Jun 082013

George_Orwell_press_photo     nineteen-eighty-four-by-george-orwell

On this date in 1949 George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was published for the first time.  Orwell’s health was in rapid decline because of advanced tuberculosis, and he lived only a few months after the publication (at the age of 46).  It is without doubt his best known work, with Animal Farm coming in second. Taken together they have sold more copies worldwide than any two books of any other 20th century author.  By 1989, Nineteen eighty-Four had been translated into 65 languages, and since its date of publication has always been banned in at least one country. I’d love to write a book that was banned.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is quite rightly considered a classic because of the impact it has had on all kinds of levels.  The real-life, post-war triangular, global contest between the Soviet, Chinese, and Anglo-American blocs is almost precisely mirrored by the endless wars between Eurasia, Eastasia, and Oceania respectively, in which there are no head to head contests, but, rather, the rivalries are played out in Third World countries in small scale wars and alliances, in an attempt by each of the parties to gain decisive dominance (with never a clear winner).  Expressions such as Big Brother, double think, and newspeak have now entered dictionaries along with the adjective Orwellian describing a government that holds power over its people through propaganda, lies, brute force, mind control, and complete knowledge of private lives.

George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair, born in India in 1903, to a modest branch of a wealthy, aristocratic family. He was raised and schooled in England, attending Eton College on a scholarship because his parents were unable to afford the fees.  He had shown considerable talent in writing as a youngster, and, in fact, it was this talent that secured him the Eton scholarship.  But he was not particularly diligent as a student there and so was unable to obtain a scholarship to go on to university.  Instead he joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma and served for 5 years in posts around the country. with ever increasing responsibility. In 1927 he contracted dengue fever and returned to England to recuperate.  In England he decided to resign his position in the Imperial Police, but his years in Burma had indelibly colored his views of colonialism, and left him with a strong mission to fight social injustice.

I had read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four in my early teens, and then re-read them as assigned books in secondary school.  But it was not until my college years that I really dug into his other writings, both books and articles.  I was instantly engaged by his meticulous attention to detail in describing social situations and his compassion for the poor and outcast.  It is perfectly fair to say that he was the best ethnographic observer of the British social landscape of the post-war era, and was a major influence on my decision to become a social scientist.  He re-invented for himself the role of participant observer, seeing the conditions of the poor by living them.  In researching Down and Out in Paris and London, for example, he went on the tramp with homeless men in southern England, and to gather information on the lives of the poor in the north of England for Road to Wigan Pier, he lived in a desperate flophouse over a tripe shop.  His descriptions of the lives of the people he encountered in the latter situation are honest and forthright, and his conclusions on the direction of needed social change are compelling and sensitive.

He was not only a skilled writer, but also a fierce critic of careless and thoughtless writing no matter who the audience.  His essay “Politics and the English Language” is a masterpiece that is as fresh and pertinent today as when published in 1946.  His tirade against stale images, meaningless words, pretentious diction, and vague phrases still brings a smile to my face after countless re-readings.  A simple example of his insight and wit will suffice:

“One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.”

A rather less well known, but equally poignant essay is “In Defence of English Cooking” published in the Evening Standard in 1945.  Here he takes on the supposedly brilliant observation of the know-it-all world traveler that English cooking is awful.  In response to this arrogant, self-congratulatory ignorance he lists all manner of goodies that are absolutely delicious and not to be found anywhere else (at least back then): kippers, clotted Devonshire cream, treacle tart, plum pudding, apple dumplings, saffron buns, Oxford marmalade, bramble jelly, regional sausages and cheeses, including the sublime Stilton .  .  . to which I will add steak and kidney pie (and pudding), fish and chips, scones, Bakewell tart, Kendal mint cake, Melton Mowbray pork pie, veal, ham, and egg pie, Cornish pasties , sausage rolls, Scotch eggs, and honeycomb ice cream .  .  .  My list is endless too.

Orwell and I agree on one classic: Yorkshire pudding.  A Sunday roast of beef with crisp roast potatoes and fresh greens is not complete without Yorkshire pudding loaded with lashings of gravy made from the beef drippings.  Yorkshire pudding was, and sometimes still is, made by pouring an egg batter directly into the dripping pan under the meat towards the end of the cooking time. Nowadays many cooks, myself included, make individual puddings in ovenproof ramekins, but the general idea is much the same.  The general rule of thumb is 1/3 cup (.8 dl) of flour and 1/3 cup of milk per egg for the batter.  Here is my own recipe (sort of). When cooking these puddings myself I don’t measure anything; I just know what I am looking for in the consistency of the batter.  As best I can I have set down precise measurements. Cooking time will depend on the oven temperature for the roast.  I routinely cook my roasts at high temperatures (around 450°F/230°C), so the puddings are ready in about 15 minutes.  One simple way to replicate my method is to take the roast out to rest, and then turn the oven up when ready to cook the puddings.

Tío Juan’s Yorkshire Pudding


2/3 cup (1.6 dl) all purpose flour
2/3 cup (1.6 dl) milk (more or less)
2 large eggs
pinch of salt
drippings from the roast


Sift the flour into a mixing bowl with a pinch of salt.

Add the milk slowly, beating with a wire whisk until the mixture has the consistency of thick cream. Use just enough milk to achieve this.  Do not make the mixture watery; err on the side of stiff.  The eggs will add more moisture.

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating them until you have a smooth batter.

Let the batter rest, and meanwhile place 1 tablespoon (.15 dl) of beef drippings in each of 6 ramekins and place them on a baking sheet. Put them into the oven until the drippings are bubbling.  Divide the batter between the ramekins and bake until the tops of the puddings are golden.

They must be served immediately, so organize the serving of the meal so that the gravy has already been made, and the meat rested, (I carve at the table). If there are any puddings left over at the end of the meal, it used to be common (not any more), to eat them smothered in honey for dessert.

Yield: 6