What Did Dickens have for Christmas Dinner?

Scrooges third visitor-John Leech 1843-detail

Charles Dickens wrote the infamous, A Christmas Carol, and Ebeneser Scrooge’s last meal, before he met his dead partners ghost, Jacob Marley, was a hot bowl of gruel. Have you ever wondered what Mr. Dickens’s family had on their Christmas dinner table?

After a couple of searches, I found out that Dickens’s wife, Catherine Thomson Hogarth, (1816–1879), published a cook book,‘What should we have for dinner?’

One of the dishes made by Catherine for Christmas was colcannon. Colcannon is a mixture of mashed potatoes, cabbage, (or sometimes kale), some type of onion, butter and milk. Originally an Irish recipe, colcannon was an economical and provincial dish eaten throughout the fall and winter when fresh green vegetables were unavailable.(1)



Here’s the simple recipe:




4 large Idaho or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
2 leeks, white parts only
Half a medium head of cabbage, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 stick salted butter, divided
6 oz. heavy cream

Boil the potatoes in salted water until tender, mash them and set aside.  For extra fluffy potatoes run them through a ricer.

Meanwhile, cut the greens and root end off the leeks and discard.  Cut the white parts in half vertically.  Fan out the leaves and thoroughly rinse them under running water.  Slice the whites crosswise.

In a large skillet, sweat the leeks and cabbage with some salt and pepper in half of the butter until softened.  Watch the heat and cook them gently.  Avoid burning the butter or browning the vegetables.

With a spatula, scrape out the leek/cabbage combination and all of the butter from the skillet into the pot of mashed potatoes.  Add the remaining butter, cream and additional salt and pepper if necessary.

Mix everything with a spoon and return it to the stove to heat everything through.

Serve with an ample amount of Yuletide joy with family, friends and the Ghost of Christmas Present.


And now, what the Scrooge is gruel?


According to Wiki:

Gruel is a type of food consisting of some type of cerealoat, wheat or rye flour, or rice—boiled in water or milk. It is a thinner version of porridge that may be more often drunk than eaten and may not need to be cooked. Historically, gruel has been a staple of the Western diet, especially for peasants. Gruel is often made from millet, hemp, barley or, in hard times, from chestnut flour or even the less bitter acorns of some oaks. (2)

Now we all know! Thank you Wiki.

Being a poor man’s porridge, it had varying recipes.  Dickens and other authors of the nineteen century frequently mentioned it.


Are you tired of that old boxed cereal for breakfast? But, if you really think it through, our modern cold cereals is a form of gruel , although we’ve added marshmallows and food coloring in many instances to dress it up.


Here’s your basic  recipe for flour gruel:

2 teaspoons of flour
1 teaspoon of salt

Boil one cup water. Separately, drip water on flour and salt until it makes a paste. Add the paste to the boiling water. Stir to a semi-fluid consistency. Strain to eliminate film. Serve warm.

Not exactly a tasty bowl to wake up to in the morning.

Dickens and his ilk often used gruel as a metaphor for cruelty. The thin porridge has had a bad reputation ever since.

Gruel can actually be quite tasty. As far back as Medieval times, they were making sweet variations. A dish called Gruya (or Gruyau) was basically gruel — barley boiled in almond milk.

In Korea today, gruel is often considered a delicacy. Take for instance Jat-juk, or Pine Nut Gruel — finely ground rice swimming with pine nuts to make a nutritious (protein, iron and vitamin B) and delicious soup.(3)


So, don’t turn up your noses at the lowly bowl of gruel. You can vary the ingredients, and make it your own family tradition this Christmas.




  1. http://www.foodreference.com/html/a-dickens-christmas-1210.html

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gruel

3. http://www.mrbreakfast.com/ask.asp?askid=10

Photo: Wiki Commons


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