I thought it was interesting (as well as pretty funny) to read the supper scene in She Stoops To Conquer. Mr Hardcastle believes that he is serving dinner to an esteemed guest, while Mr Marlow thinks that he is ordering dinner at an inn. The resulting confusion reveals the contextual and ritualistic importance of food choices which, in this case, surmount the purpose of food as a physiological need. What follows is an entire conversation, taking place solely through reference to various dishes. Mr Hardcastle and Mr Marlow share this culinary language and the audience is expected to easily understand the language, too.
Mr Hardcastle has ordered his servants to prepare a formal dinner. It is understood to be formal by the number of dishes served and the choice of offerings. Roast pork with plum sauce is understood by both Mr Hardcastle and Mr Marlow to be an appropriate choice for a formal dinner served by an aristocrat.
Mr Marlow is offended because an innkeeper serving that dish would be communicating a higher status than he has a right to hold. Marlow instead requests calf’s tongue and brains, which I saw as an attempt to put the innkeeper back in his place. When this doesn’t work, Marlow sarcastically requests an elaborate feast. After reading a footnote, I realized that there is another level to this. Marlow’s sarcastic request was mostly for French foods. English citizens at this time mistrusted the French, so requesting these foods was a further communication of contempt at Hardcastle for supposedly exceeding his proper station.
Mr Hardcastle, in contrast, is deeply offended by Marlow’s seemingly inappropriate relationship to food. Since he believes that he is serving a socially appropriate meal, Marlow’s dislike of the food communicates disrespect. However, when Marlow requests tongue and brains, it is baffling. After disrespecting his host, an elder and fellow aristocrat, Marlow requests a meal that communicates a very low social status. This only seems to make sense to Hardcastle if he assumes that Marlow doesn’t care at all about social values or the impression that he is making. Yet Marlow then demands an extremely fancy meal. Hardcastle doesn’t know what to make of this. Marlow seems to be speaking the language of food incoherently.
What is most interesting to me is that, unable to speak coherently through culinary symbolism, neither man is able to eat anything. Marlow resigns himself to going to bed hungry, rather than eat a sumptuous meal in a seemingly inappropriate context.
Hardcastle’s formal dinner offering (pork roast):
Marlow’s request for “simple food” (calf brain):