Why Are We Eating Up Downton Abbey?

All over Britain right now, the underemployed and job-insecure are hunkering down with spotted dick and Bakewell tart. That’s the finding, anyway, of a report this week in the Mail Online. Just in time for the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, recession-weary Britons are making like Cratchits, donning fingerless gloves and gathering before meager coal fires (I totally made that up) to eat “steamed treacle pud” and apple crumble. The Mail even trots out a food historian who implies a parallel between our own times and the boom/bust era of Dickens’s England, where “irresponsible bankers and businessmen” spoiled everybody's fun.

Here in the U.S., Tuesday’s Dickens bicentenary was pretty much limited to NPR sound bites from the musical Oliver! and a commemorative Google Doodle that, with its top hats and lampposts, leaned heavily on Christmas card cliché.

But America’s lackluster Dickensmania doesn’t mean we aren’t playing our own version of cultural dress-up, complete with vintage tails and ruffled maids’ caps. Downton Abbey, the Masterpiece miniseries now in season two, is giving PBS its biggest boost since Suze Orman became the obsessively tanned face of pledge drives.

In case you’ve been in some sort of culture deprivation chamber, I should explain that Downton is a British import (it premiered on the U.K.’s ITV network in 2010), like David Copperfield and The X Factor. But unlike Simon Cowell’s X Factor, Americans can’t get enough of Downton and its post-Edwardian world of tea and melodrama. When even a B-list comic uses a British costume drama to boost audience share on Twitter, you know the zeitgeist is stirring.

And unlike those “irresponsible bankers and businessmen” who made ordinary Victorians destitute enough to have to eat the kind of starchy puddings now being revived in London condos, Downton aristocrats like the Earl of Grantham are kind. Even the bitchy Dowager Countess Violet, played by a deliciously wrinkled Maggie Smith, has treacle in her veins.

We’re an optimistic people, us Yanks. Even at the lower reaches of the 99th percentile, we think, someday we’ll rise, if not to Downton heights, at least to McMansion ones. How long before there’s a Downton Abbey cookbook, tempting us with Mrs. Patmore’s Ginger Scones, Lady Grantham’s Raspberry Blancmange, and the Turkish Ambassador’s Hummus? Judging from other attempts to turn the manor into an ATM, not long. Let the English brood in chilly rooms, with plates of Eve’s pudding balanced on their knees. On this side of the pond, we’ll all be doing Gilded Age dinner parties soon. Some of us already have.

Image source: PBS.org

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.