What Shall We Have for Dinner?

I THINK I must be personally known to most of the readers of the “ Atlantic.” I see them wherever I go, and they see me. Beneath a shelter-tent by the Rapidan, in a striped railroad-station in Bavaria, at the counter of Trübner’s bookstore in London, and at Cordaville, in Worcester County, Massachusetts, as we waited for the freight to get out of the way, I have read the “Atlantic” over their shoulders, or they over mine. The same thing has happened at six hundred and thirty-two other improbable places. More than this, however, my words and works in the great science of Domestic Economy have travelled everywhere before me, not simply like the Connecticut of the poet,

“Bringing shad to South Hadley, and pleasure to man,” 1

but extending all over the civilized world. Not that I am the author of the clotheswringing machine, or of the spring clothes-pin, — my influence has been more subtile. I have propounded great central axioms in housekeeping and the other economies, which have rushed over the world with the inevitable momentum of truth. It was I, for instance, who first discovered and proclaimed the great governing fact that the butter of a family costs more than its bread. It was I who first announced that you cannot economize in the quality of your paper. I am the discoverer of the formula that a family consumes as many barrels of flour in a year as it has adult members, reducing children to adults by the rule of three. The morning after our marriage I raised the window-shade, so that the rising sun of that auspicious day should shine full upon our parlor-Brussels. I said to Lois, “ Let us never be slaves to our carpets ! ” The angel smiled assent; and on the wings of that smile my whisper fluttered over the earth. It brooded in a thousand homes else miserable. Light was where before was chaos. Sunshine drove scrofula from ten thousand quivering frames, and millions of infant lips would this day raise Lois’s name and mine in their Kindergarten songs, did they only know who were their benefactors.

Standing thus in the centre of the sphere of the domestic economies, I have, of course, read with passionate interest the ‘'House and Home Papers” in the “ Atlantic.” It is I, as I am proud to confess, who have violated all copyright, have had them reprinted, as Tract No. 2237 of the American Tract Society, No. 63 of the American Tract Society of Boston, and No. 445 of the issues of the Sanitary Commission, and am now about to introduce them surreptitiously into the bureaus of these charities, so that the colporteurs, of every stripe, may at last be certain that they are conferring the first of benefits upon their homeless fellow-creatures. It is I who every night toil through long streets that I may slide these little tracts, messengers of blessing, under the front-doors of wretched friends, who are dying without homes in the gilded miseries of their bowlingalley parlors. Where they have introduced the patent weather-strip, I place the tract on the upper door-step, with a brick-bat, which keeps it from blowing away. But I observe that it is no part of the plan of those charming papers, more than it was of the “ Novum Organon” or of the “ Principia,” to descend into the details of the economies. I suppose that the author left all that to the “ Domestic Economy ” of her excellent sister, and, as far as the details of practice go, well she might. But between that practical detail by which one sister cooks to-day the dinners on a million tables, and the æsthetic, moral, and religious considerations by which the other sister elevates the life of the million homes in whose dining-rooms those tables stand, there is room for a brief exposition of the principles on which those dinners are to be selected.

It is that exposition which, as I sit superior, I am to give, ex cathedra, after this long preface, now.

I shall illustrate the necessity of this exposition by an introduction to follow the preface, after the manner of the Germans, before we arrive at the substance of our work, which will be itself comprised in its first chapter. This introduction will consist of two illustrations. The first relates to the planting of potatoes. When I inherited my ancestral estate, known as “ Crusoe’s Well,” I resolved to devote it to potatoes for the first summer. I summoned my vassals, and we fenced it. I bought dung and manured it. I hired ploughmen and oxen, and they ploughed it. I made a covenant with a Kelt, who became, quoad hoc, my slave, and gave to him money, with which I directed him to buy seed-potatoes and plant it.

And he, — “ How many shall I buy ? ”

I retired to my study, consulted Loudon, Lindley, and Linnæus, —the thick Gray, the middling Gray, and the child’s Gray, —Worcester’s Dictionary, and Webster’s, in both of which you can usually find almost anything but what should be there, —Johnson’s “Dictionary of Gardening,” and Gardner’s “Dictionary of Fanning,”—and none of these treatise’s mentioned the quantity of potatoes proper for planting a given space of land. Even the Worcester and Webster failed. I was reduced to tell the Kelt to ask the huckster of whom he bought. All the treatises went on the principle — true, but inadequate — that “any fool would know.” Any fool might, probably does, —but I was not a fool.

The next year, having built my house and taken Lois home, the bluebirds sang spring to us one fine morning, and we went out to plant our radish - seeds. With fit forethought, the seed had been bought, the ground manured and raked, the string, the dibble, the woman’s trowel, the man’s trowel, the sticks for the seed-papers, and the papers were all there, Lois was charming in her sunbonnet ; I looked knowing in my Canadian oat - straw. We marked out the bed, — as the robins, meadow-larks, and bluebirds directed. Lois then looked up article “Radish” in the “Farmer’s Dictionary,” and we found the lists of “ Long White Naples,” “White Spanish,” “ Black Spanish,” “ Long Scarlet,” “White Turnip-Root,” “Purple Turnip,” and the rest, for two columns, which we should and should not plant. All that was nothing to us. We were to plant radish-seeds, which we had bought, as such, from Mr. Swett. How deep to plant them, how far apart or how near together, the book was to tell. But the book only said, “ Everybody knows how to plant radishes.”

Now this was not true. We did not know.

These two illustrations, as the minister says, are sufficient to show the character of the deficiency which I am now to supply, — which young housekeepers of intelligence feel, when they have got their nests ready and begin to bill and coo in - doors. There are many things which every fool knows, which people of sense do not know. First among these things is, “ What will you have for dinner ? ”—a question not to be answered by detailed answers, — on the principle of the imaginary Barmacide feasts of the cook-books, — but by the results of deep principles, which underlie, indeed, the whole superficial strata of civilized life. Did not the army of the Punjaub perish, as it retreated from Ghizni to Jelalabad, not because the enemy’s lances were strong, but because one day it did not dine ?

I am not going to tell the old story of that “ sweet pretty girl ” who, after a week of legs of mutton, ordered a “ leg of beef.” I sympathize with her from the bottom of my heart. Her sister will be married to-morrow. To her I dedicate this paper, that she may know, not what she shall order, — that is left to her own sweet will, less fettered now that her life is rounded by her welding it upon its other half than it was when she wandered in maiden meditation fancy-free, — not, I say, what she shall order for her dinner and for Leander’s, but the principle on which the order is to be given.

“ But, my dear Mr. Carter,” says the blushing child, as she reads, “ we have got to be so dreadfully economical ! ”

Fairest of your sex, there was never one of your sex, since Eve finished the apple, lest any should be wasted, nor of my sex, since Adam grimly champed the parings, thinking he was “ in for it,” who should not be economical. A just economy is the law of a luxurious life. “ Dreadful economy ” is the principle which is now to be unfolded to you.

Economy in itself is one of the most agreeable of luxuries. This I need not demonstrate. Everybody knows what good fun it is to make a bargain. Economy becomes dreadful, only when some lightning-flash of truth shows us that our painful frugality has been really the most lavish waste.

So Lois and I, for nine years, lived without a corkscrew. We would buy busts and chromoliths with our money instead, — we would go to the White Mountains, we would maintain an elegant æsthetic hospitality, as they do in Paris, with the money we should save by doing without a corkscrew. So I spoiled two sets of kitchen-forks by drawing corks with them, I broke the necks of legions of bottles for which Mr. Tarr would have credited me two cents each, and many times damaged, even to the swearing-point, one of the sweetest tempers in the world, — all that we might economize on this corkscrew. But one day, at the corner - shop, I saw a corkscrew in the glass show-case, lying on some pocket-combs and family dye-stuffs. I asked the price, to learn that it cost seventeen cents. The resolution of years gave way before the temptation. I bought the corkscrew, and from that moment my income has equalled my expenses. So you see, my sweet May-bud, just trembling on the edge of housekeeping, that true economy consists in buying the right thing at the right time,—if you only pay for it as you go.

“ But, my dear Mr. Carter, I don’t know what the right thing is ! ”

Sweet heart, I knew it. And your husband knows no more than you do,— although he will pretend to know, that he may look cross when the bills come in. Read what follows; hide the “Atlantic ” before he comes home; and you will know more than he knows on the most important point in human life. Vainly, henceforth, will he quote Greek to you, or talk pompous nonsense about the price of Treasury certificates, if you know at what price eggs are really cheap, and at what price they are really dear.

Listen, and remember ! Then hide the “Atlantic” away.

When I engaged in the study of Hebrew, which was at that time a “ regular ” at college, (for why should I blush to own that I am in my one hundred and tenth year ?) as I toiled through the rules and exceptions in dear old Stephen Sewall’s Hebrew Grammar, I ventured to ask him, one desperately hot June day, whether he could not tell us, were it only tor curiosity’s sake, which rule would come into play in every verse, and which would be of use only once or twice in the whole Bible. “ Ah, Carter,” said the dear old fellow, (he taught his beloved language with his own book,) “it is all of use, — all!” And so we bad to take it all, and find out as we could which rules would be constant servitors to us, and which occasional lackeys, hired for special occasions. Just so, dear Hero, do you stand about your housekeeping. You will be fretting yourself to death to economize in each one of one hundred and seven different articles, — for so many are you and Leander to assimilate and make your own special phosphate and carbon, as this sweet honey-year of yours goes on. Of that fret and wear of your sweet temper, child, there is no use at all. Listen, and you shall learn what are to be the great constants of your expense,—what Stephen Sewall would have called the regular verbs transitive of your being, doing, and suffering,—and how many of the one hundred and seven are only exceptional Lamed Hhes, at which you can guess or which you can skip, if the great central movements of your economies go bravely on. I do not know, of course, whether Leander is fond of coffee, and whether you drink tea or no. I can only tell you what is in our family, and assure you that ours is a model family. Such a model is it, that Lois has just now counted up the one hundred and seven articles for me,—has shown me that they all together cost us nine hundred and twenty-six dollars and thirty-two cents in the year 1863, and how much each of them cost. Now our family consists, —

1. Of the baby, who is king.

2, 3. Of two nurses, who are primeministers, one of domestic affairs, one of private education.

4, 5. Of a cook and table-girl, who are chancellor and foreign secretary. These four make the cabinet.

6-8. Three older children; these are in the government, but not in the cabinet.

9 and 10. Lois and I,—who pay the taxes, fight common enemies, and do what the others tell us as well as we can.

This family, you observe, consists of six grown persons, and three children old enough to eat, who are equivalent to a seventh. I may say, in passing, that it therefore consumes just seven barrels of flour a year.

To feed it, as Lois has just now shown you, cost in the year 1863 nine hundred and twenty-six dollars and thirty-two cents. That is the way we chose . to live. We could have lived just as happily on half that sum, — we could have lived just as wretchedly on ten times that sum. But, however we lived, the proportions of our expense would not have varied much from what I am now to teach you, dear Hero (if that really be your name).

BUTTER is the biggest expense-item of all. Of our nine hundred and twenty-six dollars and thirty-two cents, ninety-one dollars and twenty-six cents went for butter. Remember that your butter is one-tenth part of the whole.

Next comes flour. Our seven barrels cost us seventy dollars and eighty-three cents. We bought, besides, six dollars and seventy - six cents’ worth of bread, and six dollars and seventy-one cents’ worth of crackers, — convenient sometimes, dear Hero. So that your wheatflour and bread are almost a tenth of the whole.

Next comes beef, in all forms, ninety dollars and seventy-six cents ; there goes another tenth. The other meats are, mutton, forty - seven dollars and sixtyseven cents ; turkeys, chickens, etc., if you call them meat, sixty-one dollars and fifty-six cents; lamb, seventeen dollars and fifty-three cents; veal, eleven dollars and fifty-three cents; fresh pork, one dollar and seventy - three cents. (This must have been for some guest. Lois and I each had a grandfather named Enoch, and have Jewish prejudices; also, fresh pork is really the most costly article of diet, if you count in the doctor’s bills. But for bam there is ten dollars and twenty-two cents. Ham is always available, you know, Hero. For other salt pork, I recommend you to institute a father or brother, or cousin attached to you in youth, who shall carry on a model farm in the country, and kill for you a model corn-fed pig every year, see it salted with his own eyes, and send to you a half-barrel of the pork for a gage d'amour. It is a much more sentimental present than rosebuds, dearest Hero, — and it lasts longer. That is the way we do ; and salt pork, therefore, does not appear on our bills. But against such salt pork I have no Hebrew prejudice. Try it, Hero, with paper-sliced potatoes fried for breakfast.) All other forms of meat sum up only two dollars and twenty-three cents. And now, Hero, I will explain to you the philosophy of meats. You see they cost you a quarter part of what you spend.

Know, then, my dear child, that the real business of the three meals a day,— of the neat luncheon you serve on your wedding - silver for Mrs. Dubbadoe and her pretty daughter, when they drive in from Milton to see you,—of the ice-cream you ate last night at the summer party which the Bellinghams gave the Pinckneys, —of the hard-tack and boiled dog which dear John is now digesting in front of Petersburg, — the real business,

I say, is to supply the human frame with carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen in organized forms. It must be in organized matter. You might pound your wedding-diamonds for carbon, you might give water from Jordan for oxygen and hydrogen, and the snow - flakes of the Jungfrau might serve the nitrogen for Leander’s dinners, but, because these are not organized, Leander’s cheek would pale, and his teeth shake in their sockets, and his muscles dwindle to packthreads, as William Augustus’s do in the Sloyenly-Peter books, and he would die before your eyes, Hero ! Yes, be would die ! Do not, in your love of him, therefore, feed him on your diamonds. Give him organized matter. Now, in doing this, you have been wise in spending even a tenth of your substance on wheat. For wheat is almost pure food ; and wheat contains all you want,—more carbon than your diamonds, more oxygen and hydrogen than your tears, more nitrogen than the snow-flake, — but not nitrogen enough, dear Hero.

“ More nitrogen ! ” gasps Leander, more nitrogen, my charmer, or I die ! ” This is the real meaning of the words, when he says, “ Let us have roast-beef for dinner,” or when he asks you to pass him the butter.

Although beef, then, has little more than a quarter as much food in it as wheat has, you must have some beef, or something like it, because Leander, and you too, my rosy-cheek, must have nitrogen as well as carbon.

I beg you not to throw the “ Atlantic ” away at this point, my child. Do not say that Mr. Carter is an old fool, and that you never meant to live on vegetables. A great many people have meant to, and have never known what was the matter with them, when the real deficiency was nitrogen. Besides, child, though wheat is the best single feeder of all, as I have told you, because in its gluten it has so much nitrogen, this is to be said of all vegetables, that, so far as we live on them, we exist slowly ; to a certain extent we have to ruminate as the cows do, and not as men and women should ruminate, and all animal or functional life goes more slowly on. Now, Hero, you and Leander both have to lead a rapid life. Most people do in the autumn of 1864. So give him meat, dear Hero, as above.

As for my being an old fool, my dear, I have said I am one hundred and nine, which is older than old Mr. Waldo was, older than everybody except old Parr, And after forty, everybody is a fool — or a physician.

Let us return, then, to our mutton, — always a good thing to return to, especially if the plates are hot, as yours, Hero, always will be. For mutton, besides such water as you can dry out of it, contains twenty-nine per cent, of food,— for meat, a high percentage.

Let us see where we are.

Our butter costs us one-tenth.

Our flour and wheat-bread cost us almost one-tentli.

Our beef costs us one-tenth.

Our other meats cost us a tenth and a half of what we spend for eating and drinking.

“ Where in the world does the rest go, Mr. Carter ? Here is not half. But I could certainly live very well on these things,”

Angel, you could. But if you lived wholly on these, you would want more of them. You see we have said nothing of coffee and tea, — the princes or princesses of food, — without which civilized man cannot renew his brains. In such years as these, Hero, when our brave soldiers must have coffee or we can have no victories, coffee costs me and Lois fifty dollars,—cheap at that,—for, without it, did we drink dandelion like the cows, or chiccory like the asses, how were these brains renewed ?

“ Tea and coffee are the same thing,” says Liebig; at least, he says that Theine, the base of tea, and Caffeine, the base of coffee, are the same. What I know is, that, when coffee costs fifty dollars a year, tea costs thirty dollars and eightynine cents.

For tea and coffee, Hero, allow about another tenth,—the cocoa and cream will bring it up to that.

Our sugar cost us fifty-four dollars and twenty-two cents; our milk fifty dollars and sixty - two; our cream ten dollars seventy-seven.

“ Buy your cream separate,” says Hero, “ if you have as good a milkman as Mr. Whittemore.”

You have not as many babies as we, Hero. When you have, you will not grudge the milk or the sugar. Lots of nourishment in sugar ! Sugar and milk are another tenth.

I do not know if you are a Catholic, Hero ; but I guess your kitchen is ; and so I am pretty sure that you will eat fish Fridays. I know you are a person of sense, so I know you will often delight Leander, as he rises from the day’s swim which, for your sake, Hero, he takes across the coal Hellespont of life, — (all men are Leanders, and all women should be their Heros, holding high love-torches for them.) —as he rises, I say, with “ a sound of wateriness,” I know you will often delight him with oysters, scalloped, tried, or plain, as entremets to flank his dinner-table. For fish count two per cent., for oysters two more, for eggs three or four, and for that stupid compound of starch which some men call “ indispensable,” and all men call “ potato,” count three or four more. My advice is, that, when potatoes are dear, you skip them. Rice - croquets are better and cheaper. There goes another tenth.

Tea and coffee, etc., one-tenth.

Sugar and milk, one-tenth.

Fish, eggs, potatoes, etc., one-tenth.

Thus is it, Hero, that three-quarters of what you eat will be spent for your bread and butter, your meat, fish, eggs, and potatoes, j-our coffee, tea, milk, and sugar, — for twenty-one articles on a list of one hundred and seven. Fresh vegetables, besides those named, will take onefifth of what is left : say five per cent, of the whole expense. The doctor will order porter or wine, when your back aches, or when Leander looks thin. Have nothing to do with them till he does order them, but reserve another five per cent, for them. The rest, Hero, it is mace, it is yeast, it is vinegar, pepper, and mustard, it is sardines, it is lobster, it is the unconsidered world of trifles which make up the visible difference between the table of high civilization and that of the Abyssinian or the Blackfoot Indian. Let us hope it is not much cream-of-tartar or saleratus. It is grits and grapes, it is lard and lemons, it is maple - sugar and melons, it is nuts and nutmeg, or any other alliteration that you fancy.

Now, pretty one, I can see you smile, and I can hear you say,—“Dear old Mr. Carter, I am very much obliged to you. I begin to see my way a little more clearly.” Of course you do, child. You begin to see that the most desperate economy in lemons will not make you and Leander rich, but that you must make up your mind at the start about beef and about butter. Hear, then, my parting whisper.

Disregard the traditions of economy. What is cheap to-day is dear to-morrow. Do not make a bill-of-fare, and, because everything on it tastes very badly, think it is cheap. Salt codfish is cheap sometimes, and sometimes very dear. Venison is often an extravagance; but, of a winter when the sleighing is good, and when the hunters have not gone South, it is the cheapest food for you. Eggs are dear, if they tempt you to cakes that you do not like. But no eggs can he sent to our brave army, so, if you do choose to make a bargain with your Aunt Eunice at Naugatuck Neck to send you four dozen by express once a week, they will be, perhaps, the cheapest food you can buy. What you want, my child, is variety. However cheaply you live, secure four things : First, a change of fare from day to day, so as to have a good appetite ; Second, simplicity, each day, in the table, so as to lose but little in chips ; Third, fitness of things there, as hot plates for your mutton and cold ones for your butter, so that what you have may be of the best; and, first, second, third, and last, love between you and Leander. This last sauce, says Solomon, answers even for herbs. And you know the Emperors Augustus and Nebuchadnezzar both had to live on herbs,—I am afraid, because love had been wanting in both cases. If you have a stalled ox, you will need the same sauces,—much more, unless it is better dressed than the only one I ever saw, which was at Warwick, when Cheron and I were going to Stratford-onAvon. It was not attractive. You will need three of these four things, if you are rich. Rich or poor, buy in as large quantities as you can. Rich or poor, pay cash. Rich or poor, do not try to do without carbon or nitrogen. Rich or poor, vary steadily the bills-of-fare. Now the minimum of what you can support life upon, at this moment, is easily told. Jeff Davis makes the calculation for you. It is quarter of a pound of salt pork a day, with four Graham hard-tack. That is what each of his soldiers is eating; and though they are not stout, they are wiry fellows, and fight well. The maximum you can find by lodging at the Brevoort, at New York,—where, when I last went to the front, I stopped an hour on the way, and, though I had no meals, paid two dollars and eighty cents for washing my face in another man’s bedroom. A year of Jeff Davis’s diet would cost you and Leander, if you bought in large quantities, sixty dollars. A year at Rye Beach just now would cost you two or three thousand dollars. Choose your dinner from either bill; vary it, by all the gradations between. But remember, child, as you would cheer Leander after his swim, and keep within your allowance, remember that what was dear yesterday may be cheap to-day,— remember to vary the repast, therefore, from Monday round to Saturday; eschew the corner-shop, and buy as large stores as Leander will let you; and always keep near at hand an unexhausted supply of Solomon’s condiment.

  1. “ All hail, thou Connecticut, who forever hast ran,
    Bringing shad to South Hadley, and pleasure to man ! ”