Lots of people confess to having a streak of madness running in the family, but eighteenth-century essayist, Charles Lamb, had stronger claims than most.
One evening he arrived home to discover that, while his sister had been helping set the table for supper, she’d gone mad. She stabbed her mother to death with a kitchen knife, and embedded a fork in her father’s head. As was the way back then, Charles’ sister – Mary Lamb – was carted off to a lunatic asylum in Islington. Despite all her madness though, Charles was clearly fond of Mary, so got her out and promised to look after her from thenceforward.
This made things rather hard for Charles, especially when it came to persuading a woman to marry him – having a bona fide bonkers sister lingering round the house isn’t exactly a turn-on. So when his advances on Ann Simmons (mainly a flurry of sonnet-writing ) were rejected, he too got a touch of the madness.
Charles and Mary pottered along, living brother and sister. Despite both being blighted by bouts of insanity, they must have had quite a fun time, hanging out with best friend and renowned opium-fiend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as Wordsworth, Percy Shelly, Lord Byron and the rest of English Romantic gang. Lots of boozy house parties. Lots of eccentricities and excess, within such a pithy and drunk crowd – all contributing to a sort of Blackadder-esque scene of carnage.
I digress, but all this is background to a revealing Charles Lamb quote: “Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.” To get past your sister inflicting such heinous cutlery-related injuries on both parents, you’ve got to have a wicked sense of humour, surely. And nothing demonstrates it better than Charles Lamb’s A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig and Other Essays.
The book is made up of fourteen very different essays, which are loosely tied together by the theme of food. Some essays survive the passing of time better than others. I struggled a little with The Praise of Chimney-Sweepers, which begins: “I like to meet a sweep - understand me - not a grown sweeper - old chimney-sweepers are by no means attractive - but one of those tender novices, blooming through their first nigiritude“. My difficulty didn’t so much lie with the casually racial phrasing, so much as the endless digressions as Lamb flicks from Arundel Castle to Mr Read’s ‘salopian house‘ on Fleet Street, pizzas in Covent Garden and a head waiter called James. I got a bit lost.
What hypocrisy! I digress myself. What I do want to laud are my two-favourite essays from Lamb’s book. Firstly, A Dissertation Upon a Roast Pig. It’s such an extraordinary creation myth explaining how roast pig was first invented, you can’t help but wonder whether Lamb had been toking on Coleridge’s opium pipe too.
“For the first seventy thousand ages [mankind] ate their meat raw, clawing or biting it from the living animal” – so the story starts. That is until a particularly incompetent son of a Chinese swine-herder, Bo-bo, burned down his father’s house. Such is Bo-bo’s incompetence “a great lubberly boy, who being fond of playing with fire, as younkers of his age commonly are“, it transpires this isn’t the first time he’s burned down his father’s house. It is, however, the first time that he does it when there are nine precious pigs inside.
Frantically raking through the wreckage, Bo-bo comes across the charred remains of the pigs: “some of the scorched skin had come away with his fingers, and for the first time in his life (in the world’s life indeed, for before him no man had known it) he tasted – crackling!” At this point, Lamb embarks upon a rapturous appreciation for the wonders of pork crackling, written in such beautiful and evocative language, you want to run down to the pub and buy a pack of porkies to satiate an appetite which rises as you read:
“There is no flavour comparable…to that of the crisp, tawny, well-watched, not over-roasted crackling, as it is well called – the very teeth are invited to their share of the pleasure at this banquet in overcoming the coy, brittle resistance – with the adhesive oleaginous – O call it not fat! But an indefinable sweetness growing up to it – the tender blossoming of fat – fat cropped in the bud – taken in the shoot” … and so it goes on. To be honest, I thought that the Romantics were all “I wondered lonely as a cloud“, so it was a happy discovery to see them tackling subjects with as much importance as pork crackling!
Back to the story though. After Bo-bo’s discovery, him and his father start herding pigs into their house, and burning it down with such alarming regularity, they are eventually summoned to court. The judge learns about the delicacy the pair have stumbled on, and decides to give it a go himself. He buys a heard of pigs and burns down his house too, and soon the whole region is doing the same: “when the court was dismissed, [the judge] went privily and bought up all the pigs that could be had for love or money. In a few days his lordship’s townhouse was observed to be on fire. The thing took wing, and now there was nothing to be seen but fire in every direction. Fuel and pigs grew enormously dear all over the district and the insurance-offices one and all shut up shop.”
There is a happy ending though, because people eventually realise that you don’t have to set your entire house on fire to satisfactorily roast a pig. The townspeople initially fashion a gridiron to cook the pig on, and finally a spit. And that is how roast pig first came about, right…
Nonsense-creation-myth aside, Lamb touches on greed and generosity in the most humorous and eloquent way: “I am one of those, who freely and ungrudgingly impart a share of the good things of this life” he writes, listing hares, pheasants, partridges, snipes, barn-door chickens, capons, plovers, brawn and barrels of oysters, all as things he will share with friends. “But a stop must be put somewhere” he implores. And, for Charles Lamb, the buck stops at roast pork.
The topic of greed neatly brings me on to the second of my joint-favourite Charles Lamb essays: Grace Before Meat. Here, Lamb observes how those who feast “like hogs to the trough” often adopt a thin, devotional tone as they say the grace – and how the most sincerest of graces are often said from those who have the least to thank for.
For five academic years I said grace twice a day, before leaving school and – unquestioningly – have never said a grace since. So I particularly enjoyed the opening few paragraphs where Lamb muses about the very act of saying grace. If he is giving thanks for his food, he wonders, then shouldn’t he be giving thanks for so much more: “I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a midnight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem. Why have we none for books, those spiritual repasts – a grace before Milton – a grace before Shakespeare – a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen?”
It’s a beautiful list of things to be thankful for, and it transcends the centuries just as effortlessly as Lamb’s descriptions of greed and glutton. A perfect example of how something published almost two hundred years ago can be just as relevant now as back then.