I’m delighted to be part of the launch celebrations for The Devil’s Feast by M.J. Carter. The Devil’s Feast was published by Fig tree, an imprint of Penguin, on 27th October 2016 and is available for purchase in e-book and hardback from all good booksellers including here.
I’m thrilled that M.J. Carter has written a guest post today all about the inequalities of food in the 1840s when The Devil’s Feast is set.
The Devil’s Feast
London, 1842. There has been a mysterious and horrible death at the Reform, London’s newest and grandest gentleman’s club. A death the club is desperate to hush up.
Captain William Avery is persuaded to investigate, and soon discovers a web of rivalries and hatreds, both personal and political, simmering behind the club’s handsome façade – and in particular concerning its resident genius, Alexis Soyer, ‘the Napoleon of food’, a chef whose culinary brilliance is matched only by his talent for self-publicity.
But Avery is distracted. Where is his mentor and partner-in-crime Jeremiah Blake? And what if this first death was only a dress rehearsal for something far more sinister?
Food and Loathing in the 1840s
How its extremes and inequalities make it a great decade to write about
A Guest Post by M. J. Carter
My thrillers are set in the 1840s, the first decade of Queen Victoria’s reign. It’s a decade which I’m fascinated by: a great period of tumultuous change and conflict—and conflict is always great to write about. This was the decade which saw the end of chaotic Georgian England, and the beginning of uptight, rich, triumphalist Victorian England.
Great inventions—railways and telegraph most of all—transformed the country. There seemed to be geniuses inventing extraordinary things all over the place: William Fox Talbot invented photography; Brunel was building bridges and ships, Dickens and the Brontes were writing masterpieces. Fascinating real-life characters pop up in my research all the time and I can’t wait to put them in my books. At the same time London became the biggest, richest city the world had ever seen—and a place of cowboy ethics.
Wealth poured in but at the same time inequality between rich and poor became an ugly, widening rift. The rich got richer, benefitting from Britain’s position as the world centre of trade and banking, enjoying all the fruits of innovation and wealth: gas lights, hot running water in their homes. The lives of the urban poor were arguably as bad as they’d ever been. Old jobs and trades were dying, new factories provided work but conditions and hours were unregulated and often appalling. As cities were redeveloped, slums and old tenements were cleared, and the poor ended up in ever more crowded, unsanitary conditions where disease and crime were rife. Life expectancy amongst the poor declined. Politicians like young Benjamin Disraeli talked about a country of ‘two nations’. There were race riots, political unrest, foreign émigrés preaching revolution in London, bank crashes, the Irish famine. Sounds familiar? One of things I particularly like about writing about this period is that there are constantly surprising parallels between then and now—and alongside them attitudes and old habits that are jarringly different. So far I’ve written about the Empire, and about the press, in my new book it was food that grabbed me.
Nowhere was inequality in 1840s Britain more visible than in the matter of food, and this has been the inspiration for my latest book, The Devil’s Feast. For the rich and the middle classes, there had never been such a time of plenty. In Covent Garden peaches and pineapples were available year round, imported from abroad or grown in great glasshouses. On Piccadilly, shops displayed bottles of olive oil and anchovies and Crosse and Blackwell began to market bottled relishes. The railways meant a salmon caught in the morning in the Severn could be served in London for dinner. Cookbooks were selling as they never had. Every rich man worth his salt had a French chef.
The greatest of the French chefs was Alexis Soyer, who ran the kitchens at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, where he was at the cutting edge of culinary innovation, using gas ranges for the first time, and producing power and even ice from a steam engine in the basement, and producing new impossible concoctions to stimulate even the most jaded palates. So famous was he and his kitchen than people would pay to take the tour and the newspapers called him ‘the Napoleon of food.’ His cookbooks, The Gastronomic Regulator (he was a bit pretentious) and The Modern Housewife sold hundreds of thousands of copies. One of his most decadent specialities was a plate of lamb chops and mashed potatoes and mushrooms in sauce. It appeared towards the end of the dinner, then looking closer the eater realised it is was actually sponge cake, cream and meringue, in a peach cream. Heston Blumenthal eat your heart out.
The poor on the other hand, struggled to feed themselves at all: the decade is often known as ‘the Hungry Forties’. A series of bad harvests started it, and failed potato harvests in Ireland led to the terrible famine of 1845-7. Economic downturn depressed wages. Tory governments made it all worse with a series of measures called the Corn Laws, which kept the price of wheat artificially high and banned cheap foreign imports, to benefit their chief supporters, agricultural landowners.
Alexis Soyer, rather surprisingly, was deeply troubled by the state of the nation’s diet. He tried to bridge the gap between luxury and need. He wrote one of the first cookbooks for the working class, concentrating on cheap ingredients: A Shilling Cookery for the People. It’s actually a brilliant book and has never been out of print. He completely reinvented the soup kitchen, feeding thousands of the East End poor and then setting up Dublin during the famine, mostly at his own cost. And eventually he went to the Crimean war with Florence Nightingale, where he completely reorganised the provisioning of the British army.
Soyer seemed to me such a great character that I decided I had to put him in my book—another score, I think, for the 1840s.
About M. J. Carter
M. J. Carter is a former journalist and the author of the Blake and Avery series. The first in the series, The Strangler Vine, was shortlisted for the Crime Writer’s Association’s New Blood Dagger Award and longlisted for both the 2015 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year. The next in the series was The Printer’s Coffin (formerly published as The Infidel Stain). M. J. Carter is married with two sons and lives in London.