Michele Roberts on George Eliot and fast food

Even George Eliot got excited about "marbled meats" and "glazed pies", writes<strong>Michele Roberts

Fast food is not one of George Eliot's most common themes. Food in general does not receive much scrutiny in her novels. In Middlemarch, for example, Mrs Garth, that fearful country matriarch, rolls out pastry while teaching her children their grammar lesson; Fred Vincy orders a grilled bone for breakfast; and the posh landowners dine with each other without feeling the need to disclose the menu.

What a reversal in "Brother Jacob", Eliot's least-known story (published by Virago Classics), which tells of a scallywag's attempts to foist his ready-cooked delicacies on the gullible bourgeoisie of a Midland town. Young David Faux becomes a confectioner, assuming that a good income and a rise in social status will follow. Alas, he is unsuccessful: "How is the son of a British yeoman, who has been fed principally on salt pork and yeast dumplings, to know that there is satiety for the human stomach even in a paradise of glass jars full of sugared almonds and pink lozenges?" Eliot wrote. "Say what you will about the identity of the reasoning process in all branches of thought, or about the advantage of coming to subjects with a fresh mind, the adjustment of butter to flour, and of heat to pastry, is not the best preparation for the office of prime minister; besides, in the present imperfectly-organised state of society, there are social barriers."

Margaret Thatcher, the grocer's daughter, would not have agreed.

David accordingly steals his mother's hoard of guineas and, like a good capitalist, decamps to Jamaica: he knows the commercial value of sugar, that prime commodity. Some years later he returns to England and sets up shop. He tempts the snobbish locals with a fine display of "collared and marbled meats, set off by bright green leaves, the pale brown of glazed pies, the rich tones of sauces and bottled fruits". Soon the local housewives, convinced of their heavy-handedness in making their own mince pies, are buying provisions from him. "In short, the business of manufacturing the more fanciful viands was fast passing out of the hands of maids and matrons in private families, and was becoming the work of a special commercial organ."

Eliot foresaw the feminist debates over fast food and reached a characteristically satirical conclusion:

I am not ignorant that this sort of thing is called the inevitable course of civilisation, division of labour, and so forth, and that the maids and matrons may be said to have had their hands set free from cookery to add to the wealth of society in some other way. Only it happened . . . that the maids and matrons could do nothing with their hands at all better than cooking: not even those who had always made heavy cakes and leathery pastry.

Round one to Mrs Garth.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The nuclear fat is in the fire