On Certain Things to Eat

I AM often reminded of that friend of Charles Lamb’s who held that no man could be pure in heart who did not like apple dumplings. I would not go so far as that; I would not say that a man may not harbor an indifference to sassafrastea and still be a good man. What I do say is that there are many good men who are mainly insensible to the poetry of things.

There are other brews richer, more exhilarating, more delectable. There is none so delicate. Its true name should be “Spring-in-the-Fields.” There is the health of the ploughed ground in it, and the dew on the dog-fennel, the field-lark at morning and the whippoorwill at late dusk, and Bob White along the rail-fence, whistling all day long. Its quality, indeed, is very like Bob White’s whistle. Of all the bird-notes, each with its own forever inimitable and distinct quality, there is none like his for voicing the thought of the ploughed fields. It is as clear and serene as the thrush’s own; but it has not the unearthly beauty, the ethereal detachment, of his. It has, instead, the very opposite charm: a simple, rustic, earth-loving note, for all it is so crystal clear; just the note to ring freshly all day long through man’s own woodlands, and across the morning furrow the ploughman leaves behind him. It, too, is “Spring-in-the-Fields.” Analyze it, and you have analyzed the flavor of my sassafras-tea.

He who drinks that is drinking primal innocence. And who, the most sophisticated taster of old vintages, will scorn this oldest and freshest of them all ? Then there is the beauty of it. Man is an exacting animal; he eats with his eye no less than with his palate. His wine must have a jewel-like light, his coffee a brown sparkle, his tea must turn the clinking glass of summer luncheon-time into a chalice of amber. He will find no æsthetic lack in sassafras-tea. He might as well drink dawn: young Aurora’s idle finger has stirred it, before the world was awake. If he takes cream in his tea, then he elects to drink rose-petals in solution.

In these degenerate days, one may often buy sassafras at the grocery store in the springtime; but my own conviction is that it will not sparkle with its proper light after it has been listed on the grocer’s yellow ticket. The true way to procure it — if one may not dig the roots himself — is to buy it by the “bunch” from a grinning little darkey, who rolls his eyes and rubs one rusty shin against the other as he sheepishly quotes his price. And the time to drink it is at supper; for in the land of sassafras they still have supper, untroubled, for the most part, even by the painful conviction that they ought at least to call it dinner. Yes, it must add the final touch of grace to the snowy supper-table, just at that gracious moment newly won by the day from the domain of the night: that time of day in the spring when old people look up over their spectacles with touching, wrinkled smiles, and remark with pleased surprise that “the days are getting longer.” And it will be at the time of year, too, when the windows are left open in the diningroom at supper-time, for the first time in some months, — oh, three or four, maybe. That is the time for people in farmhouses and villages and small Southern cities to “thin their blood,” as the old folks say, with a cup of sassafras-tea.

Then there is watermelon. I think I am seldom conscious of an acuter pang than when I see watermelon on a restaurant table, or in a dining-car, or on the tray of a white waiter at some Northern hostelry. It is like being reminded of the existence of sweatshops, and stockyards, and colonies of lepers. It reminds me that there must be people in the world who have never eaten watermelons any other way: who have never taken them, cool and dripping, from the milk-trough, or held in their two hands the great crescentshaped slices (heart to mouth and shameless chin a-drip), or taken one out of a thousand from a roadside patch in broad daylight (perhaps — if one were sophisticated, and loved the Travels with a Donkey — leaving a dime in the smooth earthy hollow where its round green stomach had reposed), and burst it over a “ snake-fence,” and eaten merely its great rosy heart out, like some barbaric epicure. The watermelon is not poetic like sassafras-tea. It is not the whistle of Bob White, but the rich, mellow singing of the barefooted “buck-nigger” as he hoes his way down the long cotton row through the shimmering summer heat. It is a veritable, edible sun-dowser. It is “Summerin-the-Fields;” and it has something of the cheapening voluptuousness, the tropic lack of reticence and restraint, the exuberance connoting exhaustion, of the Southern summer, flaunting and unashamed. But it has also its generousness, its all but cloying sweetness, its rank primitive joy. It has no flavor: only sugar, juice, and color, — but each to excess. A morning-glory is not more perishable. But it is perfect of its kind; and that is why it is so painful to see it, with its huge bulk, its coarse, wilting texture, its flaring color, looming among the salt-cellars and all the neat, artificial fittings of a restaurant table. Some wild things are in place there: the raspberry glows like a dewy dower among jewels; and the milder cantaloupe, with its rich salmons and its pale yellows, is as much in keeping as a tea-rose. But the watermelon — loud - mouthed, red - cheeked, laughing country wench — why shame her honest country bulk by throwing it into relief against the dainty trappings of the drawing-room ? And then, an eaten watermelon,— oh horrible! Of all the débris on those fields of carnage, after man’s appetite is sated, is there anything so disillusioning ? That yawning hole, that withering rim, erstwhile so fresh and overflowing, now like a faded green doughnut, — carry it out quickly, waiter, and be sure the garbage can is covered!

There is one more of these memorypacked sweets, “Fall-in-the-Fields.” Do you know it ? — such a browm, weazened, withered, chary little edible, hanging high but very lightly on a leafless tree, —like the desires of man’s heart when he is old. If you know them at all, you know that they are not good until “after frost,” like — what ? The heart of man in the service of his fellows, storing up inner sweets grain after grain, as the frost of grief shrivels and contracts the outer layer of his own personal delights ? Like or not, there is no sweet like that of persimmons after frost, as they drop cold at your feet of an autumn evening, from the high bough where they hung aloft in the great refrigerator of the winds. There is no sweet so compact, so frugal, so “grainy” — an esoteric sweet, which one must love as one loves bare trees and brown stubble. There is denial in it, and patience, and pathos, as well as vigor and cheer —in “Fall-in-the-Fields.”