Tuesday, October 22, 2013

`He Who Does Not Mind His Belly'

Once I ate tongue so as not to offend my hostess, a professor of French. In France I was served horse and was unable to distinguish it from roast beef. I’ve eaten the jelly from a can of Spam smeared on toast. As a boy I grew to like Yankee ham-and-bean soup sandwiches, sliced like slabs of peat from the pot, served cold. My father savored headcheese, Thuringer, souse and pigs’ knuckles, and I partook. I was the rare child who enjoyed liver and onions. I ate the worm (gusano rojo) from a bottle of mezcal but don’t remember doing so. And, yes, chocolate-covered ants, despite not liking chocolate. My palate is plebian, and I find solace in Dr. Johnson’s reminder: 

“It is not very easy to fix the principles upon which mankind have agreed to eat some animals, and reject others; and as the principle is not evident, it is not uniform. That which is selected as delicate in one country, is by its neighbours abhorred as loathsome.” 

That’s Johnson’s common-sense reporting on Scottish culinary matters in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). With Boswell’s A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), it documents the eighty-three days in the summer and fall of 1773 the pair toured Boswell’s homeland. See the illustrated edition prepared by Pat Rogers in 1993 (Yale University Press), which prints corresponding passages from the two books on facing pages. On this date, Oct. 22, in 1773, Boswell reports: 

“Before Dr. Johnson came to breakfast, Lady Lochbuy said, `he was a DUNGEON of wit’; a very common phrase in Scotland to express a profoundness of intellect, though he afterwards told me, that he never had heard it. She proposed that he should have some cold sheep’s head for breakfast. Sir Allan seemed displeased at his sister's vulgarity, and wondered how such a thought should come into her head. From a mischievous love of sport, I took the lady's part; and very gravely said, `I think it is but fair to give him an offer of it. If he does not choose it, he may let it alone.’ `I think so,’ said the lady, looking at her brother with an air of victory. Sir Allan, finding the matter desperate, strutted about the room, and took snuff. When Dr. Johnson came in, she called to him, `Do you choose any cold sheep's−head, sir?’ `No, Madam,’ said he, with a tone of surprise and anger. `It is here, sir,’ said she, supposing he had refused it to save the trouble of bringing it in. They thus went on at cross purposes, till he confirmed his refusal in a manner not to be misunderstood; while I sat quietly by, and enjoyed my success.” 

Much to admire here: Lady Lochby’s “dungeon of wit,” Boswell’s prankishness (“a mischievous love of sport), Johnson’s breakfast refusal, and the dish itself, much prized by Robert Burns, who is supposed to have turned out this grace in the Globe Inn (“howff”) in Dumfries: 

“O Lord, when hunger pinches sore,
Do thou stand us in stead,
And send us from thy bounteous store,
A tup [ram] — or wether [male sheep] — head. Amen.' 

Elsewhere in his journal, Boswell reports this culinary suggestion from Johnson: "It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing." 

And in his Life, Boswell reports the great man saying: “Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else.”

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