Friday, December 22, 2017

`Such a Gentlemanlike Porker Too!'

“His parents sent a basket from Wem [a town in Shropshire] containing pigs’ cheeks (a delicacy), two fowl, some pickled pork, and a tongue. He took it along and, when it was empty, they set about a bottle of port and some fine Virginia tobacco. It was a Christmas to remember.”

Some people will eat anything. My father relished pigs’ knuckles and blood sausage. He would have concurred with Joyce’s Jewish Everyman: “Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

My own food preferences evolved in reverse. I ate almost anything as a kid, even liver and onions. Only when working in a restaurant and having to cook liver did I lose my taste for it. Now I am borderline-finicky, almost a vegetarian. Not a single item on Mr. Bloom’s menu would I voluntarily eat today. The recipient of the basket mentioned at the top is William Hazlitt, as described in Duncan Wu’s William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man (2008). It was Christmas 1806, and Hazlitt was spending the holiday with Charles and Mary Lamb. Lamb’s two-act farce, “Mr. H--,” had premiered and promptly bombed at Drury Lane on Dec. 10. Hazlitt had attended, and reported that Lamb himself sat in the pit, enthusiastically hissing his own play. One can see why.  As Wu explains: “The play’s premise was as silly as anything in Monty Python – that Mr H--, who did all he could to conceal his name, was actually called Hogsflesh.” As soon as that was revealed, the steam went out of the drama and the audience lost interest. In fact, they positively detested it.” Hazlitt, however, wrote rather kindly of the play in “On Great and Little Things.”

You will have noted the porcine theme, one that Lamb (a meaty surname) often revisited, most famously in “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig.” His colleague at India House, John Bates Dibdin, had drawn a picture of a pig after Lamb had published his essay in London Magazine in September 1822. Lamb included the picture in Essays of Elia when the book was published in 1823. On Oct. 28 of that year, Lamb writes to Dibdin:

“Your Pig was a picture of a pig, and your Picture a pig of a picture. The former was delicious but evanescent, like a hearty fit of mirth, or the cracking of thorns under a pot; but the latter is an idea, and abideth. I never before saw swine upon sattin. And then that pretty strawy canopy about him! He seems to purr (rather than grunt) his satisfaction. Such a gentlemanlike porker too! . . . I have ordered a little gilt shrine for it, and mean to wear it for a locket; a shirt pig.”

I can’t think of any writer before Lamb who so specializes in the silly and ridiculous. His taste for the gratuitously absurd seems pleasingly modern.

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