did you know? / literature

John Keats and the Roast beef sandwich

Hello everyone again! I’m sure you’re all busy studying and I imagine many of you have been reading about the romantic poets, Shelley, Byron, Keats to name but a few. During my time researching here and there on the Internet, I came across a strange picture:

Now why on earth would anyone associate Keats with a bread roll, I wondered? Well, it turns out that John Keats, before he became so horribly ill with tuberculosis, was a man with an appetite. I mean he really loved his food….and his wine. It’s funny how we study the works of poets or writers and their lives seem to be summed up in just a few brief points; take for example Shelley, he was a bit of a wild child, an idealist, he lived in Geneva and in Italy then he drowned when he was 29. When it comes to Keats, we can mention a sad life because most of his family dies, Negative Capability, his struggle against tuberculosis and his death in Rome. What not many of us know is that Keats often wrote about food, in his poems and in his many letters to friends and family. Take this example from a letter to Charles Dilke, September 22, 1819:

Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine – good God, how fine. It went down soft, pulpy, slushy, oozy – all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry.”

Reading this you can actually taste that plump, delicious nectarine, so vivid is the description.

Keats often included lavish descriptions of meals and feasts as we can find in The Eve of St. Agnes, a passionate lover feasts his lover with “lucent syrops” and “spiced dainties”, or in La Belle Dame sans Merci, a wandering knight is lured by a femme fatale when she uses “roots of relish sweet,/ and honey wild, and manna-dew,” reminding us maybe that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

To Keats the pleasures in life were quite down to earth:

“Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.

So, back to the roast beef sandwich… his letters are a valuable contribution to literary history, but they also contain a surprising moment in culinary history: one of the first mentions of a roast beef sandwich in print. In  1818, while on a walking tour of England, Keats worked up such a hunger that he started fantasising  about food. “I long for some famous Beauty to get down from her Palfry … and give me—a dozen or two capital roast-beef Sandwiches,” he wrote—perhaps the only Romantic poet to crave good food over love. Sandwiches were mentioned in print as early as 1762, but they were normally made with ham. It was only in the middle of the 19th century that roast beef sandwiches became popular, so Keats was way ahead of everyone there.

Before his illness, during which his doctor prescribed him a horribly insufficient diet of bread, milk and one anchovy, this poet had a very healthy appetite:  “I get so hungry a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me,” Keats wrote in a letter from 1818, before he had taken ill. “I take a whole string of Pork sausages down as easily as a Pen’orth of Lady’s gingers.” He was particularly fond of roast beef; he once praised a dinner host for “carv[ing] some beef exactly to suit my appetite, as if I had been measured for it.”

I would like to end with this wonderful piece about wine, written to his brother George in 1818:

“How I like claret!…It fills one’s mouth with a gushing freshness, then goes down to cool and feverless; then, you do not feel it quarrelling with one’s liver. No; ’tis rather a peace-maker, and lies as quiet as it did in the grape. Then it is as fragrant as the Queen Bee, and the more ethereal part mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments, like a bully looking for his trull, and hurrying from door to door, bouncing against the wainscott, but rather walks like Aladdin about his enchanted palace, so gently that you do not feel his step.”

He was celebrating all the good qualities of claret, the nickname for Bordeaux wines, which according to Keats did not make you feel drunk and heavy, it did not attack the brain, it actually made him feel at peace with the world.

What a sensitive yet realistic, witty and jovial  person Keats must have been, it’s sad to think that at the end of his life he was not only struggling against  consumption, the poor guy was actually starving to death.

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