Posts Tagged ‘food’

Did Virginia Woolf care about food? That question has generated quite a bit of discussion on the VWoolf Listserv. The general consensus? Yes, she did.

A letter published in the Times Literary Supplement on Jan. 13 prompted the discussion. In it, the writer responds to a review of English Food: A Social History of England Told Through the Food on Its Tables (2022) by Diane Diane Purkiss, and he proposes that Woolf did not give food much thought.

The author of the letter, Martin Dodsworth of Brill, Buckinghamshire, writes: “it is noticeable that in writing of Nelly Boxall, her own cook, Woolf hardly ever in her diaries mentions what comes to table. It’s probable that she wasn’t very interested.”

Comments from the VWoolf Listserv

Participants in the Woolf listserv beg to differ. Vociferously. Here are some of the points mentioned by participants on the list, all of whom dispute the view of Woolf as disinterested in food, a view they see as part of the popular myth that she was “frail and ethereal”:

  • The Woolf quote in A Room of One’s Own: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
  • When the Woolfs visited southwest France (now “Nouvelle Aquitaine”) in the 1930s, Virginia argued with Leonard about the quality of the food. – from Marie-Claire Boisset-Pestourie
  • In the 1930s,  Woolf dined at Marcel Boulestin’s famous restaurant in Covent Garden, enjoying such dishes as his sole with mushroom sauce so much that she sent her cook, Mabel Haskins, to him to take lessons. Mabel thoroughly enjoyed the lessons and Woolf was pleased to be reaping the benefits. – from Stephen Barkway
  • My paper at the 2010 conference, published in the selected works from that year, was “A Certain Hold on Haddock and Sausage: Dining Well in Virginia Woolf’s Life and Work.” From numerous passages in her letters and diaries as well as her novels, there is little doubt she relished & appreciated good food. Traveling in France with Vita, she describes the food in several letters to Leonard as well as in her diary. Read about: “the vastest most delicious meal I have ever eaten…” (L3 534) and “a first rate dinner thought out and presided over by a graceful young chef…” (D4 317). – from Alice Lowe

Virginia Woolf, food, and Nellie Boxall

In Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of Domestic Service (2007), Alison Light notes that Nellie Boxall lived with the Woolfs for 18 years, and for 10 of these, Nellie was the Woolfs’ sole live-in servant who became a “first-class” cook (174).

Light explains that as the Woolfs’ income grew in the 1920s, they “began to take holidays abroad and became more sophisticated in their culinary tastes” and Virginia sent Nellie for lessons with Marcel Boulestin, the celebrity chef who opened Restaurant Français in Leicester Square in 1925 (174).

Virginia herself was known for having mastered the art of cooking omelettes, for which Boulestin was renowned, according to Light. And interestingly enough, one of the Woolfs’ first improvements to Monk’s House was a new self-setting range (175).

Light shares a 1956 BBC interview with Nellie: “Nellie had soon coaxed Mrs. Woolf’s poor appetite with treats and fresh puddings like hmemade ice cream with chocolate sauce and crème brûlée . . . ‘She’ always liked Nellie’s cooking ” and brought Nellie a “huge” fresh pineapple when Nellie was in hospital (221).

More on Woolf and food

I did a quick Google search on my own and came up with a few links that add more nails to the coffin of Mr. Dodsworth’s weak argument:

Next morning they would go over the dishes – the soup, the salmon; the salmon, Mrs Walker knew, as usual underdone, for she always got nervous about the pudding and left it to Jenny; so it happened, the salmon was always underdone (Mrs. Dalloway 165).


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Remember The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art by Jans Ondaatje Rolls? Published in 2014 with all proceeds going to The Charleston Trust, it offered more than 180 recipes — some handwritten and never before published — from Frances Partridge, Helen Anrep and David and Angelica Garnett.

The recipes, according to publisher Thames & Hudson, promised to “take us into the very heart” the world of the Bloomsbury Group by recreating mealtime atmospheres at locations such as Monk’s House, Charleston Farmhouse and Gordon Square.

I pored over the book recently and picked recipes that I thought were closest to a Bloomsbury version of a traditional American Thanksgiving holiday meal.

I won’t be substituting any of these dishes for my family’s standby favorites, but here’s the Thanksgiving menu I chose from the book of Bloomsbury recipes.

A Bloomsbury Thanksgiving Menu

Cauliflower Soup, p. 306

Charleston Grouse, p. 274

Frances Partridge’s Haricots Verts, p. 79

Gingernut Biscuits, p. 25

Neptune’s Fruit Banquet, p. 207

Homemade Gateau de Pommes, p. 200 or

Baked Apple Pudding, p 343

Beyond recipes

The book is more than a cookbook. It includes photographs, letters, journals and paintings that contribute a social history angle as well.

Read more about Virginia Woolf and cookbooks on Alice Lowe’s blog.


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