Monday, December 14, 2020

'His Purpose Is to Be Merry'

My son was drinking a ghastly brew called mango-flavored White Claw Hard Seltzer. It reminded me of Boone’s Farm, the cloyingly sweet soda-pop wine I consumed by the metric ton in college. Back then, I’m not certain I even knew what a mango was. My sons take for granted the global menu now casually available in the U.S. Like clothing and popular music, food is subject to fashion and availability. How else to explain cilantro? 

In his Dictionary (1755), Dr. Johnson  defines mango as “a fruit of the isle of Java, brought to Europe pickled,” presumably because pickling prevented spoilage of a fruit from the other side of the world. He includes as a citation a couplet from a poem by William King (1663-1721):


“What lord of old wou’d bid his cook prepare

Mangoes, potargo, champignons, cavare.”


The lines are drawn from King’s book-length poem The Art of Cookery (1708), in which he imitates Horace’s Ars Poetica and documents the expansion of the English diet early in the eighteenth century, thanks to the vastness of the British Empire. The OED defines potargo, also spelled bottarga, as “the roe of tuna or mullet, salted and dried (usually in the roe pouch), and typically eaten thinly sliced or used as a flavouring in pasta dishes.” By the eighteenth century, champignons in English referred to edible mushrooms. Cavare is caviar.


Johnson includes a brief life of King in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81). He writes:


“[I]t will be naturally supposed that his poems were rather the amusements of idleness than efforts of study; that he endeavoured rather to divert than astonish; that his thoughts seldom aspired to sublimity; and that, if his verse was easy and his images familiar, he attained what he desired. His purpose is to be merry; but perhaps, to enjoy his mirth, it may be sometimes necessary to think well of his opinions.”

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