Dine Like Darwin

Beet Salad

What better way to start the new year than an afternoon of Victorian science and domestic life? On January 4 the Harvard office of the Darwin Correspondence Project helped to host an event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cosponsored by the Program in Science, Technology and Society. MIT holds events during its winter intersession that promote interesting and unusual activities for the university community. Our event ‘Dine Like Darwin’ brought together an afternoon of Victorian cooking, along with reading and discussion of Darwin’s letters to help illuminate Darwin’s daily life and the role his digestive complaints played in his private and public persona.



We recreated some of the very food that Darwin ate, using authentic recipes from his wife

Myrna prepares beef collops

Emma Darwin’s cookbook. Our menu included several courses! We attempted to make the recipes as closely to Emma’s as possible, though we were indebted to the modernization of the recipes in this lovely production of Emma’s recipes. After our discussion, each participant was given a recipe and the rest of the time was spent cooking and sampling the fare as it emerged from the kitchen.  Though everything turned out wonderfully, particular favorites were the cheese straws (flavored with a touch of cayenne pepper), the potato rissoles and the creamed mushrooms. Since Victorian portions are generous, we were all quite full by the end of the session!



During his own lifetime, Darwin notoriously suffered from digestive problems that interfered with his work and social activities. Darwin was preoccupied with his health, and particularly his intestines, over the course of his adult life. He may have exploited his famously poor constitution as an excuse when he wanted to minimize interruptions to his work. If we are to understand Darwin as an influential intellectual, it is worth understanding his intestines and indigestion as well.

Rebecca at the stove

In his letters to family and friends, he was not afraid to be explicit about his symptoms and discomfort. From his youthful days on the HMS Beagle to his death, the state of his health is a constant theme running through his correspondence. It was also a matter of continual concern and interest among his family. Letters not only written to or from Darwin himself, but also those exchanged between his wife and children, are rife with references to his health. This correspondence is fascinating for the glimpse it provides of the bright and engaging personalities of the Darwin children, and of family life in the Victorian era more generally. Take a look at some of the letters the group read:




  • Charles Darwin to Caroline Darwin, 13 October 1834: Darwin’s ill health began on his Beagle voyage. Amidst the excitement of South American cities, cultures, geography, flora and fauna, he complains to his sister Caroline of the effects of sour wine on his physical state.
  • Emma Darwin to T.G. Appleton, 28 June [1862]: Emma writes on her husband’s behalf to his American publisher, T.G. Appleton. Darwin, who is too ill to write himself, wishes to thank Appleton for gifts sent from America.
  • Charles Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker, 11 June [1862]: Among bits of family news and botanical information, Darwin remarks with humor on the difficulties of finding a suitable cook.


The participants, who came from various departments at MIT, were all fascinated to learn more about Darwin’s family and digestive life through his letters. They were particularly intrigued by this letter written from Emma to Charles before they were married. In it Emma expressed her concern for Darwin’s health, her sympathy for the frustration he feels when his symptoms impinge on his ability to work, and her express desire that he not be a ‘holiday husband…always making himself agreeable’ for her sake.


Here is the Menu from the day:


Cheese Straws

Scotch Woodcock

Potato Rissoles


Main Course

Beef Collops

Chicken and Macaroni






Compote of Apple



“Dine Like Darwin” was a wonderful opportunity to combine cooking and correspondence in a relaxed setting!

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