The Life and Whisky Soup
of George Bernard Shaw
(e-SoupSong 62: July 1, 2005)
You know, George Bernard Shaw: brilliant Irish author of Pygmalion, which became Audrey Hepburn's adorable hit musical My Fair Lady. The socialist who energized England's Fabian Society and spent a lifetime indefatigably rallying the British working class. Music critic who first wrote under the nom de plume Corno di Bassetto.The public and very-much-married romancer of hot British actresses. Councillor of St. Pancras borough who held inquests on tubercular cattle, improved drainage, and dealt with citizen complaints of too much roadway dust. Nude model at age 50 for photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn ("I've posed nude for a photographer in the manner of Rodin's Thinker, but I merely looked constipated"). Hardened ideologue who in his dotage "supported," in Churchill's words, "the vilest political crimes and cruelties" of Stalin's Soviet Union.
And when he was 25 years old, he stopped eating meat.
Why? He says he was inspired by poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's "The Revolt of Islam": "Never again may blood of bird or beast/ Stain with its venomous stream a human feast."
Me, I'd take that literary homage with a grain of salt. After all, we're talking about one of the greatest poseurs of the modern age. But the fact remains that Shaw was an aggressive and outspoken vegetarian for the rest of his life. And a teetotaler too.
If you imagine that Shaw's daily preoccupation with food--and he was a man who adored a well provided table--would find its way into his plays, you'd be right. For example, his characters have an alarming habit of threatening to eat each other: A disguised Caesar says to Cleopatra: "Pah! you are a little fool. He will eat your cake and eat you too"...Apollodorus assures Britannus "I am not going to eat you"...and Cleopatra declares "that Caesar will eat up you [Pothinus], and Achillas, and my brother." Major Barbara's sister Sarah speculates, "Well, he can't eat us, I suppose." And in Man and Superman, Ann eats poor Octavius in three bites. Remember the line from that play that goes, "There is no love sincerer than the love of food"? Don't think for a moment it is a kindly bromide. Tanner is actually warning Octavius about Ann, comparing her to a Bengal tiger or grizzly bear in her loving voracity: "Oh, the tiger will love you. There is no love sincerer than the love of food. I think Ann loves you that way: she patted your cheek as if it were a nicely underdone chop."
- Shaw the dietician: "Meat is a poison to the system," he'd say. "I flatly declare that a man fed on whisky and dead bodies cannot do the finest work of which he is able."
- Shaw of Assisi: "Animals are our fellow creatures. I feel a strong sense of kinship with them. ...It amuses me to talk to animals in a sort of jargon I have invented for them; and it seems to me that it amuses them to be talked to, and that they respond to the tone of the conversation, though its intellectual content may to some extent escape them."
- Shaw the polemicist: "Meat-eating is cannibalism with its heroic dish omitted."
- Shaw the social economist: "Flesh-eating involves a prodigious slavery of men to animals. Cows and sheep, with the valetaille of accoucheurs, graziers, shepherds, slaughtermen, butchers, milkmaids, and so forth, absorb a mass of human labor that should be devoted to the breeding and care of human beings. Some day, I hope, we shall live on air, and get rid of all the sanitary preoccupations which are so unpleasantly aggravated by meat-eating."
- And, everyone's favorite, Shaw at his hyperbolic best: "My hearse will be followed not by mourning coaches but by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, flocks of poultry and a small travelling aquarium of live fish, all wearing white scarves in honour of the man who perished rather than eat his fellow creatures."
But that's metaphor...right? How about the food that's littered all over the key moments of his dramas? Proper Victorian Vivie sits down cheerfully to a dinner of cold beef, cheese, bread, lettuce, and gingerbeer only to learn that Mom footed her fancy upbringing with money from a string of bordellos ("Mrs. Warren's Profession"). "Cowardly" soldier Bluntschli, hiding from a death squad in a young woman's bedroom near Dragoman Pass, replaces his rifle cartridges with blocks of chocolate ("Arms and the Man"). Professor Higgins pops half a chocolate into Liza Doolittle's mouth ("You shall have boxes of them, barrels of them, every day. You shall live on them. Eh?"), to which she responds, "I wouldn't have ate it, only I'm too ladylike to take it out of my mouth." Passion, jealousy, suspicion, and fear center around onions in Candida. Wine, barnbrack, and biscuits set tragedy in motion with the reading of a last will and testament in The Devil's Disciple. Saint Joan opens with the line, "No eggs! No eggs!! Thousand thunders, man, what do you mean by no eggs?" Major Barbara presides over meals of bread with margarine and golden syrup at her Salvation Army shelter in West Ham. And that's just the mouth of the cornucopia. Consider Cleopatra's banquet for Caesar at Alexandria: peacock brains, nightingales' tongues, roast boar, sea hedgehogs, black and white sea acorns, sea nettles, beccaficoes, purple shellfish, oysters, fieldfares with asparagus, fattened fowls...all washed down with Sicilian, Lesbian, Chian, and Falernian wines...or, in Caesar's case, with barley water.
But just exactly what fueled Shaw's own body and soul? What made him declare so brightly, "The strongest animals, such as the bull, are vegetarians. Look at me. I have ten times as much good health and energy as a meat eater"?
Answer: Not much for his first 42 years, that's for sure. Unable to support himself as an artist and socialist until well into his middle age and not willing to compromise, he unapologetically lived with and on his poor mother in London, picking at the vegetable side dishes that accompanied her meat dishes. Then everything changed in 1848. He was 42 years old when he married wealthy Charlotte Payne-Townshend. And she made it her business, for the next 45 years, to have cook prepare wonderful vegetarian meals for her celebrated husband: soups with all main meals, vegetable pies (brussel sprouts, a fave), cheese strudels, croquettes, souffles, salads, nut cutlets and roasts, stuffed veggies, casseroles, flans, curries, fritters, and puddings--many with classic flour-thickened English sauces, if you know what I mean. And did I mention his sweet tooth? Quite serious, according to cook: "the desserts are too rich for many vegetarian societies to approve," she sniffed. It's not by chance that he put chocolate in the hands of his heroes any more than it's by chance that he put peacock brains on the plates of his villains.
And so for 45 years of connubiality, Shaw ate well and flourished. He and Charlotte (a meat eater who enjoyed cocktails and wine with dinner) entertained often, but cook would prepare his meals separately and have one maid serve Master and another serve Mrs. Shaw and all the guests. Dare I mention one of his favorite party tricks? Whenever Georgie Wood, the reknowned music-hall entertainer, was at luncheon, Shaw would take him aside before the meal and say, "Now don't forget. When we've finished eating but before we leave the table, I want you to sing Chick-chick-chick-chick-chicken. Don't say a word about it to anyone because I want to do the crowing." Poor Georgie. He said later, "This would happen every time I was there. I would start with 'chick-chick-chick-chick-chicken, will you lay a little egg for me' and when the egg was laid, Shaw would raise his head and beard and cry out "Cock-a-doodle-do!'"
But then, in a quite macabre scene after a long illness, Charlotte died. "A friend said that my wife had a face like a muffin," Shaw said on the day of her death, "and you know that is really what she was like. She would never be photographed, and I used to tell her, 'Avoid photographers if you can, but if you can't for heaven's sake smile!'" He'd looked forward to her cremation, he said, as he'd so much enjoyed the process when his mother and sister were incinerated. "But incineration is not what it was," he reported. "You can't see the body burned."
Shaw was 87 at the time and, in fact, was devastated by Charlotte's death, chilly observations aside. Thank goodness for Mrs. Alice Laden, a young widow from Aberdeen who had nursed Mrs. Shaw through her last illness. Shaw somehow managed to persuade her to stay on as his housekeeper, and it is from Mrs. Laden that we are blessed with The George Bernard Shaw Vegetarian Cook Book, published in 1971 with her co-author R.J. Minney, 21 years after Shaw's death.
Dear Mrs. Laden, all alone trying to balance doctor's orders against the ideology of this irascible, frail, and extraordinary man. Believe me, she was quite up to the task. Breakfast of porridge, grapefruit, toast and butter with marmalade or marrow jam, and very weak white coffee. Lunch of soup, grated raw vegetables covered with sweet mango chutney, and a main vegetable course served with potatoes, perhaps another vegetable dish, and definitely dessert. Dinner, two courses only: soup in winter or salad in summer, then fresh or baked fruit with cream followed by weak white coffee. Every day, for 7 years.
"Not a single day was spent in bed by him until he fell in the garden a few weeks before his death at the wonderful age of ninety-four." she recollected. "Occasionally, in the last year or two, he was a little off-color, but it soon passed. After dozing for an hour or two in a chair he got up and was as brisk and as lively as ever. I mentioned this to the doctor and was told that if I gave him a dram of whisky when he felt off-color, it would help. I had to do this furtively of course. Mr. Shaw would have been horrified if he knew, so I had to disguise it as best I could and I did so by putting it in his soup so that he shouldn't detect it. But I think he did suspect, for a few days before he died he said to me, after finishing some soup, 'You have been playing tricks on me, Mrs. Laden.'"
What can I say about this wonderful and terrible man who brought so much wit and beauty and asperity and a fair amount of pain into this world? Too much or not enough. So let me just honor his memory this hot July day by recollecting one of his favorite soups and leaving it to you to decide if you will splash that fortifying dram of whisky into the bowl...or not:
TOMATO CONSOMME AND THEN SOME (2-3 servings)
It's really lovely: very light and fresh, an excellent appetite stimulant for those without appetite, especially with its teasing hint of sweet, sour, and malt.
Garnish: cucumber, peeled and cut into paper thin slices, 3 per serving
- 1 pound fresh tomatoes (or canned)
- 1 and 1/2 cups water
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
- dash pepper
- [optional: 1 dram, or 1 scant teaspoon, of Mrs. Laden's Scotch single-malt whisky per serving]
If the tomatoes are fresh, scald and peel them. Chop the tomatoes and place in a saucepan with the water, salt, and brown sugar. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Press through a sieve to remove the seeds and any tough parts. Puree in a blender if necessary. Return to the saucepan, then stir in the vinegar and pepper. Heat until at a simmer. When ready to serve, stir in the whisky, then ladle into consomme cups. Float three slices of cucumber on the top of each serving.
p.s. Seattle wedding was glorious...it kind of rained; not a problem...and that "Elegant Melon-Berry Refresher" was just the fortification needed before the band struck up and the dancing got completely out of hand....
Resources: ed. Alan Dent, Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell: Their Correspondence; Alice Laden and R.J. Minney's The George Bernard Shaw Vegetarian Cook Book; R. J. Minney's Recollections of Geoge Bernard Shaw; Hesketh Pearson's G.B.S.: A Full Length Portrait; Hesketh Pearson, G.B.S., A Postscript; and George Bernard Shaw, his collected plays (eds. Michael Holroyd and publisher Herbert Stone).
NEXT MONTH: Last Soupsong in Paris.