The narrator sets up a contract with the Reader, casting himself as a Restauranteur, his work as a "Feast," and the Reader as his patron. Since the Reader must pay for what he eats—the book—the narrator invites the Reader to mull over the menu, which he promises to provide in the way of an introductory clause at the opening of each Book and each Chapter. The type of cuisine is none other than "human nature," a topic which has been written about in the cheaper kind of literature, —thought it has been grossly bandied about in stall-bound "Romances, Novels, Plays and Poems"—may have refinement depending on the "Cookery of the Author." The narrator intends to mimic the cookery of Heliogabalus, a Roman emperor who initiated his guests with simple fare, slowly building to more sophisticated delicacies. After serving up his simple fare of country characters, the narrator will present the Reader with the "high French and Italian Seasoning of Affectation and Vice which Courts and Cities afford."
In the western domain of England lives a retired gentleman, Mr. Allworthy, blessed by Nature with good looks, robust health, understanding, an altruistic disposition, and one of the most prosperous estates in the county of Somersetshire. Five years before the story begins, Allworthy's beautiful and virtuous wife passed away, following their three children, who died as infants. Allworthy, however, still considers himself married—a sentiment that inspires the praise of his neighbors. Allworthy lives with his only sibling, his beloved sister, Miss Bridget Allworthy, who is called an "old Maid" because she is thirty years old and unmarried. Miss Bridget is one of those "very good sort of Women," which is the description women give to other women who are deprived of beauty.
The reader may assume, based on the previous chapter's description, that Allworthy does nothing other than perform benevolent deeds. But if this were the case, the narrator says, he would not have wasted his time producing a work of such epic length. If the Reader would rather read such matter, he can peruse instead one of those boring books called The History of England.
An exhausted Allworthy, returning from business in London, retires to bed. On pulling back the sheets he discovers a baby boy, swaddled in linen, sleeping sweetly. Although greatly surprised, Allworthy cannot help but feel empathy for the little being, and awe at its beauty. Allworthy rings his bell to summon his old-time servant, Mrs. Deborah Wilkins. Mrs. Deborah takes some time to preen herself, in spite of the urgency of Allworthy's summons, and it should therefore come as no surprise, the narrator says, that she is shocked to find Allworthy, who in his haste has forgotten to dress, wearing only his nightshirt. After delivering a long monologue on the indecency of unchaste women—whom she calls "wicked Sluts", Mrs. Deborah advises Allworthy to discard the baby at the parish door. But, during Mrs. Deborah's speech, the baby has clasped Allworthy's finger in his tiny hand, winning the man's heart. Allworthy orders Mrs. Deborah to carry the boy to her bed, prepare food for him, and to seek out appropriate clothes the next day. Mrs. Deborah, always loyal to her master, now calls the boy a "sweet little Infant" and whisks the child away in her arms.
Allworthy's Gothic-style house, which resides on a hill beneath a grove of old oaks, is on a property that stretches out beyond lawns, meadows, and woods, and out to the sea. Allworthy takes in this view during a mid-May morning walk, in which his mind stews over the noble question of how he "might render himself most acceptable to his Creator, by doing most Good to his Creatures." At breakfast, Allworthy tells Miss Bridget he has a gift for her, which she suspects will be a gown, or jewelry. She is therefore speechless with surprise on first being presented with the baby boy Allworthy found in his bed the night before. Miss Bridget calls the unknown mother every vile name she knows, but she nevertheless shows some compassion for the child. All the female servants in the house are suspected, but all are "acquitted" by Mrs. Wilkins, to whom the task of inspecting all the women in the parish is given. Miss Bridget agrees to take care of the child, at her brother's request.
Once Allworthy departs, Mrs. Deborah waits for contradictory orders from Miss Bridget, since she knows that the brother and sister's opinions begin to differ as soon as they are apart. Miss Bridget, after staring for a little while at the baby sleeping in Mrs. Deborah's lap, cannot refrain from kissing it and praising its beauty. She then sets about ordering "Necessaries" for the child, and appoints one of the best rooms in the house to be its nursery. This is not without a sly and contradictory quip at her brother, however, whom she scorns for desiring to support Vice by adopting "the little Brat."