Sunday, July 1, 2012

It's an Old New England Custom

Continuing on with the chapter entitled To Have Pie for Breakfast.

Another breakfast memorable for the circumstances in which it was eaten as well as the food comprising it was the one consumed at N. 92 Second Street, Fall River, Massachusetts, on a swelteringly hot August day int the year 1892, by Andrew J. Borden, his second wife, Abby L.D. Borden, and a guest at the house, the brother of Mr. Borden's first wife, John V. Morse.

The breakfast, probably the most hideous in New England annals, consisted of mutton Soup, warmed over mutton, johnnycake; coffee, and cookies. This horrid meal was eaten by the three persons mentioned about seven o'clock on the morning of August fourth. Two hours later Mr. Borden's daughter, Lizzie,

came downstairs and, declining the breakfast upon which her parents and uncle had regaled themselves, contented herself with half a cup of coffee and part of a cookie. It was a breakfast, says Edmund Pearson, well adapted to act the stage for a tragedy. And, as everybody knows, a tragedy was enacted in the house that same morning. Within the space of about two hours after Lizzie came down to breakfast, Mr. and Mrs. Borden were corpses, hacked to death with a hatchet. Today, more than fifty years after those notorious murders, people still get cold shivers reading about the warm mutton broth eaten for breakfast on the hot August day in Fall River.

A universal geography is scarcely the kind of work in which one would expect to find information concerning the food and drink taken by New Englanders for breakfast, and yet that is precisely what one does find in Samuel B. Goodrich's Pictorial Geography of the World, published in Boston in 1841.

"The breakfast," says Mr. Goodrich in the section of his work devoted to New England, "which, in the country, is held at an early hour, and often by sunrise, is no evanescent thing. In a farmer's family, it consists of little less than ham, beef, sausages, bread, butter, boiled potatoes, pies, coffee, and cider. The use of coffee in the morning, and of tea at night, is almost universal. At hotels and boarding houses, the standing breakfast is of beef, mutton, ham, broiled chickens, sausages, tripe, various kinds of fish, tongue, bread, butter, coffee, and cider."
But Charles Dickens,

who was more conscious of food than most authors, was not favorable impressed with the meals served to him at the Boston hotel where he stayed when he visited this country the year following the publication of Mr. Goodrich's geography. "In our private room," he says in American Notes for General Publication, "the cloth could not, for any earthly consideration, have been laid for dinner without a huge glass dish of cranberries in the middle of the table; and breakfast would have been no breakfast unless the principal dish were a deformed beefsteak with a great flat bone in the centre, swimming in hot butter, and sprinkled with the very blackest of all possible pepper."
This is unkind judgement, but not so many years later Mark Twain,

who lived a great part of his life and did his best work in New England, described with equal cander the beefsteak he had for breakfast on Dickens's side of the Atlantic. He said it was neither cut right nor cooked properly. It came on the table in a small pewter platter bordered with grease-soaked potatoes. It was the size, shape, and thickness of a man's hand with the thumb and fingers cut off. It was overdone, rather dry, tasted pretty insipid, aroused no enthusiasm.
Then with the memory of hundreds of New England breakfasts in mind, Mark Twain wrote a description of the kind of beefsteak he might have had for breakfast at home. It is the most mouthwatering description in literature. "A mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick,

hot and sputtering from the griddle; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining with the gravy, archipelagoes with mushrooms; a township or two of tender, yellowish fat gracing an outlying district of this ample county of beefsteak; the long white bone which divides the sirloin from the tenderloin still in its place."

To this magnificent breakfast steak Mark Twain added a great cup of American homemade coffee, with the cream afroth on the top, some real butter, firm and yellow and fresh, some smoking hot biscuits, and a plate of buckwheat cakes with transparent syrup. In short, the kind of breakfast to which New Englanders were accustomed.

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