“Rule No. 17 forbade the students to enter the kitchen, or in any way to disturb the servants in the discharge of their duties. Agatha broke it because she was fond of making toffee, of eating it, of a good fire, of doing any forbidden thing, and of the admiration with which the servants listened to her ventriloquial and musical feats. Gertrude accompanied her because she too liked toffee, and because she plumed herself on her condescension to her inferiors.”
- George Bernard Shaw, An Unsocial Socialist (1887)
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was an Irish-born playwright, literary critic, musician, novelist, essayist, journalist, orator, social advocate, and founder the London School of Economics. He also has the unique distinction of being awarded both a Nobel Prize for Literature (while the committee commended his work as, “marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty,” Shaw wanted to refuse the Nobel and only accepted after bring prodded by his wife) and an Oscar, awarded for writing the screenplay for the non-musical version of Pygmalion. He worked adamantly with the Fabian Society to advance his socialist beliefs with the aim of transforming England’s political and social system through progressive legislation and mass education. Of his purpose and conviction, Shaw famously said, “some men see things as they are and say why… I dream things that never were and say why not.”
In the late 1880s, a young Shaw wrote a string of unsuccessful novels, including An Unsocial Socialist. The weakly plotted tale follows a wealthy gentleman who disguises himself as a laborer – assuming a set of bawdry mannerisms that he associates with the working class – in order to hide from his overly sentimental and affectionate wife. Leaving his wife, he claims, will grant him the freedom to take up the socialist cause, but the closest he comes to acting for that cause is to break down his neighbor’s park wall in order to test the question of right of way. When not in disguise as a laborer, Sidney – the gentleman’s real name – eloquently and profoundly contests the abuses of his “natural” class (but, of course, he does this over wine and walnuts at the table of aristocrats). Sidney becomes increasingly vile: his conviction for human good amounts to endless ranting about humanity’s degeneration, and he remains unmoved even at the deathbed of his deserted wife. The novel is often read as a satire of socialism, but I believe it more adequately serves to critique any political or “moral” agenda that lacks conviction and the effort to embrace its own objectives.
I know the literary food reference here is to toffee, but I’m going to lose my own course a bit and draft a little ode to chocolate. I took my doctoral exams this past week, and as you can imagine, the studying process one undergoes before this sort of thing is nothing short of intensely stressful. While my husband, family, and friends deserve a standing ovation for their efforts to motivate me, I also need to give credit to another love that prevented me from shattering into a million emotionally charged pieces: chocolate. We’re not talking about any small amount of chocolate here. We’re talking, “hmmm, maybe I’ll just skip breakfast and eat my way through this gigantic organic milk chocolate truffle bar… and then follow dinner with a whole box of chocolate macarons” kind of chocolate. Work my way through a Hersey bar as I teach this class and please ignore the small mountain of wrappers on my desk kind of chocolate. Don’t judge: I swear, something about chocolate genuinely makes me feel better. But hey, Dr. Diane Ackerman notes that Montezuma’s court drank two thousand pitchers of chocolate a day (adding a pinch of their ancestor’s ground-up bones to cure dysentery); she also reminds us that famous gastronome and food writer Jean Brillat-Savarin describes “Spanish ladies of the New World” who were so addicted to the stuff, they had it served in church.
Ackerman (whose book, A Natural History of the Senses is some kind of divine) goes on to describe a psychopharmalogical study conducted on a group of “intense, thrill-seeking women” that found that virtually ALL of the women studied turned to chocolate in the throes of their “post-thrill depression.” She also cites George Orwell’s novel, 1984, which depicts a world where sex is forbidden, chocolate tastes like “the smoke of a rubbish fire,” and Julie and Winston consume real “dark and shiny” chocolate before their high risk love-making. My person list of literary references to food shows that chocolate stands a fair shot at earning the “most frequently cited” title.
I can’t promise that chocolate will solve all (or any) of our social ills, but this chocolate-covered pumpkin seed toffee recipe can certainly offer a bit of personal respite: I used dark chocolate instead of semisweet and will probably up the butter by a stick the next time I make it (more butter = creamier toffee). The pumpkin seeds came from our very own freshly carved pumpkins, which promptly shriveled up like rotten, shrunken heads after two days outside in our desert heat. I highly recommend that you invest in a candy thermometer before you make this recipe: it’s useful for making the toffee (“hard crack” stage is usually reached at 300-310 degrees Fahrenheit) and to temper the chocolate (a process described here that takes some practice to get the hang of).
I hate to be self-indulgent in light of my discussion of Shaw, but please keep your fingers crossed for me! I’m a few weeks away from being either a step closer to finishing my doctorate or a step closer to starting a pastry career (lean your hopes to the former).