Monday, September 27, 2010

Food from the Scarlet Letter

Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter is a tightly-constructed study of guilt and revenge, as anyone who went to high school more than around 30 years ago well knows. Before the main plot begins -- that of Hester Prynne, her ornate scarlet letter of shame, and the two men she was involved with -- Hawthorne provides a long and rather rambling introduction. He goes on about life in the old custom house at the time he was writing -- the 1840s. His sketches of custom-house workers are rather detailed, and I found myself rushing to get to the main story.

Nevertheless, I was struck with his long paragraph about an elderly man with a great "ability to recollect the good dinners which it had made no small portion of the happiness of his life to eat." American food before the Civil War is an interesting subject, and this discourse offers quite a few specific examples of how Hawthorne and his contemporaries viewed the subject.

He writes of this old gentleman:
"His gourmandism was a highly agreeable trait; and to hear him talk of roast meat was as appetizing as a pickle or an oyster. ... it always pleased and satisfied me to hear him expatiate on fish, poultry, and butcher's meat, and the most eligible methods of preparing them for the table. His reminiscences of good cheer, however ancient the date of the actual banquet, seemed to bring the savour of pig or turkey under one's very nostrils. There were flavours on his palate that had lingered there not less than sixty or seventy years, and were still apparently as fresh as that of the mutton chop which he had just devoured for his breakfast. I have heard him smack his lips over dinners, every guest at which, except himself, had long been food for worms. ... ghosts of bygone meals were continually rising up before him ... : a tenderloin of beef, a hind-quarter of veal, a spare-rib of pork, a particular chicken, or a remarkably praiseworthy turkey, which had perhaps adorned his board in the days of the elder Adams, would be remembered ... . The chief tragic event of the old man's life, so far as I could judge, was his mishap with a certain goose, which lived and died some twenty or forty years ago: a goose of most promising figure, but which, at table, proved so inveterately tough, that the carving-knife would make no impression on its carcase, and it could only be divided with an axe and handsaw."
Of particular interest here is the emphasis on meat. The old man seems never to have seen a vegetable he found memorable -- or at least Hawthorne sets his focus on meat alone. The CDC study I was reading yesterday about Americans skipping the produce aisle may reflect a deep American propensity!

Mark Twain's imagined favorite meals receive a lot of attention as primary descriptions of the best food from the end of the 19th century, for example: Twain's Feast: Forgotten Foods Worth Bringing Back. Hawthorn's passage takes us back another half-century, and in recollection as much as another 100 years.

Note: I read the Scarlet Letter on my new Kindle, and took the passage from Project Gutenberg, so I cannot provide a page number. What would my high school English teacher say? Maybe that I waited an awfully long time to reread this quite enjoyable classic.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

Fascinating -- haven't read this in eons. But isn't that the way with books we pick up from long ago? We discover entirely new things!

(Did you ever see the wonderful -- and long-ago -- PBS production? It was excellent!)