Eating, An Elegy

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 7, 1910

Hygiene A Killjoy

Alas for good eating! Our cooking grows more and more scientific as year chases year. A century ago an honest man sat down to his victuals with a glad heart, after first thanking his Creator that he had the money to pay for them, a wife to cook them and teeth to pulverize them. No thought of chemistry, bacteriology or metabolism burdened his mind. He was unaware that the juicy beefsteak before him was but .7654 as nourishing as it might have been had it been had it been broiled 29 seconds longer and at a temperature 56.72 degrees greater. He did not know that fried oysters took 2.672 times as long to digest as boiled turnips; that there was more manganese in a single stewed prune than in a ton of mushrooms; that the proteid contents of a doughnut varied inversely with the cosine of its hole.

Happy fellow! He waded in like a child and gobbled until there fell upon him that beatific happiness, that infinite contentment, that stupendous geniality which always follows full feeding, in man as well as in the lion of the jungle, the rat of the cheese warehouse, the protozoon of the sea ooze. What did he care for porteids, albuminoids, mineral salts, woody fibres, residuums of ashes? He ate everything and he ate as much of it as he wanted and could pay for, and so every year saw a measureable increase in his girth, and he died royally at the age of 72 years, a well-fed and a happy man.

But no more. Science has murdered the art of eating. Hygiene excommunicates the palate. It is now well-nigh impossible for any human being to sit down to victuals without conscious thought of the hideous toxins, aldehydes and permanganates which lurk within them. The subject is dinned into the heads of school children by frenzied and dyspeptic teachers; the newspapers are constantly full of it; it is treated exhaustively in swarms of new books.

Torturing The Young

The healthy boy of 10 or 12 years, with a stomach as powerful as a concrete mixer, opens his physiology book and finds on page 32 an appalling portrait of a human liver. The legend beneath it informs him that the scars visible to the northeast are the consequences of eating crullers, his favorite delicacy. His sister in the next classroom turns pale before a picture of a clavicle pierced by the fangs of molasses taffy. His mother at home takes a sample of the evening mayonnaise and tests it in a test tube for arsenic, phosphates and the bacteria of fermentation. His father, seized by sudden malaise, suspects an excess of hydrochloric acid and resolves to swear off French fried potatoes.

The result is woe in the world. We have robbed eating of its old artlessness, its old impetuous daring, its old romanticism and now seek to make it a purely scientific proceeding, like a game of chess or a surgical operation. The safe and sane eclecticism of other days, which opened its hospitable arms to everything save a few incompatibles, such as cucumbers and ice-cream, fried oysters and pie, buttermilk and hard crabs, has given way to a host of antagonistic and maddening theories, each of which tends to spread a pall of dubiousness over some victual or group of victuals in high esteem for ages.

The Folly Of Prejudices

Such theories prosper amazingly. It is extremely difficult, indeed, to find today a human being who has not succumbed to one or more of them. You may know a man for years and regard him all that while with respect and even reverence, as one free from the common delusions and superstitions of mankind and then discover in the end that he is afraid to eat pork steak; that he believes the Bismarck herring to be poisonous; that he avoids broiled lobster as he would the pestilence; that he has an apparently incurable horror of veal cutlets, gefuelte ganshals, carrots, oyster crabs, lintel soup, sauerbraten, scrapple, fried liver, oatmeal, stewed snails, mushrooms or some other undubitably digestible and excellent viand. One man turns from breakfast foods with disgust; another flees from the mere perfume of fried onions; a third swears that a wiener-schnitzel, did he but engulf it, would be the death of him; his brother shrinks from pfannehase in abject terror.

I pity these poor victims of prejudice and error, of false logic and unfounded antipathy. The folk, for example, who abjure veal—a large and bilious company—miss a lot of joy in life. They never know the suffocating happiness which comes from feasting on a shoulder of kalbfleisch, stuffed with sausage meat; they never look forward for days and days, through a pink haze of ecstatic expectation, toward that day which shall see veal chops take their regular turn upon the family board: the soft baa of a yearling calf does not make them weep with delight.

And the miserable ignorant who fear shellfish—what a gloomy place the world must seem to them! Through all the long days of summer they never enjoy a single bout with boiled hard crabs. In the good old winter time they sit upon the mourners’ bench, while the rest of the world gorges with lobster a la Newburg; the delicious flakes of crab meat a la Creole never strike exquisite, unearthly chords upon the strings of their palates. They deserve pity, but not respect. It is painful to see their sufferings, but the thought will not down that they richly deserve to suffer.

Let Us Be Happy

Back to good eating! Let us throw our dietetic handbooks overboard and return to the simple empiricism of our forefathers. Those ancient fellows knew nothing of proteids, potassium, dextrose and gas-forming bacteria. They saw only the superb victuals before them; they smelt only the ravishing aromas which arose therefrom; they tasted only the heavenly essences and juices. And so they waded in and ate as much as they could hold, and were happy and grew fat and lived long, and died at last in the firm faith that they would encounter good cooks in Heaven.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection) 

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.