Sunday, July 15, 2012
Continuing with "It's An Old New England Custom"
"The seasons were not without their influence on the New England breakfast. Buckwheat cakes,
thin and crisp around the edges, were considered suitable only for a winter morning, as were also baptist cakes. Oatmeal,
which has simmered on the stove all night and it would have been sacrilege to call porridge, was supposed to heat the blood, so many persons did not eat it in summer. According to The Epicure, published by the famous New England grocery house of S.S. Pierce and Company of Boston,
the ladies of Beacon Hill in the late sixties[1860s-jjb] found the following dishes suitable for breakfast in autumn and winter; stewed pigeons with mushrooms, deviled gizzards, liver pudding, pork cheese, hashed poultry, minced veal, hash balls, game birds, venison pasty, tongue or ham toast, rice cakes, sausages, fish cakes and broiled tomatoes. Norwegian salt mackerel was a favorite breakfast dish with some men. But many families stuck to the same breakfast the year round. One family I knew never deviated winter or summer from hash and pancakes.
Codfish cakes, brown and crisp and fluffy, are still a Sunday morning tradition in many New England families, especially in the vicinity of Boston, since breakfast on that day is usually a more leisurely affair than on weekdays. When the English poet and critic, Matthew Arnold, came to this country to lecture and was confronted with fish cakes for breakfast, he is reported to have remarked to a table companion, "Try one of these buns. They're not so bad as they look".
Matthew Arnold came here for the first time in 1883. He wisely refrained from writing a book about America, but in his letters home he had a good deal to say about the country in general and American food in particular.
He was too kind a man to criticize our diet, but he did view it with surprise, and occasionally with alarm. In Boston he had a great dinner of venison and champagne with Phillips Brooks. The next day he left for Amherst to lecture. Here he stayed at the president's house, where he had to get up at half past five to catch a train. The president's three daughters breakfasted with him. "A porridge made of split oat groats," he writes, "which I am beginning to like(one takes it with cream), a roll and a cup of tea did very well for me. There was in immense beef steak, but that was too much for me so early."
A few days later he was at Andover, Massachusetts. "Called at seven," he reports, "breakfast with a party of professors and their wives-coffee, fruit, fishballs, potatoes, hashed veal, and mince-pies, with rolls and butter." When Arnold's letters were published posthumously a dozen years later, a cry went up from Andover. the pie was absolutely denied. Neither mince nor any other kind of pie, it was protested, was served for breakfast at Andover when Mr. Arnold was there. The poet perhaps had in mind some other New England breakfast he had recently eaten, and credited the pie to the wrong place, or maybe there were pancakes that morning which he mistook for pies. Large-scale pancakes were not unknown in New Engnad in the days of spacious breakfasts. In any case, it is amusing to think of the professors years later making a casus belli of mince pie.
By the time Arnold's letters were published in the mid-nineties[1890s jjb], pie for breakfast was rapidly going out of fashion, along with almost everything else on the morning menu. Why was this? During the last decades of the last century[20th century jjb] more and more Americans went abroad, and it was these travelers who brought home the idea of the Continental breakfast, consisting of nothing but a hard, cold roll and a cup of coffee. It became fashionable to denounce pie as provincial.
No one who wished to be thought sophisticated dared eat a big breakfast. One must do as they did in Paris-not Paris, Maine, but Paris, France-and conform to the Continental standard, low as it was. Instead of converting the Parisians to pie, these innocents abroad permitted themselves to be seduced into surrendering their birthright. It is a conspicuous historical fact that nations are apt to copy each other's worst features rather than their best."