made scones with jam.” His niece added a vivid detail: he would “make a highly satisfied sort of squeaky whine, rather like a puppy, if he was eating pudding that he really enjoyed!” (Coppard 168, 218,89). When he sat down to a particularly unappetising repast, he’d declare to his son Richard, “Gosh, boys, this looks good!” (Meyers 244).

References

Bourdain, Anthony. The Nasty Bits. NY: Bloomsbury, 2006.

Coppard, Audrey and Bernard Crick. Orwell Remembered. London: BBC, 1984.

Heppenstall, Rayner. Four Absentees. London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1960.

Meyer, Michael. “Memories of George Orwell.” The World of George Orwell. 

Ed. Miriam Gross. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971. Pp. 128-133.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. NY: Norton, 2000.

Orwell, George. The Complete Works. Ed. Peter Davison. 20 volumes. London: Secker & Warburg, 1998.

Potts, Paul. “Don Quixote on a Bicycle: In Memoriam George Orwell,” London Magazine, 4 (March 1957), 39-47. 

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has published 5 books on Orwell: the Reader’s Guide, the Annotated Bibliography, the Critical Heritage, the collection of essays Life and Art and the biography: Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation.

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