Sunday, January 13, 2013

Egg Hot: After a Night in Debtors Prison...

Sometimes I listen to Bob Dylan and wonder what future generations will know about him that we don't. After Dylan's eventual death, it's certain that biographical details will come out that will change the way we think of many of his songs. People a century from now will probably have trouble imagining us listening to the songs without knowing these things.

This is, after all, what happened with Dickens. Even if you just read the back of the books, not the whole introductions to them, it's hard to read all of the scenes in various books that take place in debtors prisons and imagine that people back in the day didn't realize Dickens's father had been in one. It's widely known now that David Copperfield is sort of a veiled autobiography, but no one except Dickens's very closest friends knew this at the time.


William Hogarth's illustration of the scene at a debtor's prison.
Note fancy bed in background.
Though having a father imprisoned for debt clearly weighed heavily on his psyche, Dickens has a tendency to make debtors' prison look like a real party pit. Debtors' prisons weren't exactly hard labor; the general atmosphere seems like like life in a cheap motel that you weren't allowed to leave. There was a "snuggery" (an agreeable name for a tavern), grounds on which one could wander around, and often times peoples' entire family would live in the prison cell with them.

Mr. Micawber, with whom young David Copperfield lives for a time, is perhaps the most entertaining debtor in all of Dickens - indeed, he's one of the most memorable characters in all of of the works. Micawber is always dodging creditors, and always with the threat of being arrested for debt hovering over his head, but, between bouts of misery, his motto is "Something will turn up." The same motto got me through some tough times. He is subject to dizzying switches between highs and lows, generally with a very verbose speech, even by Dickens standards. When he's finally arrested for debt, he remarks that "the God of Day had gone down forever upon him," but he's playing games in the prison courtyard by noon.


I like Micawber a lot. He's sort of a bum, but an agreeable one who reminds me more of myself than I should probably admit. Dickens describes him as "a thoroughly good-natured man, and as active a creature about everything but his own affairs as ever existed, and never so happy as when he was busy about something that could never be of any profit to him." 

David Copperfield goes to visit him in his cell, and finds him crying and repeating his famous statement that a man who earns twenty pounds a year and spends 19 pounds, 19 shillings, and six pence, he'll be happy, but that if he spends twenty pounds and six pence, he'll be miserable. This is a philosophy he's generally unable to live by himself. Immediately after repeating it he borrows a shilling from David for beer, then sends him to a cell above his own to borrow a knife and fork from one Captain Hopkins, who lives there with his family, so they can eat the leg of mutton Micawber's cell mate has scared up:

I thought it was better to borrow Captain Hopkins's knife and fork, than Captain Hopkins's comb. The Captain himself was in the last extremity of shabbiness, with large whiskers, and an old, old brown great-coat with no other coat below it.

David has to admit there's something charming about the shabby, but genial dinner and atmosphere, and spends the night at the cell before going back to Micawber's house, where he's living at the time, and where she makes him (still very much a minor) an alcoholic drink:

There was something gipsy-like and agreeable in the dinner, after all. I took back Captain Hopkins's knife and fork early in the afternoon, and went home to comfort Mrs. Micawber with an account of my visit. She fainted when she saw me return, and made a little jug of egg-hot afterwards to console us while we talked it over.

So...egg hot. Another Victorian drink with an egg in it, but one said to cheer one up. David's in a bad place at this point. Micawber, the closest thing he has to a father figure, is in jail, and he's spending his days working a crappy factory job, having been pulled out of school (again, it's hard to imagine reading this without knowing that Dickens was really writing about his own childhood here). Pretty soon he'll run away, and Micawber will drift in and out of his life for some time. Mrs. Micawber, who constantly tells everyone that "No, I shall never leave Mr. Micawber," as though she can just tell they're thinking she ought to, is about the most loyal human being in literature. The two of them actually adapt well to prison life for a while: "they lived more comfortably in the prison than they had lived for a long while out of it."


So, egg hot is a drink served by people like Mrs. Micawber to help you through a little crisis.  Sign me up.





Recipes vary, and none really specify what kind of ale to use; there are dozens of options on the shelf these days. Seeing as how most of the furniture and household effects of the Micawbers have been pawned at this point in the book, I can't imagine it was anything fancy. Personally, I decided on Goose Island Nut Brown Ale. Not too fancy, but tasty on its own, and I thought a nuttiness would go well with the recipe for egg hot, which is:

1 bottle of ale

1 egg
a pat of butter
a tablespoon of sugar
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of cloves

Warm the butter, sugar, spices, and about 2/3rds of the ale in a saucepan until the butter melts. Beat the egg in a bowl, then add a bit of the cold ale. Mix, then slowly add a spoonful at a time of the warm ale into it, stirring all the while. This will temper the egg so it doesn't cook, which would leave you with a saucepan full of beer and scrambled eggs, which sounds like something you'd encounter in an early Tom Waits song.

Once you've got the egg mixed up to a nice brown slurry, pour it (and the rest of the ale) into the saucepan, stirring as you go. Warm up it without quite boiling it (which can be a bit tricky, since the ale is bubbling already). 

This drink is like nothing I ever tasted before, really. There are lots of flavored beers out there - pumpkin ales and what have you. But most of them just taste like beer with a few notes of flavor to me and my untrained palette. This is flavored beer the way a hazelnut mocha is a flavored coffee. It's definitely a beer drink - you can taste that - but it's a flavored beer. And the flavor is delicious. It's thicker and hotter than anyting beer-related that one normally tastes these days, but very tasty. Enjoyed!





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