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Boiled lamb’s head with a salamander: What Charles Dickens had for dinner

a photo of an open book at the frontispiece page

What Shall We Have for Dinner? Courtesy The Charles Dickens Museum

How Catherine Dickens cooked up a storm in the Victorian Kitchen

Catherine Dickens sought a straight-to-the-point title when she created her slim hardback cookbook during the early 1850s. Writing under the pen name Lady Maria Clutterbuck (a character she’d been in a play at Rockingham Castle, the Northamptonshire inspiration for Bleak House), Dickens wanted to answer the “ever-recurring inquiry” about teatime grub, forming “bills of fare” for gatherings of up to 20 diners.

“It is to rescue many fair friends from such domestic suffering,” she wrote, claiming mealtime was a dreaded occasion “only exceeded in its terrors by the more awful time of dinner.”

“I have consented to give to the world the bills of fare which met with the approval of Sir Jonas Clutterbuck, believing that by a constant reference to them, an easy solution may be obtained to that most difficult of questions.”

a photo composite showing two pages of a recipe book

Useful receipts? Courtesy The Charles Dickens Museum

a photo of the interior of a kitchen

The kitchen at the Charles Dickens Museum. Courtesy The Charles Dickens Museum

a black and white photo of a woman in Victorian dress

Catherine Dickens in 1879. Courtesy The Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens was a fan of fromage. Capitalising on the family’s cheese toaster, several of her menus involve melted cheese.

That early toaster was effectively a fondue set, involving a dish which held cheese above a container of hot water. Mustard, pepper and port of butter could be added if the recipe turned out dry, and Dickens enjoyed combining it with a watercress salad.

turbot with smelts, shrimp sauce, roast saddle of mutton, boiled fowls, tongue, oyster curry, rice, pork cutlets, custard and macaroni..,

According to her eldest son Charley, the critics admired the little book, but warned that “no man could possibly survive the consumption of such frequent toasted cheese.”

The 1852 edition, which is in the collection of The Charles Dickens Museum in London, features a line-up of lobster cutlets, rabbit curry, rice dumpling and mashed and brown potatoes for two or three eaters.

Her Italian cream required thick scalded cream, powdered sugar, lemon juice and lemon rind to be whipped for nearly an hour, and her menu for 20 included vegetable soup, turbot with smelts, shrimp sauce, roast saddle of mutton, boiled fowls, tongue, oyster curry, rice, pork cutlets and spinach, as well as more potatoes, beetroot salad, cabinet pudding, marmalade tartlets, custards and macaroni.


a photo of an open page of a book with a dinner menu on it

Menu page. Courtesy The Charles Dickens Museum

Louisa Price, the museum Curator, says the book is an important part in reflecting the life of the woman who met Dickens when she was the teenage Catherine Hogarth.

“The cookbook is a reminder of skills and qualities that are often sidelined when Catherine is discussed,” she says.

“The book, which ran to five editions, reflects her Scottish heritage and her culinary experiences living abroad in places like Switzerland, Italy and France.

a lamb’s head is instructed to be halved, boiled and browned in an oven with a salamander

“The couple often entertained and the book is clearly written by someone who knows how to juggle the realities of catering for larger dinner parties with a small kitchen – for example, preparing items in advance and serving things cold.”

A Scotch Minced Collop contains two pounds of finely-chopped fillet of beef, stewed with salt, pepper, gravy, ketchup and Harvey’s sauce before being served “very hot” with a “fried sippet of bread.”

Elsewhere, a lamb’s head is instructed to be halved, boiled and browned in an oven with a salamander. “Catherine has an astute understanding of seasonal cookery, as well as the nuances of meat cookery,” says Price.

a photo of a leather bound book seen from its spine

What shall we have for dinner? Courtesy The Charles Dickens Museum

“She provides a range of examples of how to prepare dishes on a stovetop, baked in an oven or on a bottle jack – a device which rotates meat on a spit.

“The book is a wonderful addition… and fills a significant gap in our collection. Though we have often referenced the publication, and used its contents to illustrate the culinary life of the Dickens family here at Doughty Street, we have never owned a copy until now.”

Catherine Hogarth 

  • Married Charles Dickens in 1836. They lived together for the next 22 years.
  • Had ten children, two of whom were born at Doughty Street, in the first sixteen of those years, as well as travelling to America and living abroad.
  • When they separated, Catherine moved to 70 Gloucester Crescent near Regent’s Park, where she stayed for 21 years, outliving Charles by nearly a decade.
  • Charles Dickens painted a harshly negative portrait of his wife during this time, suggesting that Catherine was constantly depressed and an uncaring, unfit mother.


Charles Dickens Museum

London, Greater London

Number 48 Doughty Street is the only remaining London home of eminent Victorian author Charles Dickens. Dickens described the terraced Georgian dwelling as 'my house in town' and resided here from 1837 until 1839 with his wife and young family. Two of his daughters were born here, his sister-in-law Mary…

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