Book extract: A Vegetarian Monster: Revenge, Betrayal & Berries in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from A Gothic Cookbook by Ella Buchan and Alessandra Pino

Frankenstein main image
Food humanises Dr Frankenstein’s cobbled-together creation and raises the question: who is the real monster here?

An existential crisis doesn’t sound all that appetising. Nor does a jumble of long-expired body parts, cobbled together to create something resembling a human. And nor do gaping, stomach-churning chasms of icy loneliness. Yet this enduringly classic tale of the created and the creator, nature and nurture, and the pursuer and the pursued is an endless source of discussion worthy of the most salubrious of dinner parties.

The kind that Mary Shelley might have hosted or attended with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, holding court over a table groaning with glazed meats and platters laden with jewel-hued fruits. (Though Shelley may have abstained from the meat; the poet spent long periods as a vegetarian.) Guests glugging ruby wine and contributing bon mots might have included Lord Byron, who was present when the seeds of Frankenstein were sown.

In fact, one of the world’s most famous Gothic novels might not exist at all if it weren’t for Byron. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (she was yet to marry), Shelley, and his fellow Romantic poet Bryon were among the luminaries holidaying in Lake Geneva in 1816, which “proved a wet, ungenial summer”, according to Mary’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. Conversation ducked and scurried down dark, Gothic avenues and, after long discussions dissecting ghost stories and musing on the horror genre, Byron had a proposal: they each pen their own terrifying tale.

After days struggling against writer’s block, Mary – then aged just 18 – created her monster after a particularly terrifying) “waking dream”. It wasn’t (and isn’t) a ghost story in any traditional sense, but it seems safe to say that her story cast a creepy shadow over the others. The novel was published in 1818 and has since been published in more than 300 editions and turned into several movies (perhaps most famously James Whale’s 1931 version, starring Boris Karloff as the droopy-lidded, bolt-necked monster).

Its themes of exile, misery, loneliness and guilt elevate it above a simple horror story and place it firmly in the complex Gothic genre, with a sprinkling of pioneering science fiction. Much discussed, too, are the novel’s parallels with the creation story and the Fall of Man, spelled out when Victor Frankenstein’s creation quotes Satan in John Milton’s epic biblical poem Paradise Lost:

‘all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good.’

The creature didn’t ask to be created; abandoned, rejected and betrayed by Victor, he morphs into the dangerous monster others already believe him to be. But is he really a monster? Or is Victor the monster for playing God in the most godless of ways: digging up bodies and using science to bring forth life? Their relationship is at the heart of the novel’s moral muddiness (a point on which it was criticised when it was released – The Quarterly Review described its “unmeaning hollowness”).

Common confusion over the eponymous character – with the creature often misidentified as Frankenstein – reflects this ambiguity. Literary critics have pointed out the sympathetic nature, eloquence and even innocence of the so-called monster. There’s a thin, blurred and sometimes invisible line between perpetrator and victim.

Yet there is one aspect in which this line is drawn quite clearly, if you grab a knife and fork and really dig in – and that’s food.

If there’s any uncertainty and moral fogginess when it comes to the creature’s innocence – and perhaps whether he should be considered “human” – then his diet should quash those doubts. He eats, for a start – and familiar foods, at that. He’s a sentient, living, breathing being, and that poses serious questions as to the ethics of Victor’s experiment. He brought the creature into a world that would inevitably reject him.

Mary Shelley doesn’t underplay her character’s vegetarianism; it isn’t incidental to the story’s central themes. On the contrary, she makes much of his choice to eschew the flesh-eating habits of humans. It becomes a device to emphasise his empathy and how connected he is to nature, perhaps more so than his fellow man. She throws in a conundrum for readers to wrestle with: how do you categorise a vegetarian monster?

The creature’s diet becomes even more significant in light of Percy Shelley’s vegetarianism, and indeed that of his friend Lord Byron. In the 1860 edition of his Life, Letters, and Journals of Lord Byron, Thomas Moore recalls the poet asking him, over dinner: ‘Moore, don’t you find eating beef-steak makes you ferocious?’ While Shelley’s 1813 poem, Queen Mab, he blames humans devouring the “mangled flesh” of lambs for “nature’s broken law”.

In Frankenstein, vegetarianism simultaneously highlights the creature’s separation from human society (unlike them, he doesn’t “glut” his appetite with meat) and becomes a symbol of his inherent goodness. Of course, goodness is corruptible.

Banished to the wilderness by Victor, who’s horrified by his own experiment, the creature observes a family living in a cabin in the woods. He gently observes their rituals, mainly revolving around food: preparing breakfast, gathering around the table, building and lighting fires for cooking, foraging for roots and plants. Their diet, he notices, is “coarse but wholesome”. It’s simple; uncomplicated by modern society and technology. Pre-Fall, if you like. The creature mimics their routine and attunes to the changing weather and seasons.

Moved by observing their interactions and sensitive to their poverty, he makes a conscious decision to only eat fruit and nuts. He will not steal from them, he vows to himself, because that would leave them hungry. The softness he shows in these moments endears us to him. And it makes his murderous rampage later in the novel – driven by repeated rejections and injustices – all the more shocking. He metamorphosises from a philosophical, gentle grazer, hungry for friendship, to a furious being consumed by fury and bent on revenge.

His reaction is both human and monstrous. The first kill he makes for food is an act to taunt Victor, gifting him with a dead hare as he leads him to “the everlasting ices of the north”.

In a desperate, final attempt to be accepted and forgiven, the creature uses his diet as a bargaining tool with his creator. If Victor would only “build” him a female companion, and allow him to be free, he could be happy subsisting on foraged acorns and berries. He describes a kind of utopian ideal that once again evokes Eden and the Fall of Man:

‘If you consent, neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again; I will go to the vast wilds of South America. My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human, and you must feel that you could deny it only in the wantonness of power and cruelty.’

Sadly, there isn’t such a happy ending for the creature (nor for Victor, nor for anyone for that matter). The creature becomes the monster after all – one who murders from a very human impulse for revenge, out of anger that he has been judged and rejected by a world he skipped into, innocently and happily as a child, or perhaps a lamb.

The creature entered his dysfunctional life drawn to the earth, feeling a deep connection to the soil, flowers and nature. His final, heart-wrenching monologue describes the “cheering warmth of summer” and his wonder at the “warbling birds”. He tells how he was “nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion”. He longed for companionship, for “love and fellowship”. Spurned, he retaliated against a world that had turned its back on him. There is again a reference to Paradise Lost: “The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.”

Frankenstein’s creature, hollowed out by hunger and his unsated appetite for human kindness, is utterly, hellishly alone.

Acorn Bread

Frankenstein acorn bread image

Frankenstein’s creature ate them raw, freshly plucked from the oak tree (or foraged from the woodland floor). It seems his stomach was a little stronger than ours, as unprocessed and uncooked acorns contain tannins that can be toxic to humans. They also have a rather unpleasant, bitter taste, so you probably wouldn’t want to nibble on them, anyway. Leave them on the tree for the squirrels (and any wandering, cobbled-together creatures) and instead get hold of some acorn flour to make this dense, crumbly, delicately sweetened bread. It has a similar texture to cornbread, and is perfect for sharing. Omit the spices if you prefer something more savoury – a pinch of chilli flakes will give it a kick, and pair wonderfully with a hunk of cheese.

Makes 1 medium loaf
Ingredients
250g acorn flour
100g caster sugar
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
A little freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
25g unsalted butter, melted
1 medium egg, beaten
250ml milk

Method
1. Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F/gas mark 6) and grease a medium (2 lb/900g capacity) loaf tin.
2. Combine all the dry ingredients, including the cinnamon and nutmeg (if using), in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre.
3. Whisk together the milk, egg and melted butter and pour into the well, mixing gradually with a wooden spoon until well combined.
4. Bake for around 20 minutes, until a skewer or sharp knife inserted into the middle comes away clean.
5. Remove from the oven and leave for around 10 minutes in the tin, then tip on to a wire rack to cool. (You might want to tear some off and slather it with butter before it loses all its oven-warm loveliness, though.)

Shepherd’s Breakfast

Shepherd's Breakfast from Frankenstein

While crunching on acorns and foraging berries and roots might not be hugely appealing, the “shepherd’s breakfast” – which the creature “greedily” devours, having unwittingly frightened away its preparer – sounds pretty delicious. It’s a simple platter of bread, cheese, milk and wine. This dish takes those humble plate-fellows and turns them into a warm, oozily baked savoury bread pudding. A warning, though: it can serve six people as a side but, should you be tempted to dig in a spoon just to try a little, don’t be surprised if you get carried away and end up with an empty dish, a full belly and hungry guests.

Serves 6

Ingredients
1 medium loaf of day-old or slightly stale bread, sliced
50g unsalted butter, softened
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Handful of fresh herbs (parsley, oregano, tarragon, rosemary etc), chopped
100g hard cheese (you can use cheddar or a mix), grated
200ml whole milk
2 eggs
200ml double cream
1tsp English or Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

For the caramelised onions:
2 red onions, finely sliced
1tbsp olive oil
50ml or balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp granulated sugar
Glug of red wine
Salt and pepper

Method
1. For the onions, heat the olive oil over a medium heat, add onions and and sauté for a few minutes or until soft. Add vinegar, sugar and wine, increase heat and cook until the liquid has evaporated and the onions are sticky. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Beat together the softened butter and garlic, stir in herbs and add a pinch of salt. Spread this mix over each slice of bread, then quarter each one into triangles.
3. Preheat oven to 180°C/gas mark 4 and grease a large baking dish. Arrange a layer of bread on the bottom, top with a layer of onions and sprinkle with cheese. Repeat the layers until the ingredients are used up, ending with cheese.
4. Whisk together the milk, eggs, cream, mustard and a little salt and pepper. Pour over the bread, pushing down so it soaks up the liquid.
5. Rest for 5 minutes then bake for 25-30 minutes, until puffy and lightly golden.

Berry Bite Squares

Berry bites

Our creature spends his first few days of existence subsisting on berries and the occasional acorn. He was happy (or, at least, willing) to do so, but we wonder if he would have enjoyed these crumbly, moreish fruit crumble squares a little better? Most probably. You can make these with pretty much any in-season fruit, from apples to rhubarbs. Eat for breakfast, afternoon tea, a snack, on a picnic…

Makes around 12 squares

Ingredients

For the crumble:
175g unsalted butter, melted
180g plain flour
125g soft brown sugar
150g rolled oats
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch salt

For the filling:
1 large egg at room temp
150g caster sugar
30g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange
400g berries (blackberries, raspberries, blackcurrants etc)

Method
1. Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F/gas mark 6). Grease and line a 20cm (8in) square tin (or similar).
2. Combine the dry ingredients for the crumble in a bowl, pour in the butter and mix.
3. Tip around two-thirds of it into the tin and press down firmly to make a base.
4. For the filling, whisk together the egg and sugar, then slowly add the flour, lemon zest and vanilla. Stir in the berries so each is coated.
5. Pour this over the base, then loosely sprinkle over the remaining crumble mix.
6. Bake for around 40-45 minutes until golden. Allow to cool completely in the tin before cutting into squares.

working cover

Extracted from A Gothic Cookbook by Ella Buchan and Alessandra Pino, with illustrations by Lee Henry. Find out more here.

Published by

Andy Lynes

I'm a food and drink writer and author.

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