Tuesday, August 07, 2018

'Served Hot'

While reading Sketches from Vietnam (1968) by the English journalist Richard West (well written but thin, with a decidedly anti-American, not merely anti-war, aftertaste) I came across an exotic-sounding word: “Furniture, clothes, shrines were heaped on to the lorry in a gigantic kedgeree.” Exotic but familiar. First, the OED: “An Indian dish of rice boiled with split pulse, onions, eggs, butter, and condiments; also, in European cookery, a dish made of cold fish, boiled rice, eggs, and condiments, served hot.” Kedgeree might be the name of a minor character in Dickens (not far from Gargery). Here is the Hobson-Jobson entry and here is a recipe. In the culinary realm, one thinks of salmagundi or hash; or, figuratively, as West uses the word, jumble, hodgepodge or the Yiddish-derived mishmash. But where had I seen the word before? I searched Anecdotal Evidence and found this on Feb. 8, 2012:

“The breakfast table this morning had the best of all objects—far better even than a dish of salmon kedgeree, or a headline in the Times saying the atom bomb had been abolished, or that the price of coal was down—viz a fat little parcel of books. And the contents of those books! Exactly the sort of literature I love—comments wide and deep on men and things and books by a wise man who knows how to write. Life has, at all events at 73, no greater pleasure than that.”

The author is George Lyttleton, the retired teacher and housemaster at Eton, writing on Feb. 23, 1956, to his former student, the publisher and editor Rupert Hart-Davis (The Lyttelton/Hart-Davis Letters, Vol. 1). Six and a half years ago I was rereading the letters. That’s long enough to feel nostalgic about the experience. In the second volume, Lyttleton describes reading books a second or third time like this in a May 2, 1957, letter:

“I love re-reading. Each night from 10.30 to 12 I read Gibbon out loud. I read slowly, richly, not to say juicily; and like Prospero’s isle the room is full of noises—little, dry, gentle noises. Some matter-of-fact man of blunt or gross perceptions might say it was the ashes cooling in the grate, but I know better. It is the little creatures of the night, moths and crickets and spiderlings, a mouse or two perhaps and small gnats in a wailful choir, come out to listen to the Gibbonian music—`Twenty-two acknowledged concubines and a library of 62,000 volumes attested the variety of his inclinations’—what sentient being, however humble, could resist that?”

In a later letter, Lyttleton identifies the source of the allusion:

“That Gibbon sentence describes the emperor Gordian whose `manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father.’ Then comes the sentence I quoted, which ends: `and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former [“concubines”] as well as the latter [“62,000 volumes”] were designed for use rather than for ostentation.’”

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