When Becky Sharp, gasping from her first curry, is offered her first chilli, she thinks it will be cooling. " 'How fresh and green they look!' she said, and put one in her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. 'Water, for Heaven's sake, water!' she cried."
Becky's humiliation, with vulgar Mr Sedley laughing at his guest's agony, is one of Vanity Fair's most famous scenes. Anyone who has ever been fooled by a pepper feels for Miss Sharp (though the little hussy soon turns the situation to her own advantage, using the idea of her burned mouth to titillate Jos Sedley).
Green chillis have always been nature's best practical joke. Who would guess that a cucumber-coloured vegetable could taste of fire? Becky knows about red cayenne pepper from reading The Arabian Nights. Only green could fox her. Yet when this scene was televised a few Sundays ago, the BBC props department offered Becky a basket of scorching red Scotch bonnets, as if she were stupid. It was a gastronomic blunder the original book would never countenance.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), the greatest literary glutton who ever lived, knew his peppers and much else besides. "Guttling and gorging", as he called it, was his main pleasure apart from writing. In fact, writing - both journalism and novels - was largely a means to the end of eating, for it won him guzzling money. "With the words 'Ah! How wonderful!' [the 19th-century equivalent of 'why, oh why'] and the words 'sixpence per line', I can buy a loaf, a piece of butter, a jug of milk, a modicum of tea," he wrote. Thackeray's fat literary output - which included reviewing cookbooks - kept him nicely blubbery, somewhere between 15 and 18 stone.
His gorging was not indiscriminate, even when excessive. At home in Kensington he gave epicurean dinners of turtles and turbot, roast pigs and peas. The largest dinner he ever ate was in Brussels: 17 opulent courses ranging from fillets of venison piques to stewed cherries and finished off, he proudly recalled, with "about 24 cakes of different kinds". Prodigious! We are reminded of Jos Sedley, who polishes off "a couple of plates full of strawberries and cream, and 24 little rout cakes, that were lying neglected in a plate near him".
Food and character are brilliantly combined in Vanity Fair. Sir Pitt Crawley's meals are disgustingly frugal - mutton soup followed by mutton, or tripe with onions - as befits his money-pinching nature. Likewise, Miss Crawley's self-indulgence is shown in her bilious-making consumption of lobsters. Saintly Amelia hardly takes any interest in eatables. Spoilt little Georgy Osborne downs sweets and jam tarts. As for wicked Becky, she eats sausages in bed and runs up unpaid dairy bills of £200. Raggles, to whom she owes the money, grumbles, "You must 'ave noo-laid eggs for your homlets, and cream for your spanil dog."
Thackeray said his favourite novels were as good as "raspberry tarts". No tart can compete with Vanity Fair, or Becky Sharp for that matter, but here's a recipe anyway.
Make a pastry from 150g of flour, 100g butter, a pinch of salt, the seeds from one vanilla pod and enough yogurt mixed with water to bind. Chill, roll and cut to fit 24 tart tins. Chill again. Mix best raspberry jam with some fresh (or frozen) raspberries. Fill the tarts and bake at 210 C for 15-20 minutes. Better make these for yourselves, gentlemen. I don't think Miss Sharp is to be trusted in the kitchen.