Breakfasting With Barbarians
IT was on a bright and crisp Sunday morning, as I was arraying myself in the proper vestments for the ritual of a late breakfast, that I chanced to see the title, ‘Breakfasting as a Fine Art,’ on the cover-page of the Atlantic on my table. I stopped tying my cravat to mouth the word ‘breakfasting.’ Has it not an appetizing onomatopœia? Breakfasting! The crackle of breaking warm toast, the sizzle of bacon slices, the caroling of steaming coffee, are toned in the printed word, and its very syllables seem to exhale a fragrant aroma, as of bacon and eggs and hot waffles.
I continued dressing and at the same time tasted of the scholarly discourse on the fine art of breakfasting.
Not being a scholarly person, I stumbled heavily on the word ‘ferial,’ and on consulting the dictionary found that a ferial breakfast, which connoted ferrous, which connoted iron, had nothing to do with chemistry, but rather with calendars; but by a train of thought my mind was directed to breakfasts of iron rations, and I reflected on the ferrous breakfasts — or were they ferric? — that I had eaten in the A.E.F., and on the ferrous (or ferric) breakfasts that I was still forced to bolt in restaurants or at lunch-counters; and I reflected further how barbarous they all were, and in what striking contrast to the cultured ceremonies so masterfully portrayed in the essay; and I debated whether or not it was not my duty, as an Ostrogoth who has beheld the Acropolis from afar, to give the world my experiences and observations as a barbaric breakfast devourer.
The barbarians with whom I break my ferial fasts are those who make a mournful travesty of a fine art, either through the bent of their rude natures or, like myself, through force of coarse environment. For the purpose of disposing of them I shall divide them into two classes, soldiers and civilians.
Soldiers are essentially barbarians. Whether their uniform be the sky-blue of the poilu, the Burleson-blue of the Boche, the scarecrow rainbow hue of the Bolshevik, or the olive-drab of the Yank, their enforced breakfasts are as uncivilized as is their life.
This sounds rash. Lest the American Legion order me thrown forthwith to the jaguars as an apéritif, let me hastily add that I was one of those who relished the vulgar breakfasts of the A.E.F., which will be remembered by all who ever lined up ankle-deep in La Patrie awaiting the mess-call, and that I know soldiers are the gentlest and noblest and most artless, pitiable, and blameless barbarians of all.
The utter barbarity of breakfasting with soldiers may be most effectively depicted by describing seven breakfasts eaten, drunk, and smoked on the Western Front, during a drive in which lavish breakfasting was by no means the principal aim of G.H.Q. They were consumed in the vicinity of Malancourt and Montfaucon just two years ago.
The infantry battalion of which I was a member had been in the support lines for two weeks, during which the blue smoke of the breakfast fires on the edge of our woods at dawn brought over enemy airplanes and artillery fire upon our G.I. cans; and our own guns, booming at sunrise in the surrounding woods, were bent equally, I reckon, on spoiling the Frühstück of the Boches —all on the reasonable theory that a breakfastless man is easily defeated. It was breakfasting under difficulties, but the worst was yet in the apron of the gods.
The night before those memorable sept déjeuners we marched to the front lines, each man carrying his individual breakfasts, and also his dinners and suppers, for three days, theoretically. In each pack, or in pockets or somewhere about each person, were substantially the following foodstuffs: one can of corned beef (‘corn-willy,’ or ‘ monkey-meat ’), one can of salmon (‘gold-fish,’ or ‘sea-turkey,’ or ‘oceancanary’), one can of sardines, one can of beans, one condiment can containing coffee, sugar, and salt, or perhaps smoking tobacco, one half-loaf of bread, and two boxes of hard biscuit; there were also an important canteen of water, and smoking or chewing tobacco, which, as everyone knows, are foods, especially acceptable when no other foods are on the menu card.
To emphasize the extent to which we were not overburdened with eatables, I shall enumerate all that I wore and carried on that night; most of it was thrown away, ‘lost in action,’ before the third day. We marched with light packs, the shelter-half ‘pup’ tents and extra blankets and clothing having been turned in; to which pack, in my case, were suspended a burlap bag, containing a quarter-loaf of bread, and a Red Cross bag; and it was encircled by a rolled blanket, and decorated by a slicker, and a small-articles pouch, and a bayonet and scabbard; and I wore an overcoat, a steel helmet, an overseas cap, and two pairs of heavy woollen socks (knit by my mother, who had thoughtfully woven threads of red around the tops to protect my life), and hobnailed shoes, and, of course, the other clothing customarily worn by a soldier; and I was strapped in the harness of my pack, which included an ammunition-belt filled with seventy rounds of ammunition; and hitched to the belt were a canteen full of water, an empty pistol-holster, and wirecutters; and I was further girdled or accoutred by a gas-mask at the alert, an empty bandolier, and a French gasmask case containing one hand-grenade, one can of beans, one can of sardines, one pair of army socks, and another pair made by my mother. In the pack were my toilet articles, a large trench mirror, sundry papers and envelopes, one small can of the Y.M.C.A.’s condensed milk, one can of corned beef, one can of salmon, a condiment can containing sugar and coffee, an extra undershirt, an extra pair of drawers, and my mess-kit, in which were jammed another quarter-loaf of bread, sliced so as to be more plastic, and the mess knife and spoon (the army fork is quite useless and was absent). In the Red Cross bag were two hand-grenades, an assortment of strings, three pieces of candle, three sacks of smoking tobacco, three boxes of matches, and cigarette papers. In the small-articles pouch, worn by corporals, were a safety-razor bladesharpener, an oil-can, and cleaning rags for my rifle. The four pockets of my coat, officially termed the blouse, contained: (left upper) a wad of unanswered letters, well calculated to stop a bullet; (right upper) a larger pad of answered letters, sufficient to impede a cannon-ball; (left lower) a Testament and a French prayer-book; and (right lower) a further supply of smoking tobacco and some candle fragments, which later melted in the heat of battle and embalmed the tobacco. In my four breeches pockets, which I cannot subdivide item by item, were an alligator-skin tobacco-pouch, a French pocket-dictionary, a German pocketdictionary, a French grammar, a red bandana handkerchief, a huge campingknife, a pearl-handled knife, a Barlow knife, and two boxes of matches. A pencil and notebook, in which these notes were jotted down, reposed in one shirt pocket; in the other were my money and a small chewing-tobacco pouch pressed into service as a receptacle for precious articles. In the two outside overcoat pockets — I did not use the inside pocket because, probably, it bulged and chafed when full — were a French reader, two half-candles, three sacks of smoking tobacco, two boxes of matches, two boxes of hard biscuit, and a long, leaden bar of chewing tobacco owned by three men jointly. In my hands were an Enfield rifle and a map-board and two rude volumes of observation records, which I carried as trustee of the battalion observation post.
It was just about breakfast-time, after several hours of barrage-fire, that Private First Class McKee and I were hurriedly posted at a hole in our barbed wire, to guide an infantry company through the various succeeding gaps that had been cut the night before in the lines of wire separating our trenches from No Man’s Land. Action at last! Over the top went the first wave of our olive-drab infantry, and the second, and the third, filing zig-zag through the gridiron of our wire-barrier like streams of pale molasses, and spreading out over the hill that was No Man’s Land — a huge bare omelette, tawny and misty, or more like a Gargantuan cheese, which was pitted with holes, and flecked with puffs of German shrapnel as white as whipped cream, and with the eruptions of high-explosive shells, throwing up smoke as black as charred toast and the chocolate-colored earth; and over it all sang the invisible missiles, as if a million tremendous kettles and coffee-pots were droning and crooning in some vast kitchen of the universe for a breakfast of the gods.
Had these boys had their breakfasts, I wondered. Our support companies flooded through the openings to the right and left as far as one could see, but none chose us as guides. We waited in vain for an hour; and while we waited we broke our fast.
I opened my can of beans: they were pale and anæmic, and their aroma was distinctly picric; so, after a consultation and olfactory tests, we threw them away, regretfully. McKee split open his can of sardines. These silvery, oily fishes, with hard biscuit and cigarettes — there were always cigarettes — and a swig of delicious water flavored with the Lister bag from which it had been taken, constituted Breakfast Number One. As we were licking the last drops of oil from our fingers, we were joined by a chaplain — a priest, he was, grave but good-humored — with three Signal Corps men stringing a field telephone wire. He had had no breakfast and no supper the night before; and this, with the interminable cannonading, had given him a headache. We opened our other can of sardines and another box of crackers for him, and he ate one sardine and one biscuit, and turned the breakfast over to the telephone men. We protested that one minnow was a slim meal for so robust an individual.
‘That’s all I want,’ he insisted. 4,T is brain-food.’ And he told the joke about the brash youth who was advised to eat a whale. That chaplain was worth ten breakfasts.
Breakfast Number Two, the next morning, was drunk a few kilometres north, in a shell-hole that was deep enough to afford shelter from bullets fired horizontally and from the sharp wind that had sprung up during the night, and of sufficiently recent creation to be porous and to soak up the rain that was falling. Meckes, Barnes, and I had been sent forward in the darkness to the front-line troops, to act as a contact patrol; and at dawn, when the misty terrain became alive with a forward movement of dim figures rising from the ground and its burrows, Barnes slipped back to tell battalion headquarters that the advance was beginning for the second day’s attack. As the unmusical orchestra of machineguns and artillery awoke the slowly dawning day, Meckes and I breakfasted on my tiny precious can of condensed milk. We attacked the sweet white paste with our spoons and fingers, and scraped the can clean. The rain added zest to it and aroused our thirst, and made us realize that breakfast without water is unsatisfactory, and that our canteens were empty.
Muddy and clear water gleamed in shell-holes, old and new, on all sides. We had seen them all the day before and had fallen in them during the night, but were afraid to drink from these doubtful reservoirs because of potential gas-poisoning lurking in them. We tried to fill our cups with rainwater, but the wet aluminum only aggravated our thirst; and then we tried drinking the rain-drops direct, as they fell from heaven; but they simply washed our faces and ran down our necks and irritated our tongues; and, altogether, it was maddening.
A runner passing our shelter gave us the time of day and paused long enough to tell us we had captured a town with an unpronounceable name, and to take a healthy, gurgling draught from his dripping canteen. He handled it so carelessly that at least six drops fell to the ground and were lost.
‘Mac!’ gasped Meckes. ‘Where did you get that water?’
‘Shell-holes. Lots of water.’ His voice was damp and fresh.
‘Are n’t you afraid of the poison?’ I asked.
‘I was,’ said he. ‘But I ain’t. I figgered I’d as lief die of poison as thirst. So would you. If the water looks all right, taste it; if it tastes all right, drink it. There’s plenty of water.’
We followed his fatalistic advice, and, scouting among neighboring holes and depressions, found, amid a group of miniature ponds of muddy and greenish and defiled water, a likely-looking earthern bowl, probably four years old and lined with rich green grass; and it was filled to the brim with rain-water as clear as that of a Pierian pool. A family of lively water-insects scurried to the shelter of the mosses at the bottom on our approach. Announcing that poison would be fatal to bugs, Meckes scooped some of the water into his canteen and sipped it judiciously, and I did likewise. It had a peculiar, musty, vegetable flavor—but how good it was! We drank our fill and had replenished our canteens, when a vicious aerial meowing and a deafening earthly explosion sent us flat on our stomachs and showered us and our pool of water with pebbles and dirt.
Dazed, on hands and knees, we saw that an H.E. had struck the edge of our shelter, fifty feet away, and had halfburied our packs and rifles with dirt. It required but a few moments’ deliberation for us to arrive at the conclusion that it was our duty to return to battalion headquarters as speedily as possible.
In the mine-crater where we had left our major and scout officer during the night, we found that headquarters had moved to a former German dugout kitchen, where our comrades had surrounded and captured a great treasure of Boche tinned meat, bread, hardtack, saddlebags, Luger pistols, Prussian officers’ trousers, artillery observation records, a barrel of sauerkraut, a sack of raw cabbages, and a tub of cold coffee. Most of the edibles had already been annihilated, but we, fresh from our meal of canned milk and rain-water, topped off this light breakfast with a course of raw cabbage, cold coffee, and coffee grounds, which, if chewed, are both delicious and stimulating; and with our coffee-grounds we had several more cigarettes.
Breakfast Number Three was a solitary and dogmatic meal of ‘corn willy,’ hard biscuit, and coffee, eaten in an old German trench en route to division headquarters. The coffee and meat were heated, firewood being taken from a German signboard proclaiming, ‘Chlorkalk Schutz gegen Gelbkreuz,’ which had reminded the former occupants that chloride of lime affords protection against ‘yellow cross,’ or mustard gas. This was a melancholy meal: it marked the end of my rations.
A group of Signal Corps men about a sickly fire in the lee of the wrecked and damp dugouts of a German command post at division headquarters gave me Breakfast Number Four. It consisted of fried bread and fried potatoes. The ingredients had been salvaged, which is an army term including all degrees of acquisition, from gift to theft. There was a loaf of the ‘ Frogs’ ’ gray potato-flour bread, from the underground bakery at Verdun, which had been ‘found’ on some muddy roadside; four huge potatoes, likewise ‘discovered’ in an overturned truck; and a mysterious can of lard, of unexplained origin.
Rolling kitchens not hopelessly mired or wrecked by shells prepared Breakfast Number Five, which, for me, was soggy bread with coffee. The beverage was brewed of shell-hole water, and was the same color as the muddy mixture that was drawn from the holes in buckets; it was milkless and sugarless, but its taste bore a faint resemblance to that of coffee, and it tended to quench thirst; and it was hot; and heat dissolves a multitude of sins.
The rolling kitchens, augmented by the ration-carts, conspired to present coffee, ‘corn-willy,’ bread, and molasses, all tinctured with rain, for Breakfast Number Six.
In the interim between Breakfasts Number Six and Seven the division was relieved. The latter meal was eaten, on a nippy cold October morning, in the village of Jouy-en-Argonne, which was tucked away in a green vale and quite hidden from the war-wracked waste across the hills, so that it could be attacked only from the air. The roar of the continuing battle to the north served only to accentuate the peace and security of Jouy, as we ate plethoric slices of bacon, and American white bread, and coffee made of the gushing spring-water dipped from under the ‘ Eau Potable ’ sign at the village lavoir. By the way, these signs, I understand, were posted by the French as a concession to their water-drinking allies; for, as a Frenchman once told me, when I asked where I could get a drink of this fluid, water is useful for canals only.
The impression should not be gained that these seven breakfasts are typical of army feeding in France. Some of them were worse, but they were exceptional repasts snatched in a bloody and muddy business. At least one third of the fattening of the American boys in France must be ascribed to the several hundreds of millions of breakfasts served abroad; and due honor must be given, no matter how barbarous they were. There were even better breakfasts in the training and leave areas.
Now let us dispose of civilians. There was a time in the mud area of France in which I often laid plans for linen tablecloths and linen napkins and Limoges china or any white china, or even pink or blue china, or red, green, or purple china. The china was immaterial, as was the food; but I insisted in my day-dreams on shimmering table-linen. And when I returned to America, the first breakfast I ate outside of the army was from the marble slab of an Armenian lunch-counter. The pale-violet duplicating-ink of the menu recorded ‘breted veal cutlete,’ ‘chicken jiplets on toast,’ ‘roast prime rips of beaf,’ and ‘frenk fritters and sour crout.’ I ate none of these foreign dishes; but my ideals, nevertheless, had been trailed in the dust, and from that moment, there, on that ornate, luxurious, and vulgar slab of brocatel, I rejoined the vast civilian horde of barbarian breakfasters, whose morning orgies pile daily victims on the sacrificial altar of Dyspepsia.
It is true that many cling to the orthodox rite, but the vast multitudes writhe in the grip of individual malbreakfasting or rush into the vortex of mass malbreakfasting. One is as reprehensible as the other.
Individual malbreakfasting is a matter of personal taste or habit. I know a poet who suffers from chronic indigestion because, on his way to the factory where he is employed, he disposes of a pimento-cheese sandwich and a cup of tea; or perhaps, if he is on a fruit diet, he will eat four bananas and three oranges for breakfast. I know a man who speaks seven languages, whose invariable breakfast is apple pie and a cup of bitter, black coffee; and he is middleaged and his hair is as white as snow.
Mass malbreakfasting, on the other hand, is the result of our highly centralized and rapid life. Submerged is my own yearning for a white tablecloth; and every morning on the way to the office I silence many still voices within me, and rush to the wooden counter of a railroad terminal restaurant, and there, as I gulp and swallow in a most barbarous manner, I dream of a day when I shall leisurely stir my eggs and butter my toast and sip my coffee.
On the stool at my left, sits Sam the barber. On the right usually is — but let us forget him, for he eats lefthanded and has a sharp elbow. I enjoy Sam briefly. He is the only individual I know who can breakfast rapidly on ham and eggs without a fork.
It was Sam the barber who first called my attention to corruption lurking in the mass breakfast. It concerned an unseen but oft-named ogre, Harry, who holds the post of chef in the depths of our quick-breakfast establishment. Sam, the barber, had detected that on occasions our waiter shouted an order thus: ‘Twos with, draw one!’ (meaning two soft-boiled eggs, buttered toast, and coffee); and that on others it was thus; ‘Twos with, draw one, Harry!' — the same order with a half-sensed, mysterious injunction or signal. And Sam further observed that, without variation, in the first case the customer received mere eggs and toast in due course of time; whereas, in the second case, the breakfast appeared speedily, and the toast was crisp and the firm yolks of the eggs gleamed like burnished golden nuggets. I had noticed absence of appeal to Harry when my orders were communicated to the chef, but had attached no significance to it.
‘“Harry” mean, “Dis guy come across-a for da chef,”’ whispered Sam; and he told me in low tones, flavored with mackerel, how he had extracted the dread secret the day before from one of the waiters who inadvertently came into his shop to be shaved.
‘ He did n’ want tell-a me,’ said Sam, with twinkling eyes. ‘But-a he did.’
This exposé so aroused my indignation that I refused to breakfast further in this temple of fraud. I was sick at heart. I remained away three mornings, but was driven back to the wooden counter by a cross-eyed waitress in the substitute restaurant which I had selected. And thereafter our waiter shouted lustily, ‘Twos with, Harry! Draw one, Harry!’ as soon as he saw me enter on the run.
Some months afterward I learned that Sam the barber was a cousin or brother-in-law of Harry.
So it is with honor and ideals among barbarians. The world will not derive much benefit from this essay soon, unless its frank portrayal of facts furnish material for an exhaustive bibliography of breakfasting, and give rise to a national reform movement looking toward the enactment of adequate breakfasting laws or regulations, with perhaps a Federal Department of Breakfasting.