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Roald Dahl: the discerning pig

Roald Dahl: the discerning pig

by Victoria Glass 13 September 2018

Victoria Glass takes an in-depth look at the life of Roald Dahl and his love for all things edible – both in and out of his books.

Roald Dahl loved to eat. He loved nothing more than sticking his ‘nose bag’ on for long feasts with family and friends at Gipsy House, his home in Great Missenden, and described himself and his loved ones as ‘pigs, but we are, I hope, discerning pigs who care with some passion about fine cooking’.

Care he most certainly did. Food was often the lens through which Roald Dahl viewed the world. His literary works are bursting with examples and imagery of food to illustrate his characters’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as a means to deliver their rewards and punishments.

Dahl’s love of food was ignited at a young age. As a child at Repton School, Cadbury’s would send over boxes of their new lines of chocolate bars to be taste tested by the school boys. Dahl discovered his lifelong love of chocolate during this time and dreamt of inventing a chocolate bar so impressive that it would win the praise of Mr Cadbury himself. These formative years provided huge inspiration for the fabulous concoctions to be found behind the doors of Willy Wonka’s Inventing Room in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

His Norwegian mother, Sofie, was a huge influence. Stitched into the fabric of Dahl’s childhood memories is his mother’s cooking, especially her Norwegian recipes. He describes with affection and reverence her ability to ‘cook a meal for twelve without turning a hair’ and held great cooks in the same esteem as great artists.

It is no surprise that he went on to marry another great cook in Felicity, known as ‘Liccy’, whom Dahl described as possessing ‘not simply a fine palate but a kind of micro-palate so sensitive it can detect the presence of a single cumin seed in a large pot of beef stew’.

So dedicated to the pursuit of fine food and so impressed by Liccy’s talent at the stove, Roald Dahl employed a different young woman every year to learn to become a great cook under his wife’s instruction and tutelage. With Liccy, Dahl hatched plans for Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes and started work on Memories With Food At Gipsy House (which in later editions became Roald Dahl’s Cookbook),which included recipes from many of their young, year-long housekeepers. Both volumes were published after his death.

Something sweet

Dahl was a staunch believer in regular treats. Along with his own hipbone (a keepsake from an operation), a dull silver, cannonball-shaped weight sat proudly on his writing desk, made from hundreds of the scrunched together foil wrappers from his daily Kit Kat habit.

According to Liccy, Dahl kept a large sweet jar permanently by his bedside, in case he was compelled to ‘lift’ a wine gum ‘silently in the middle of the night’. Despite his love of a good treat, Dahl was censorious of gluttony. He believed all good food, from a young broad bean freshly plucked from its pod, to a chocolate Malteser (originally named ‘energy balls’, but quickly renamed due to the unforeseen amusement of the general public), should be savoured rather than guzzled.

Gluttony and greed are always creatively punished in his children’s books. Augustus Gloop is an enormously fat and greedy boy from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with ‘fat bulging from every fold, with two greedy eyes peering out of his doughball of a body’. Unable to contain his excessive lust for over-eating, Gloop scoops handfuls of Willy Wonka’s chocolate river into his greedy open chops, declaring, ‘This stuff is fabulous... Gosh, I need a bucket to drink it properly!’ His gluttony makes him deaf to the protestations of Wonka and his mother and results in him being sucked up a pipe and squeezed and squashed so violently that he comes out a completely new (and much thinner) boy.

An even more grisly fate awaits Aunt Sponge in James and the Giant Peach. James’ wicked aunt is enormously fat and very short. ‘She had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth, and one of those white flabby faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled.’ She gets her comeuppance when the giant peach rolls over and flattens her and her awful sister, Aunt Spiker, as they trip over each other while attempting to save themselves.

Greed and gluttony

Greed and meanness seem to go hand in hand in so many of Dahl’s books, from the fate of The Enormous Crocodile, who is thrown in the air and burnt up by the sun by Trunky the Elephant, to prevent him from succeeding in his wicked mission to gobble up innocent children,to the evil farmers, Boggis, Bean and Bunce in The Fantastic Mr Fox.

Boggis only eats chickens (twelve a day in total) with dumplings for breakfast, lunch and supper. Bean, the cleverest and most wicked, lives off strong apple cider and no food at all, while Bunce subsists on a diet of goose liver-stuffed doughnuts; a recipe which wouldn’t seem out of place in the fashionable restaurants of today. Bunce is described as ‘a kind of pot-bellied dwarf. He was so short his chin would have been underwater in the shallow end of any swimming-pool in the world. His food was doughnuts and goose-livers. He mashed the livers into a disgusting paste and then stuffed the paste into the doughnuts. This diet gave him a tummy-ache and a beastly temper.’ Dahl relishes in his brutal visual descriptions that tap into the imaginations of children. He understood that kids are delighted by the disgusting and giggle at the gruesome.

Children adore his books so much because of the colourful and often macabre punishments dished out against his malevolent villains. In real life, he planned The Great Mouse Plot, detailed in his autobiographical novel, Boy. Dahl and his young friends conspire revenge against the vile sweetshop owner, Mrs Pratchett, ‘a skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a gooseberry’ by hiding a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers. They delight in imagining her rooting around in the gobstoppers with her filthy fingernailed hands, before plucking the stinking dead rodent out and screaming in shock.

Sadly, Mrs Pratchett got the last laugh in this scenario, when she was invited to the school by their headmaster to watch and revel in a particularly violent caning exacted on the boys as punishment.

Just deserts

As in his life, just deserts are rife in Roald Dahl’s stories and food often features in retributions. In The Witches, the Grand High Witch plots to eradicate all of England's children by lacing sweets with ‘Formula 86 Delay Action Mouse Maker’ that will turn the children into mice. The boy and his Norwegian grandmother (based on Dahl's own mother) hatch a plan to hoist the witches by their own petard, by secreting the formula into their pea soup and eradicating all of England’s witches in a single slurp.

The Twits is particularly full of gruesome food-related imagery. Mr Twit’s beard is full of ‘hundreds of bits of old breakfasts and lunches and suppers sticking to the hairs around his face. If you looked closely (not that you’d ever want to) you would see tiny little specks of dried-up scrambled eggs stuck to the hairs, and spinach and tomato ketchup and fish fingers and minced chicken livers and all the other disgusting things Mr Twit liked to eat.’ This revolting couple try to catch birds by leaving industrial strength glue on tree branches, so they can shovel the trapped birds straight into a pie – beaks and all. They loathe each other and try to outdo one another in the nasty tricks they play. Mrs Twit scares her husband by leaving her false eye at the bottom of his tankard of beer and hides live worms in his spaghetti, which she gleefully watches him eat before revealing the truth about this ‘new kind’ of pasta.

Perhaps his most extreme example of food as retribution is in Lamb to the Slaughter, one of Dahl’s short stories written for adults. Revenge is literally a dish best served cold when food itself becomes the weapon. A rejected wife murders her husband by bludgeoning him to death with a frozen leg of lamb, before roasting the joint and feeding it to the detectives during their search for the murder weapon. A wry smile flickers across her lips as she ackowledges the macabre irony.

As well as providing many humorous downfalls, food often features as a reward. Charlie Bucket and his family are so poor they survive almost entirely on a dreary and miserable diet of cabbage soup. Their goodness pays off when Charlie is awarded the keys to Wonka’s factory and with it a lifetime of delicious treats at every turn.

Just as food was central to his own life, Dahl made food, both real and invented, central to many of his books for children. It was his gift for describing the macabre and making the outlandish relatable that continues to inspire each new generation to flock to his works. From The BFG’s snozzcumbers to Bruce Bogtrotter’s chocolate cake, Dahl understood that food is a shared experience that connects us all. We may not all be able to move objects with our minds like Matilda can, or shrink an evil grandmother so much that she vanishes without a trace like George with his marvellous medicine, but we can all eat and enjoy good food and wrinkle our noses up at the bad.

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Roald Dahl: the discerning pig


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