Monday, January 13, 2014

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, 1873 -- and breakfast

It's always a bit of serendipity to find remarks on food and wine in old books. (You'll recall how much we like prose food.)  Not only do such finds nourish the inner appetite, but they teach and entertain us by describing little things -- the meals and customs of yesteryear, the things that were for sale in market stalls and dry goods stores, what people put on wedding cakes. Would you believe, a hundred and fifty years ago, Americans decorated them with miniature Stars and Stripes? Huzzah for patriotism.

Our author today sighs with nostalgia for the fine dinners and the camaraderie of his youthful Club:
... do you remember those after-dinners at the Trois Frères when the Scotch-plaided snuff-box went round, and the dry Lundy-Foot [a type of tobacco] tickled its way along into our happy sensoria? Then it was that the Chambertin [Burgundy] or the Clos Vougeot [ditto] came in, slumbering in its straw cradle. And one among you -- do you remember how he would have a bit of ice always in his Burgundy, and sit tinkling it against the sides of the bubble-like glass, saying that he was hearing the cow-bells as he used to hear them, when the deep-breathing kine came home at twilight from the huckleberry pasture, in the old home a thousand leagues towards the sunset?
He relishes retelling "the old story" of the Christmas pastry found in the folio volume of Shakespeare. (What old story, where? Found by whom?)
What can be more trivial than that old story of opening the folio Shakspeare that used to lie in some ancient English hall and finding the flakes of Christmas pastry between its leaves, shut up in them perhaps a hundred years ago? And, lo! as one looks on these poor relics of a bygone generation, the universe changes in the twinkling of an eye; old George the Second is back again, and the elder Pitt is coming into power, and General Wolfe is a fine, promising young man, and over the Channel they are pulling the Sieur Damiens to pieces with wild horses, and across the Atlantic the Indians are tomahawking Hirams and Jonathans and Jonases at Fort William Henry; all the dead people who have been in the dust so long -- even to the stout-armed cook that made the pastry -- are alive again; the planet unwinds a hundred of its luminous coils, and the precession of the equinoxes is retraced on the dial of heaven! And all this for a bit of pie-crust!
And our author seems to know a lot about pears.
... men often remind me of pears in their way of coming to maturity. Some are ripe at twenty, like human Jargonelles, and must be made the most of, for their day is soon over. Some come into their perfect condition late, like the autumn kinds, and they last better than the summer fruit. And some, that, like the Winter-Nelis, have been hard and uninviting until all the rest have had their season, get their glow and perfume long after the frost and snow have done their worst with the orchards. ... Milton was a Saint-Germain with a graft of the roseate Early-Catherine. Rich, juicy, lively, fragrant, russet skinned old Chaucer was an Easter-Beurré; the buds of a new summer were swelling when he ripened.
This, by the by, is taken from the same chapter in which he compares the advent of genius in art or literature to "the coming up in old Jacob's garden of that most gentlemanly little fruit, the seckel pear ... it is a surprise, -- there is nothing to account for it." No, I suppose not.

Our author today, you must know, is Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Not the Oliver Wendell Holmes (Jr.) who was a Civil War veteran and, later, long-serving Supreme Court justice (he of "you-can't-yell-fire-in-a-crowded-theater" fame), but his father -- physician, professor, famed poet, shall we go on? His poem "Old Ironsides" helped create enough popular sentiment to save the ship U.S.S. Constitution from being scrapped by the Navy; his research and writing on puerpal fever demonstrated, before germs and contagion were fully understood, that women died of childbed fever because the doctors attending them did not wash their hands, and so spread infection from one "fatal delivery" to another. We'll go on. He was also a novelist and a co-founder of the Atlantic Monthly, to which for years he contributed a popular column called "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table." The columns were collected and published as a book in 1873. Now thanks to the miracles of the modern age, and because it is long since out of copyright, you may read it at the click of a button. 

The general conceit of the book is that the Autocrat spent some time living in a boarding house in Boston, and that each day at breakfast he held forth to the company about whatever topics occurred to him. Also present at the table were "the Poet" and "the Professor," both of whom seem to be alter egos for the author, as well as a Young Scholar, an older gentleman, a lady in black bombazine, the landlady's daughter "who says 'Yes?' at the end of every sentence," the landlady, her young son named Benjamin Franklin, a "lively young gentleman," a divinity-student, and a young schoolmistress who will become a very important character in the narrator's life by the end of his sojourn in the house.  

So the Autocrat is wonderful first of all in teaching us that, in nineteenth-century America, there was nothing odd about a mixed company all boarding together in the home of a poor widow who took in strangers and fed them to make ends meet. (Things had not changed much even till the 1930s, when my own grandparents also took in boarders to make ends meet.) And it is wonderful for Holmes' curlicued and somewhat overstuffed prose -- you'll learn lots of new words here, many of them reflecting his medical education surely, as stillicidium, polyphloesboean, aeolipile, epigasgtrium, integument, fulvous, pudency, batrachian, stridulous, muliebrity, aerolites, deliquesced, pleonasm, and ambrotype. "Thill" and "calthrop" are blessedly, briefly Anglo-Saxon by comparison, though the definition of calthrop is alarming. They were "iron stars, each ray a rusty thorn an inch and a half long, which our grandfathers used to sow round in the grass when there were Indians about -- stick through moccassins into feet, -- cripple 'em on the spot, and give 'em lockjaw in a day or two."

The Autocrat is wonderful for the narrator's grand pronouncements on minor things. As: he hates puns. "Life and language are alike sacred. Homicide and verbicide -- that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning, which is its life -- are alike forbidden. ... A pun is prima facie an insult to the person you are talking with. It implies utter indifference to or sublime contempt for his remarks, no matter how serious."
And as: he thinks it most natural that a talkative man should repeat himself occasionally, if he happens to own, as he would a tool, a good thought which tends to recur under repetitive social circumstances. (In such a case one ought to be "proud of the accuracy of one's mental adjustments.") And here are bits of wisdom which I think could stand any test of time. "You never need think you can turn over any old falsehood without a terrible squirming and scattering of the horrid little population that dwells under it." "It is not great to have money, but fine to govern those that have it." And this, on "calamity" in life:

A great calamity, for instance, is as old as the trilobites an hour after it has happened. It stains backward through all the leaves we have turned over in the book of life, before its blot of tears or of blood is dry on the page we are turning. For this we seem to have lived; it was foreshadowed in dreams that we leaped out of in the cold sweat of terror; in the 'dissolving views' of dark day-visions; all omens pointed to it; all paths led to it. After the tossing half-forgetfulness of the first sleep that follows such an event, it comes upon us afresh, as a surprise, at waking; in a few moments it is old again, -- old as eternity.
All this at breakfast merely! Amidst the entertainment we haven't even mentioned the easy references to books, to history, to myth, to poetry and Shakespeare that "everybody knows" no longer. "Ithuriel did not spit the toad on his spear, you remember, but touched him with it, and the blasted angel took the sad glories of his true shape." "Qu'est ce qu'il a fait? That was Napoleon's test. What have you done?" But what on earth does he mean by criticizing "the orange-juice landscapes" of re Gilpin? William Gilpin was an eighteenth-century English priest, naturalist, and traveler famed for writing essays on the "picturesque." He coined the term -- it meant roughly "the way an outdoor scene should look in a painted picture, but rarely does in nature." When we paint amateur landscapes showing a craggy distant mountain perfectly placed between two forested hills and reflected in a lake with a rivulet running into it from the left and a deer on the right, we are following père Gilpin's ideas on the picturesque. (It is amazing how many things, large and small, sunk into the Western consciousness before electronic entertainment arrived and began to erase it all. Not to sound gloomy.) But even if "old Daddy Gilpin" was a bit of a laughingstock by Holmes' fresh young day, still I am perplexed by the sentence -- "I have a whole set of his works, and am very proud of it, with its gray paper, and open type, and long ff, and orange-juice landscapes." Perhaps we must be content that it sounds vaguely breakfast-like.

 Now I said that one of the characters at the boarding house, the Schoolmistress, turns out to play a large role in the narrator's sojourn there. You can imagine what it is. Of course they sit across from each other in the workaday mornings, and later go for long walks in the lovely summer evenings, and of course when he works up the courage to ask her whether she will take, ahem, "the long path" with him, she starts at first and then answers yes. And when it is known they are engaged, they come down to breakfast and find that one of their fellow lodgers, "the lively young gentleman" has taken the trouble to commandeer the plates and napkins and stage a delightful little scene at the table by way of congratulation. There must have been times, a hundred and fifty years ago, when the Victorian language of flowers (and fruits, here) could be put to very nice use.
...each [plate] was covered with a broad leaf. On lifting this, each boarder found a small heap of solemn black huckleberries. [The dark color represented the others' graceful mourning at the affianced couple's now being each "off the market."] But one of those plates held red currants, and was covered with a red rose; the other held white currants, and was covered with a white rose. There was a laugh at this at first, and then a short silence, and I noticed that her lip trembled, and the old gentleman opposite was in trouble to get at his bandanna handkerchief.
The landlady was at some trouble to control her feelings, too. It seems she had had her eye on our Autocrat as a match for her own daughter. Her disappointment prompts him to launch into poetry, this time about the UNLOVED. " ...Not where Leucadian breezes sweep/O'er Sappho's memory-haunted billow/But where the glistening night-dews weep/On nameless sorrow's churchyard pillow...." Like that. He launches into poetry a dozen different times throughout the book. Revered as he was as a poet, and the U.S.S. Constitution aside, I can't help but shudder, and I give you permission to skip them all.

Now you have been kind enough to accompany me on my autocratic tour of the Autocrat, I will reward you by giving you breakfast. Since it so happens that our author says nothing of what he and his fellow boarders actually eat -- except berries -- we will turn to a source nearly contemporary with his book, and pick a typically gargantuan Victorian breakfast menu that starts with berries and includes a mysterious "H-O." We are using, of course, Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cookbook. Maybe he knew it.

H-O [?] with sugar and cream
Dropped Eggs on Toast
Waffles with Maple Syrup

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., about the time he was writing his Autocrat of the Breakfast Table essays (1853). Image from Wikipedia.


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