Philosophical Mush and Literary Johnny-Cake


THE truism that history repeats itself holds in matters culinary as well as political. Because an Austrian archduke was assassinated, we go sugarless to bed and rise to munch dry toast. For us, however, there is the mitigation of pone and johnny-cake and all the polyglot progeny of Indian meal — toothsome viands long familiar to the American palate. Not so to our English allies: to them corn-meal is a forced and unsavory necessity, hard to cook, hard to relish, hard to digest.

Yet the complications arising from the Austrian assassination are not the first occasion of this effort to conform to American diet. In the middle of the last century the potato rot and the ensuing famine made of Ireland ‘one vast, silent, dissolution’; poverty, hunger, death stalked naked through the land; lanes became charnel-houses and hedges funeral palls. America, generous then as now, sent shiploads of grain and corn across the sea. But what to do with the stuff after it arrived? There was the rub. Hence arose correspondence, publication, demonstration.

Elihu Burritt, then in England, published recipes in all the newspapers, ‘totally destitute of significance to any creature here,’ snorted Carlyle, no more tolerant of the dietary than of the political theories of the great pacifist. Evidently the experiments in the kitchen of 5 Cheyne Row had not been successful; at least, they had not been to the liking of the master. He had Indian meal as a substitute for potato ‘daily to meat at dinner, though hitherto with considerable despair.’ In this predicament it occurred to Jane, the astute, the practical, the wise, to seek expert advice. Consequently, spurred by her restless will, Thomas wrote to his friend across seas, begging information from Mr. Emerson, or Mrs. Emerson, or ‘the Miller of Concord (if he have any tincture of Philosophy).’

This was in the December of 1848, fourteen months after Emerson had wended his way to the Chelsea house at ten at night, when the door was opened by Jane Carlyle, ‘and the man himself was behind her with a lamp in the entry.’ Whether during that visit, when the flood-gates of talk were opened, the river, ‘a great and constant stream,’ flowed into quiet back-stretches of domestic converse or dashed torrentlike over crags of philosophized cookery, there is no record to declare. But if a Sartor Resartus why not a Cocus Recoctus? This we do know — that Jane wisely trusted Emerson, and that Thomas wrote the letter.

First: how ought the concoction to taste? Bitter, causing the throat to smart and disheartening ‘much the apprentice in Indian meal’? Evidently not. Probably the effect of too much travel on the nature of the meal; hence an attempt to grind it after arrival; no improvement; merely ‘the addition of much dirt and sand.’ What next?

Second: the difference between white meal, which looks ‘brown-gray-white,’ and yellow, ‘beautiful as new Guineas, but with an ineffaceable tastekin of soot in it’?

Third: how to cook it? ‘Let some oracle speak!’

These were serious questions, affecting as they did the ever-serious matter of the Carlylean digestion, and hence the Carlylean philosophy, which might become more or less bilious as the ‘tastekin of soot’ became more or less effaceable. Accordingly they received serious attention. Not to the miller, — perhaps not even in Concord was there one of the tribe of philosophers, — but most prudently to those of his own household Emerson took the questionnaire.

Dr. Charles T. Jackson, one of the most eminent physicians of the time, Emerson’s chief adviser in matters scientific, and his brother-in-law to boot, solved the first difficulty. Corn would grow musty if not thoroughly dried; but excessive heat, then thought necessary to such drying, parched the sugar and starch; it might be that mustiness could be avoided without the previous destructive degree of heat; a point worthy of experimentation, according to a letter of January, 1849.

So far the masculine contribution; but there are realms into which neither philosopher nor scientist properly enters, sacred to the higher domestic powers. So ‘Lidian Emerson confidently engages to send you accurate recipes for johnny-cake, mush, and hominy.’ Where are they now, those ‘accurate recipes,’ carefully copied by Mrs. Emerson? Is it possible that somewhere among unedited Carlyle papers they waste their promise of goldbrown cakes and steaming pudding, of nutty odor and delicate crunching taste? Or may it be that in some Concord kitchen breakfast-cakes are still made by Mrs. Emerson’s rules, and Sunday-night supper still includes ‘puddin’ an’ milk’ as known to Emerson himself?

Vain the latter fancy. There be some things, as Dogberry sagely remarked, that are ‘the gift of fortune,’ and some ‘that come by nature’; and no true New England housewife ever cooked Indian meal by another’s rules, only by that indwelling genius or daemon, in the vernacular known as ‘ faculty,’ or ‘judgment.’ Wherever they may be now, the recipes were duly sent; and according to a letter of the ensuing April, were ‘judged to be of decided promise, reasonable-looking every one of them.’ Surely Mrs. Emerson endured much of philosophy; did she ever, one wonders, have a harder trial than to be told that her rules for mush were ‘reasonablelooking,’ and that by a man brought up on oats!

Also there went across seas a barrel of meal (not too dry) and a barrel of unground corn, ‘Indian Cobs of edible grain, from the Barn of Emerson himself! ’ Even the capitals show that Carlyle was waxing dithyrambic; perhaps accounted for by the fact that all went ‘without cost or trouble’ to the recipients. But now a new difficulty: the grinding. The brilliant and versatile Lady Ashburton, who had been called into council over the recipes, helped again at this crisis. The ordinary English millstone was too soft to grind this hard corn without at the same time grinding itself, hence the mixture of dirt, soot, and sand, to which quite naturally Thomas objected and which Jane probably did not like any better, although doubtless she ate it with less outward protest. But the Ashburtons had mills and millers of their own; so off went the corn to be ground under their direction; and ‘their cook, a French commander of a whole squadron, is to undertake the dressing according to the rules.’

Oh, for the pen of a ready writer — shall we say Shakespeare or Molière? — to write the drama of that squadron of cooks presided over by the chef of fame, distinction, and infinite worth, making mush in the kitchens of Bath House, Piccadilly!

Now at last Carlyle professes ‘with contrition, that properly we have never tasted Indian corn before’; and then, inspired, not by his native John Barleycorn, but by the exotic and transatlantic johnny-cake, he chants the vision of the future: —

‘It is really a small contribution towards World-History, this small act of yours and ours: there is no doubt to me, now that I taste the real grain, but all Europe will henceforth have to rely more and more upon your Western Valleys and this article. How beautiful to think of lean, tough Yankee settlers, tough as gutta-percha, with most occult unsubduable fire in their belly, steering over the Western Mountains, to annihilate the jungle, and bring bacon and corn out of it for the Posterity of Adam! The Pigs in about a year eat up all the rattlesnakes for miles round: a most judicious function on the part of the Pigs. Behind the Pigs comes Jonathan with his all-conquering ploughshare,— glory to him too! Oh, if we were not such a set of Cant-ridden blockheads, there is no Myth of Athene or Herakles equal to this fact; — which will find its real “Poets” some day or other.’

Had Carlyle known the American writers of the past as he knew his contemporaries, he would have recognized that the poet of Western corn was not to come but had gone. The poet of the rattlesnake and the pig may yet arise; indeed, it would seem inevitable that some robust disciple of the school of Spoon River Anthology, finding that classic timidly restrained and effeminately prudish, should sing the progress of the pig-pen, in heroic style commemorating the details of porcine life from juicy piglet to degenerate sow. But the epic of corn has been chanted in the once famous and now too-much-neglected mock-heroic of Joel Barlow. In lieu of those lost recipes in Mrs. Emerson’s writing the directions from Hasty Pudding may be inscribed: —

Meanwhile the housewife urges all her care,
The well-earn’d feast to hasten and prepare.
The sifted meal already waits her hand,
The milk is strain’d, the bowls in order stand,
The fire flames high. . . .
First with clean salt, she seasons well the food,
Then strews the flour, and thickens all the flood.
Long o’er the simmering fire she lets it stand;
To stir it well demands a stronger hand;
The husband takes his turn; and round and round
The ladle flies. . . .
First in the bowl the milk abundant take,
Then drop with care along the silver lake
Your flakes of pudding; these at first will hide
Their little bulk beneath the swelling tide;
But wdien their growing mass no more may sink,
When the soft island looms above the brink,
Then check your hand; you’ve got the portion due;
So taught my sire, and what he taught is true.

NOTE. — There are various ways of preparing and eating it: with molasses, butter, sugar, cream, and fried. Why cannot so excellent a thing be eaten alone? Nothing is perfect alone; even man, who boasts of so much perfection, is nothing without his fellow substance. In eating, beware of the lurking heat that lies deep in the mass; dip your spoon gently, take shallow dips and cool it by degrees. It is sometimes necessary to blow.