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Culinary Dissonance at Mr Hardcastle’s House

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):

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Marlow’s request for “simple food” (calf brain):

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6 thoughts on “Culinary Dissonance at Mr Hardcastle’s House

  1. I was a bit confused about this food scene. Was Marlows requested dish considered to be fancy back then or not? I thought it wasnt but still I didnt understand why still one wouldnt go for the better mean that had already been prepared, was there maybe a underlying message within this part besides social class?

    • My impression was that Marlow thought the “innkeeper” was putting on airs by fixing such a large and opulent dinner, and that his behavior towards Hardcastle would have been appropriate for this period, had Hardcastle really been an innkeeper. Maybe like bringing champagne to a football game while everyone around you drinks beer? I’m not really sure that I’m right, but my edition of the book has a footnote that gave me this impression, as well as the information about English vs French dishes.

      If it helps, the footnote cites an entire article on this scene:
      Goldsmith. (1995) “Green and yellow dinner.” Notes and Queries, 42. p 70-71.

      I haven’t read the article, but it sounds like it could be helpful.

  2. I enjoyed reading your insights about social hierarchy being identifiable in the “bill of fare” scene, especially your comment about the English’s mistrust of the French because I wonder if the suspicion can be correlated to gender.

    Specifically, the argument about the meal was between men and all three seemed to understand the negative connotations of requesting French food. Likewise, when Mr. Hardcastle is explaining his dislike for Mr. Marlow, he assumes the young man’s travels were “a good deal assisted by bad company,” and then adds that “a French dancing-master” must have accompanied him (3.1.26-7). To me, it is significant that Mr. Hardcastle purposely categorizes the dancing-master’s nationality as French because he disapproves of masquerades to begin with and to call a chief member of it French is supposed to discredit Mr. Marlow’s modestly and belittle his morals even further (356 – Note 24). Additionally, in that same conversation, Kate defends her suitor by assuring, “A French dancing-master could never have taught him that timid look, that awkward address, that bashful manner–,” indicating a slightly more favorable opinion of the French than her father does; yet, she still infers their inadequacy since the Frenchman couldn’t have helped develop Mr. Marlow’s favorable characteristics (3.1.28-30).

    On the other hand, a few lines later, Kate uses the French term “mauvaise honte,” which the editor defines as an “acute and perhaps painful self-consciousness,” to describe Mr. Marlow’s modesty (3.1.32, 356 – Note 32). To me, this indicates she has no problem associating her suitor with French language (thus culture?), which could also imply that she has a positive or at least ambiguous opinion of it, either of which is much different than her father’s very negative opinion.

  3. That’s really interesting, Amy. I had completely missed the larger context of French versus English culture in this story. It does sound like there was a pretty complicated relationship between English and French culture.

    I heard somewhere that French used to be the language of the English court, so it was thought to be both more sophisticated and more pretentious than English. Interestingly, Latin was the language of the Church and so words with Latin roots have a more official, technical connotation, even today. Here’s an article that talks about English versus French roots for names of foods:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_words_with_dual_French_and_Anglo-Saxon_variations

  4. I love the argument that you make here. My thoughts were tending towards the manners of the characters in this scene but I totally overlooked the importance of what they are eating. I think that this not only reinforces the observation I made, but is actually even more significant as a way in which manners and attitudes towards food indicate and define social status and relationships. I think that this observation about the specific foods is even more relevant to class because it makes a direct tie between little-t taste and Taste. I also think that the connection you start to make about the nationality of the food is interesting. The relationship between the French and the fashionable in this play does seem to be a significant (or at least recurring theme). I’d be interested to do a little research into the specifics of the French influences at work in this play and their significances.

  5. Pingback: RE: “Culinary Dissonance at Mr Hardcastle’s House” « History and Literature of Georgian England

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