Disaster can strike even the best-prepared home cooks. In David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber Wilkins saved young Copperfield from no small amount of embarrassment using quick thinking, graciousness — and a grill. Food historian Paula Marcoux explains how you can do the same.
Pity poor David Copperfield. Charles Dickens created him in an era when the Western dining table was a minefield of culinary complexity and inflexible orders of service, generously strewn with perplexing cutlery. What better way to torment a young bachelor protagonist striving for upward mobility and human affection than to force him to host a formal dinner party?
It is clear to the reader that young Copperfield’s research and planning for the event were rigorous, but perhaps his substantial outlay for provisions didn’t leave funds sufficient to engage competent kitchen help. Ultimately, it was the meal’s execution, or lack thereof, that brought the whole thing tumbling down in the most mortifying Dickensian fashion. The relevant passage makes painful reading for anyone who has suffered the dreadful experience of attempting to give an impressive dinner only to have every part of it come up short.
Most grievous of all the offerings on the Copperfield table was the leg of mutton, which was served “very red within, and very pale without: besides having a foreign substance of a gritty nature sprinkled all over it, as if it had had a fall into the ashes.” But this sad item opened the door for our grill hero, Mr. Wilkins Micawber, who up until this point had been a mere dinner guest. Here are a few take-home points to be gleaned from his exemplary actions in the face of poor David’s catastrophe.
Tip #1: Above all, be gracious and good-humored.
Before stepping in, the hero absolved the humiliated host and put the situation in perspective with a single brilliant sentence: “ ‘My dear friend Copperfield,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘accidents will occur in the best-regulated families...’ ”
Tip #2: Act quickly.
In a “twinkling,” the resourceful Micawber roused his dejected host to acquire a gridiron (small portable grill) from the pantry so that the inedible roast might be transformed into a “Devil” right there in the dining room fireplace.
Tip #3: Involve the guests in cooking.
Throwing socially approved dining customs to the wind, the hero put everyone to work according to their abilities and inclinations:
“Traddles cut the mutton into slices; Mr. Micawber (who could do anything of this sort to perfection) covered them with pepper, mustard, salt, and cayenne; I put them on the gridiron, turned them with a fork, and took them off, under Mr. Micawber’s direction; and Mrs. Micawber heated, and continually stirred, some mushroom ketchup in a little saucepan. When we had slices done enough to begin with, we fell-to, with our sleeves still tucked up by the wrists, more slices sputtering and blazing on the fire, and our attention divided between the mutton on our plates, and the mutton then preparing.”
Tip #4: Use what is at hand.
Mr. Micawber looked no further than the castors and cruets on David’s dining table for seasonings for this Devil, which might be akin to restricting oneself to rifling the door of the fridge today. You do not have to order mushroom ketchup online to experience this kind of fun. Try messing with the juice from the caper jar instead.
Tip #5: Food tastes better when you actually enjoy cooking it.
“What with the novelty of this cookery, the excellence of it, the bustle of it, the frequent starting up to look after it, the frequent sitting down to dispose of it as the crisp slices came off the gridiron hot and hot, the being so busy, so flushed with the fire, so amused, and in the midst of such a tempting noise and savour, we reduced the leg of mutton to the bone. My own appetite came back miraculously. I am ashamed to record it, but I really believe I forgot Dora for a little while.”
Especially as contrasted with the stuffy, pretentious, remotely prepared dinner the group were intended to eat, Dickens’s description of this improvised meal perfectly captures the pleasures of cooking and eating hands-on and sleeves-up at a fire with friends. Mr. Micawber’s diplomacy and quick action in the face of kitchen failure, not to mention his improvisation with tabletop condiments, should be inspiration to hosts and guests alike. Who wouldn’t enjoy having as much fun by the fire as did these perfect figments of Dickens’ imagination?
Mr. Micawber’s Devil
Our hero used the mutton at hand, but this preparation can be a handy catchall for all sorts of leftovers. Besides the obvious thick slices of underdone roast, try leftover turkey thighs, halved game hens, or flattened quails; also delicious with breast of lamb or other cooked rib sections.
According to 19th-century American cookbook author A. P. Hill, the seasoning of a Devil should be “highly pungent, so as to leave no doubt as to its paternity.”
1/2 pound, or so, leftover meat
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
kosher or sea salt, to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon strong mustard
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ketchup, mushroom if available (optional)
If you have a thick slab of meat, “scotch” it, that is, crosshatch it with a sharp knife on both sides, and press it flatter.
Season the meat on all surfaces with the cayenne, black pepper, and salt to taste. Be liberal in the application.
Place the remaining ingredients in a small clay pot or nonreactive metal pan.
Preheat a grill grate over very hot hardwood coals. Make another little pile of coals to the side and place the small pot on it to heat the basting sauce.
Grill the meat, turning it with tongs and basting it with the hot sauce, until brown and sizzling all over. Enjoy it “hot and hot.”
Cooking with Fire author Paula Marcoux is a food historian who lives in Plymouth, Mass.; she has worked professionally as an archaeologist, cook, and bread-oven builder. She is the food editor of Edible South Shore magazine, writes on food history topics for popular and academic audiences, and consults with museums, film producers, and publishers. She also gives regular workshops on natural leavening, historic baking, and wood-fired cooking. Her website is www.themagnificentleaven.com.