Jane Austen’s mature novels are not, by and large, very foodie. Although important scenes occur over meals – think Mary Crawford’s unfortunate “Rears and Vices” joke – Austen seldom mentions what dishes the characters are eating at the time. Indeed, a preoccupation with food is usually the marker of a fussy, hypochondriacal, or excessively sensuous nature: the gruel-eating Mr. Woodhouse of Emma, the picky Parkers of Sanditon, the gluttonous Dr. Grant of Mansfield Park.
So it’s slightly odd that Penguin Random House has chosen Pride and Prejudice as one of the two inaugural titles in its “Book to Table Reading Experience,” out this fall, which pairs a classic text with a set of recipes chosen by celebrity chefs.
The new edition of P&P – a book that, if memory serves, includes only one or two fleeting mentions of the food served at the Bennet table and the Bingley ball – will include a set of Martha Stewart recipes for “tea-time treats” like scones, tartlets and macarons. The dishes sound mouth-watering, but you won’t find any of them mentioned in P&P – not least because the fancy high-tea menu that Americans think of as quintessentially British is largely a creation of the post-Austen Victorian age.
Still, Penguin is hardly unique in trying to capitalize simultaneously on the Austen craze and the foodie trend. Over the years, food historians and Austen scholars with varying credentials have brought us The Jane Austen Cookbook, Dinner with Jane Austen, Dinner with Mr. Darcy, and not one but two versions of Tea with Jane Austen (here and here). (My unfortunate attempts at Austen-era cooking are chronicled here.)
The gimmick this time is the format, in which, as Penguin’s website informed us last week, the recipes will appear alongside food-related photos, illustrations, and the “full, unabridged text of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.”
Wait – what?
Yes, in its initial form the website listing for Penguin’s new foodie P&P included an unfortunate error (since corrected -- alas for the gods of comedy), no doubt attributable to a less-than-judicious use of cut-and-paste. See, the other recipe-laden book in this new series is, indeed, A Christmas Carol, decked out with holiday recipes created by not only Stewart but also Giada de Laurentiis, Ina Garten, and Trisha Yearwood.
Really, A Christmas Carol is a far more intuitive choice for this series, since the Christmas Present section of the story, especially, is stuffed with evocative descriptions of holiday food, from goose to plum pudding. In fact, we could amuse ourselves coming up with a whole list of books better suited to this project than P&P. (Tom Jones? To the Lighthouse?) Meanwhile, however, I’ll be baking Martha Stewart’s maple-glazed scones.