Ask Calorie Ken: Charles Dickens on Hunger

Are you really hungry or just bored?

By , Columnist

Amazon’s Kindle offers free downloads of many classics, including one of my favorites, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. The opening sentence is about the best sentence ever written in English and one to keep in mind when watching the evening news:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Writing in 1859 about events two generations before, the story begins in 1775, and moves through time to 1789, and the violent unleashing of centuries of pent-up passion that spawned ten years of murder, mayhem, and social and political chaos we know as the French Revolution. It is at once a love story, a history lesson, and a social commentary.

I reread it recently, and, after my two-year calorie restriction journey in the CALERIE Study when I learned to push hunger aside (or at least feed it in a more healthy way), a passage about hunger caught my eye. It haunts me and sheds light on our genetic and emotional predispositions to eat as much as possible because we seem to know in our bones that lean, difficult days are lurking just over the horizon.

This allegory of the evil that was to be unleashed is early in the story and happens when a cask of wine falls off of a wagon and breaks in the street. Starving people stop what they are doing and swarm out of the shadows to catch the contents, and for a brief moment, they are satiated. The joy turns dark as Dickens described the reality of the people's lives and sets us up for the blood-spattered, murderous future, unimaginable at the time. And then, he writes about hunger. Real Hunger with a capital H.

And now that the cloud settled on Saint Antoine, which a momentary gleam had driven from his sacred countenance, the darkness of it was heavy--cold, dirt, sickness, ignorance, and want, were the lords in waiting on the saintly presence--nobles of great power all of them; but, most especially the last. Samples of a people that had undergone a terrible grinding and regrinding in the mill, and certainly not in the fabulous mill which ground old people young, shivered at every corner, passed in and out of every doorway, looked from every window, fluttered in every vestige of a garment that the wind shook. The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old; the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sigh, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker's shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.

In our First World of extraordinary plenty, the vast majority of us haven't a clue what real Hunger feels like. Read these words of Charles Dickens when you think you are hungry. Post them on your refrigerator, and read them every time you go to open the door. Ask yourself if you are really hungry, or just bored, or acting out of habit. And, if you really are hungry, choose well that which you eat to keep hunger with a small “h” at bay.


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For two years, Ken Brooks (Calorie Ken) was a volunteer in the Tufts University CALERIE Study. He is now a nutrition evangelist. Send your nutrition, weight management, general health and exercise questions to

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