To mark the 100th anniversary of Roald Dahl’s birth, Jenny Chandler talks about the pivotal role of food in his beloved children’s books
Words: Jenny Chandler
There was an appalling stench wafting up the stairs, a stale brassica smell; my flat mates were on some hideous cabbage soup diet again. I was 20 years old, but I still remember thinking that this was how Charlie Bucket’s house might have smelled.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had been so firmly embedded in my brain as a child, the picture so vivid, that I’d almost lived in that small wooden house beside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, eating little but watery cabbage soup. Dahl has given us all so many enduring food memories.
James’ giant, ripe-smelling peach and Wonka’s fantastical factory of chocolate waterfalls, chewing-gum meals, cavity-filling caramels and lickable wallpaper still fire up children’s imaginations today as they have done for decades. Roald Dahl indulges children’s delight in the truly disgusting too; the repulsive Mr Twit had the remains of hundreds of old breakfasts, lunches and suppers stuck in his beard.
“If you looked closely (not that you’d ever want to) you would see tiny 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.”
Doughnuts and goose livers
In Fantastic Mr Fox, one of the fox’s ghastly captors was Bunce, the duck-and-goose farmer: “His food was doughnuts and goose livers. He mashed the livers into a disgusting paste and then stuffed the paste into the doughnuts”—Dahl picked familiar treats and turned them on their heads into the stuff of nightmares.
Some of Roald Dahl’s most memorable food references in The BFG are written in his own “gloriumptious” language, “Gobblefunk”. There’s the “repulsant snozzcumber” that Sophie had to try: “It tastes of frog skins!” she gasped. “And rotten fish.”
“Worse than that!” cried the BFG, roaring with laughter. “To me it is tasting of clockcoaches and slimewanglers!” But it wasn’t all bad, there were the glorious glasses of “jumbly Frobscottle” that thrilled Sophie and led to bouts of “whizzpopping”.
Food played such a pivotal role in so many of Dahl’s tales and poems that his wife Felicity urged him to compile a book of Revolting Recipes, a work she eventually put together after his death. Don’t be fooled by the title—the dishes are delicious.
The “fresh mudburgers” (from James and the Giant Peach) are in fact perfect beef burgers seasoned beautifully with mustard, Worcestershire sauce, capers and tomato puree, while “bird pie” (from The Twits) is a glorious turkey and ham pie with sage and soured cream.
Last week Juliet Sear cooked up a fantabulous feast of Dahl-inspired delights in the Market Demo Kitchen: snozzcumber cake, frobscottle, Willy Wonka’s nut crunch surprise and Bruce Bogtrotter’s chocolate cake.
Meanwhile, I’m taking inspiration from a Quentin Blake illustration in Roald Dahl’s Cookbook (previously published as Memories with Food at Gipsy House). I simply adore this book and have a well-thumbed, much-loved copy from the nineties. It’s a book filled with recipes, culinary anecdotes, family memories and thoughts—do try to track a copy down.
Dahl was discerning about his ingredients and always sought out the very best and he believed in treats. He’d have been a happy customer at the Market.