Sunday, December 5, 2010

Charles Dickens at the White House

One of the most famous guests to dine at the White House during John Tyler’s presidency was the great English writer, Charles Dickens. Upon his arrival to the United States, Dickens was honored at an extravagant ball in New York City, where he was greeted by such famous American writers as Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Edgar Allan Poe.

A few days later, Dickens met John Tyler in the White House and later penned this about the president: He looked somewhat worn and anxious, and well he might; being at war with everybody - but the expression of his face was mild and pleasant, and his manner was remarkably unaffected, gentlemanly, and agreeable.

Although Dickens seemed to like Tyler, he strongly disliked the American institution of slavery. Describing a particular dinner in Baltimore, Dickens wrote:

We stopped to dine at Baltimore, and...were waited on, for the first time, by slaves. The sensation of exacting any service from human creatures who are bought and not an enviable one. The institution exists, perhaps, in its least repulsive and most mitigated form in such a town as this; but it IS slavery; and though I was, with respect to it, an innocent man, its presence filled me with a sense of shame and self-reproach.

After returning to England, Dickens wrote his first travel book entitled American Notes in which he criticized Americans for their poor table manners and disgusting habit of spitting tobacco. In it, he also devoted an entire chapter to slavery in the United States.

While that book was very well-received, Oliver Twist is perhaps Dickens’ most famous novel. Set in mid-ninteenth century England, the main character is a nine-year-old orphan in a London workhouse where the boys are given only three meals of thin gruel each day. When Oliver courageously asks for more (“Please, sir, I want some more”) he is dubbed a troublemaker and treated even more cruelly.

So what, exactly, is gruel? Well, it's usually defined as a thin porridge or soup. Most forms of gruel include rice gruel, flour gruel, and millet gruel. If you'd like to get a taste of it for yourself, here's a quick and simple recipe to try:

2 teaspoons of flour
1 teaspoon of salt

Boil one cup water. Drip water on flour and salt until it turns into a thin paste. Add the paste to the boiling water. Stir to a semi-fluid consistency. Strain to eliminate film. Serve warm and say, "Please, sir, I want some more!"