As fall grows colder, I turn to my slow cooker. I think we are hard-wired to slow down, crave warm food and seek cozy spaces in the winter. Perhaps we go into a bit of our own hibernation – after all, we expend a lot of energy in all that summer sunshine.
Austen’s books provide great company for those cozy moments, and so does her food. In Austen’s time there was a strong suspicion of fresh veggies and salad fixings – they too leaned toward the more savory warm dishes that take time to cook and make your house smell marvelous.
And Austen talks about food too. One may not note it in her stories as there is so much else going on, but she uses food in very important ways.
Food revealed her characters’ motivations. It often clarified relationships or it shined a bright light – good and bad – on some of her characters’ deepest personality flaws. Remember poor, ailing Mary Musgrove in Persuasion downing cold meats upon our first introduction? Austen was certainly telling us something about that young woman. And remember when Jane Fairfax in Emma refuses some arrowroot “of very superior quality?” We know what that’s all about – and, by that point, Emma does too. And don’t forget Mrs. Jennings in Sense & Sensibility when she hopes that Marianne can be “tempted to eat by every delicacy in the house.” Ever practical Mrs. Jennings, in some ways, tells us – get up and get going, sustain yourself or worse will come. And for Marianne… It does. Her sister Elinor, however, gets the point. In a time of great distress, she wisely grabs a quick simple meal to keep up her strength for Marianne.
We also watch Mrs. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice count courses and wield food as status and social weapons – and you’ll never find her daughters in the kitchen. And we smile as Mr. Knightley (from Emma) gives only of his own foods and offers them personally. What a guy!
But a reader may not notice any of this because it’s not the food that grabs our attention – it’s how Austen uses the food. Devouring cold meats tells us very clearly – Mary Musgrove is a whiner. Jane Fairfax is tired of Emma. And Mrs. Jennings knows a broken heart will pass.
So as you make warm and cozy dishes this fall – remember that food is so much more than food. That savory soup you serve for dinner – it’s also a sign of love, care and a very practical way to stay warm on a cold night.
Happy Eating and Yummy Reading!