Coffee, Gin, Sugar, Lemons: The Food In George Orwell's 1984
Image Credit: A rendering of the regulation meal at the Ministry Of Truth's cafeteria, from George Orwell's description in 1984.

This post was originally published as part of our daily newsletter, Just One Thing. Sign up here to get a free copy delivered into your inbox.


SEVENTY-FOUR years ago today — i.e. on 8 June 1949 — George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. It’s since grown into a modern classic, with its far-reaching political and ideological themes and ideas resonating well into the 21st century. While concepts like thoughtcrime and doublespeak get deserved attention, it is Orwell’s use of food that highlights simply, effectively and often evocatively, the hellishness of the fictional state of Oceania. 

For much of the early part of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, moves through a world leached of colour and pleasure. He lives in an apartment block that smells like “boiled cabbage”. The frugality of his everyday existence — and others like him; members of the “Outer” Party — is stated as a matter of fact: when he misses his meal at Ministry Of Truth’s canteen (he is employed in the Department Of Records), he is aware that the only food he has in his kitchen at home is a “hunk of dark-coloured bread”, which too he must keep for next morning’s breakfast. So he makes do with Victory gin, described as a sickly, oily liquid with the smell of “Chinese rice-spirit”. 

The next we hear of food, it is in the context of a chocolate ration. Chocolate — like everything else in Oceania, including items of everyday utility, like razor blades and clothing, cooking utensils and boots — are rationed by the Ministry Of Plenty. Winston learns at the end of a government broadcast that the individual ration for chocolate is being reduced from 30 gm to 20. For him, the implication is not disappointment over the lost chocolate as much as the work the new quantity entails: it is now his job to change all official records issued previously that contained the promise — a “categorical pledge” from the MoP — that “there would be no reduction in the chocolate ration that year” (1984) to an ambiguous statement about the possibility of lowered rations.

We also get a glimpse of the regulation meal that Winston had previously skipped, when he shows up at the cafeteria for lunch the following day. He is given “a metal pannikin of pinkish-grey stew (with some kind of meat in it), a hunk of bread, a cube of cheese, a mug of milkless Victory coffee, and one saccharine tablet”. The workers are also allowed a drink of Victory gin, in “handleless china mugs”. On another occasion, the regulation lunch has a soup made of haricot beans, instead of the indeterminate stew.

When Winston tries to think of what the world was like in the ‘Before’ — before the Revolution, before the Party, before Big Brother — he can recall only fragments of details, bits of memory that flit away even before the pictures can fully form in his mind. Had bread always been this “dark-coloured, tea a rarity, coffee filthy-tasting…nothing cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin?” Had food always had its present “strange (and) evil tastes”?

The first hint of a different sort of existence floats up to Winston on the wind with the fragrance of roasting coffee — “real coffee, not Victory coffee,” as he notes. It transports him instantly into the “Before”, the world he knew as a child. But abruptly, with the closing of a door, this portal seals shut too. He plies an elderly man with “sour beer” (the only drink the non-Party members or general public aka the “Proles” are allowed to drink) at a pub in the hope of filling in the gaps in his memories. The liquid is dark-brown and sold only in half-litres and litres; the pint measuring system has passed out of use.

When Winston’s slide into revolt begins, with the possibility of a love affair with his colleague Julia, his experiences with food change as well. It is initially indirect: a passing reference by some of his co-passengers on his train to obtaining a “bit of black market butter”. But with Julia, the transgression becomes direct: during their first tryst, she hands him a piece of chocolate — real chocolate, wrapped in foil.

“Even before he had taken it he knew by the smell that it was very unusual chocolate. It was dark and shiny, and was wrapped in silver paper. Chocolate normally was dull-brown crumbly stuff that tasted, as nearly as one could describe it, like the smoke of a rubbish fire. But at some time or another he had tasted chocolate like the piece she had given him. The first whiff of its scent had stirred up some memory which he could not pin down, but which was powerful and troubling,” Winston observes.

As their illicit affair progresses, Julia introduces other pleasures into his life: real sugar, not saccharine. A loaf of bread… “proper white bread, not our bloody stuff”. A little pot of jam. A tin of milk. A packet of tea — “real tea, not blackberry leaves,” marvels Winston. And finally, her piece de resistance: a whole kilo of real coffee, whose rich hot smell swirls around the room until Julia wraps it up again. 

Later, she boils water in a pan and prepares coffee for them. The aroma is so powerful that Julia and Winston shut the windows to their hideout so they aren’t given away by it. Winston relives a forgotten taste and texture: the coffee is made silky with the sugar. He can catch hold of more glimpses of his past now: afternoons as a boy spent scrounging for food — cabbage leaves and potato peels, stale bread crusts rescued from garbage bins. Fragments of oil-cake meant for cattle. Occasionally, a small piece of chocolate. And a very rare afternoon spent playing a game of Snakes and Ladders with his mother, happy and raucous, his little sister watching them with a smile. 

For Julia, the “real” food isn’t a throwback to “Before” since she is considerably younger than Winston; instead, it is simply a way to assert her autonomy in the present, a defiance of an all-pervasive authority. Because certain foods have not existed in her time, she has no memory or knowledge of them. For instance, when Winston recites snatches of a children’s rhyme recapping the names of all of London’s churches, one verse confounds her: “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s!” She asks Winston what lemons are. He describes them to her in a manner that might make readers — so familiar with lemons that the possibility of not knowing about them feels strange —  pucker their mouths. Lemons, Winston tells Julia, “were quite common in the ‘50s… so sour that it set your teeth on edge even to smell them.”

Among the last foods from the “Before” that Winston samples before his and Julia’s rebellion is discovered, is a glass of red wine, poured out of a decanter. Unlike the coffee, the wine doesn’t evoke any lyrical memories; it is just something that isn’t Victory gin. And it is Victory gin that we leave Winston with, sweetened this time with saccharine and flavoured with cloves, as all traces of who he was have been wiped away, and with it, the possibility of ever being moved by the fragrance of coffee.