Introduction: An Ample Serving of Dickens

In winter 2009, MASTERPIECE CLASSIC returns with a feast of new adaptations, including three new Dickens works, fondly referred to as MASTERPIECE'S "The Tales of Charles Dickens".

"The Tales of Charles Dickens"

February 15 and 22
Oliver Twist (3-hour mini-series)

March 15 and 22
David Copperfield - encore (3-hour mini-series)

March 29 to April 26
Little Dorrit (8-hour mini-series)

May 3
The Old Curiosity Shop (90-minute single)

Reading the works of Charles Dickens is very much like participating in a moveable feast because he captures so faithfully the characters of 19th-century England by what they eat and drink. Whenever one explores how people survived in past times, food is often a way of learning so much about them. Readers become culinary historians as they rediscover the Victorian world of Charles Dickens. Not only was he a conscientious recorder of the customs of the times, his works are fun to read or view.

Through Dickens and his vibrant prose, we learn that the class system was alive and well in Victorian England. The titled aristocracy enjoyed the many-coursed banquets, served by liveried servants, described in the cookbooks of Mrs. Agnes Marshall or Mrs. Isabella Beeton. Those in trade lived on a more modest level, but managed to eat well with their Christmas Goose, Plum Pudding, and High Teas. It was the poor, living on scraps of offal, gruel, and alcohol, who struggled to survive in an insensitive world.

With Dickens we see again the rough-and-tumble hawkers of meat pies and hot sausages on the smoky gas-lit streets of London. We walk with Mrs. Crachet in A Christmas Carol as she retrieves her Christmas goose at the poultry or butcher market, after making her final weekly payment to the goose fund. We ride the bouncing coaches of Dickens' David Copperfield, stopping at inns and chophouses for hasty meals of mutton and beer. Sometimes the foods we learn about from the works of Dickens seem exotic and unfamiliar, but much of it, through his vivid descriptions, still seems appealing. One of the best ways to enjoy Charles Dickens is to prepare the dishes he describes in your own kitchen.

We have adapted four recipes from our two cookbooks, Heirloom Cooking and Heirloom Baking. They are recipes that have been rescued from crumbling handwritten scraps of paper or from oral tradition, and they mirror the food that Dickens' characters would have enjoyed.

Gather your friends around your table, light candles, and serve a Meat Pie with a rich pastry crust or a Shepherd's Pie with its comforting cover of mashed potatoes. At teatime, present the Currant Cream Scones with clotted cream and jam, or, perhaps, offer a slice of the Irish Sponge Cake with its glistening sugary crust, and become a part of the world of Charles Dickens.

You can visit the WGBH Masterpiece page here.

Recipes from Masterpiece Classic Book & Film Club: Dickens

MASTERPIECE has been presented on PBS by WGBH since 1971. Rebecca Eaton is executive producer. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers provide funding or MASTERPIECE.