Good Old Baltimore

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/May, 1913

IN the life of every Baltimorean not to the manner born—that is to say, of every Baltimorean recruited from the outer darkness—there are three sharply defined stages. The first, lasting about a week, is one of surprise and delight—delight with the simple courtesy of the people, with the pink cheeks and honest hips of the girls, with the range and cheapness of the victualry, with the varied loveliness of the surrounding land and water, with the touch of Southern laziness in the air. Thus the week of introduction, of discovery, of soft sitting in the strangers’ pew.

Follows now a sudden reaction—and six months of discontent. Baltimore, compared to New York or Chicago, even to Atlanta or Kalamazoo, is indubitably slow. No passion for novelty, no hot yearning for tomorrow, is in her burghers. They change their shirts but once a day—flattery!—flattery!—and their prejudices but once a generation. It is not easy to sell them new goods; it is not easy to make them sell their own goods in a new way. They show, collectively, communally, the somewhat touchy intransigence of their ancient banks, their medieval public offices. Mount a soapbox and bawl your liver pills—and they will set their catchpolls on you. Give them a taste of New York brass, of Western wind music—and their smile of courtesy will freeze into a smile of amused contempt, if not into a downright sneer. Naturally enough, the confident newcomer, bounding full tilt into this barbed psychic barrier, feels that he is grossly ill used. The Baltimoreans—think of it!—actually laugh at his pedagogy, revile his high flights of commercial sapience, fling back at him his offers to lift them up! Boors, blockheads, fossils! And so the victim, leaking blood from his metaphysical wounds, sees himself a martyr, pines for home and mother, and issues a proclamation of damnation. Whence arises, beloved, the perennial news that the cobblestones of Baltimore are rough, that the harbor of Baltimore is no compote of roses, that the oysters of Baltimore are going off, that the folk of Baltimore suffer the slings and arrows of arteriosclerosis.

Six months of that scorn, that fever, that rebellion. And then, one day, if the gods be kind enough to keep him so long, the rebel finds himself walking down Charles Street hill, from the Cardinal’s house toward Lexington Street. It is five o’clock of a fine afternoon—an afternoon, let us say, in Indian summer. A caressing softness is in the air; the dusk is stealing down; lights begin to show discreetly, far back in prim, dim shops. Suddenly a sense of the snugness, the coziness, the delightful intimacy of it all strikes and fills the wayfarer. Suddenly he glows and mellows. Suddenly his heart opens, like a clam reached by the tide. Where else in all Christendom is there another town with so familiar and alluring a promenade? Where else are there so many pretty girls to the square yard? Where else do they bowl along so boldly and yet so properly, halting here to gabble with acquaintances and block the narrow sidewalk, and there to hail other acquaintances across the narrow driveway?

Baltimoreans, filled with strange juices at Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association banquets, talk magnificently of widening Charles Street, of making it a Fifth Avenue, a Boulevard des Italiens, a Piccadilly. But so far they have never actually come to it— and let us all send up a prayer that they never will. To widen Charles Street would be like giving Serpolette the waist of Brunnhilde—an act of defilement and indecency. The whole enchantment of that incomparable lane lies in its very narrowness, its cheek-by-jowlness, its insidious friendliness.

And in the same elements lies the appeal of Baltimore. The old town will not give you the time of your life; it is not a brazen hussy among cities, blinding you with its xanthous curls, kicking up its legs, inviting you to exquisite deviltries. Not at all. It is, if the truth must come out, a Perfect Lady. But for all its resultant narrowness, its niceness, its air of merely playing at being a city, it has, at bottom, the one quality which, in cities as in women, shames and survives all the rest. And that is the impalpable, indefinable, irresistible quality of charm.

Here, of course, I whisper no secret; some news of this has got about. Even the fellow who denounces Baltimore most bitterly—the baffled seller of green goods, the scorned and rail-ridden ballyhoo man—is willing, once his torn cartilages have begun to knit, to grant the old town some measure of that bewitchment, or at least to admit that others feel it and justly praise it. He will tell you that, whatever the hunkerousness, the archaic conservatism of the Baltimoreans, they know, at all events, how to cook victuals—in particular, how to cook terrapin a la Maryland. Again, he will admit the subtle allurement, almost as powerful as the lure of money, of a city with an ancient cathedral upon its central hill—the only North American city in which it was possible, until very lately, to see a prince of the Holy Church, red-hatted, lean and other-worldly, walking among his people.

So far, indeed, the preeminence of Baltimore is an axiom, a part of the American tradition. It is, by unanimous consent, the gastronomical capital of the New World, and it is also, by unanimous consent, the one genuine cathedral city of our fair republic. Other cities, of course, have cathedrals, too—out in the West, I believe, they are run up by the half-dozen—but only in Baltimore is there the authentic cathedral atmosphere. Only in Baltimore is there any reflection of that ecclesiastical efflorescence which gives enchantment to such Old World towns as Seville and Padua, Moscow and Milan. Only in Baltimore is it possible to imagine a procession of monks winding down a main-traveled road, holding up the taxicabs and the trolley cars, and striking newsboys dumb with reverence.

Such is the Baltimore picture that fills the public eye—a scene of banqueting and devotion. Unluckily for romance, there is not much truth in either part of it. The diamondback terrapin, true enough, is native to the Chesapeake marshes, and the see of Baltimore, true enough, is to Catholic America what the see of Rome is to all Christendom; but when you have said that you have said your say. The fact is that the terrapin, once so plentiful that it was fed to the hogs and blackamoors, has long since faded into a golden mist. It is a fowl consumed in Baltimore, as elsewhere, only at long intervals, and as an act of extraordinary debauchery. I have heard tales of ancient gourmets at the Maryland Club, obese, opulent and baggy under the eyes, who eat it daily, or, at any rate, four times a week.

But such virtuosi, in the very nature of things, must be rare. The average Baltimorean is held back from that licentiousness by what the Socialists call economic pressure. He eschews the terrapin for the same reason that he eschews yachting, polygamy and the collection of ceramics. Of the six hundred thousand folk in the town, I venture to say that three hundred thousand have never even seen a genuine diamondback, that four hundred thousand haven’t the slightest notion how the reptile is cooked, and that five hundred thousand have never tasted it, nor even smelled it. Conservative figures, indeed. Let other figures support them. Imprimis, it is an unimaginable indecorum, if not a downright impossibility, to eat a rasher of terrapin without using champagne to wash the little bones out of the tonsils—and champagne costs four dollars a bottle. Zum zweiten, an ordinary helping of terrapin—not a whole meal of terrapin, understand, nor a whole terrapin, but an ordinary, six-ounce helping, made up, let us say, of two schnitzels from the flank, a hip, a neck, two claws and three yellow eggs—costs three dollars in the kitchen and from three fifty to four dollars on the table! So an eminent Baltimore chef told me once, dining with me, off duty, in a spaghetti joint.

“But I have eaten diamondback at two fifty,” I protested.

“Aha!” said he, and lifted his diabolic brows.

“Then it wasn’t genuine terrapin?” I asked in surprise.

“The good God knows!”

“But isn’t it just possible that it was?”

“Everything is possible.”

More red wine loosed his tongue, and the tale that he told was of hair raising effect upon a passionate eater—a tale of vulgar mud turtles with diamonds photographed upon their backs, of boiled squirrel helping the sophistication, of terrapin eggs manufactured in the laboratory.

“But certainly not at the — Hotel!”

A shrug of the shoulders.

“Or at the –”

Two shrugs—and the faintest ghost of a snicker.

“But the possibility of detection — the scandal—the riot!”

A frank chuckle, and then: “In Baltimore there are eighteen men only who know terrapin from—not terrapin. In the United States, thirty-seven.”

Alas, the story of the diamondback is not the whole story! Baltimore victualry is afflicted in these days, not merely by a malady of the heart, but by a general paralysis and decay of the entire organism—a sort of progressive coma, working inward from the extremities. That it was once unique, ineffable, almost heavenly—so much we must assume unless we assume alternatively that all the old-time travelers were liars. For you can’t open a dusty “Journal of a Tour in the United States of North America,” circa 1820, without finding a glowing chapter upon the romantic eating to be had in Baltimore taverns. From the beginning of the century down to the Civil War each successive tourist grew lyric in its praises. That was the Golden Age of Maryland cookery. Then it was that the black mammy of sweet memory, turbaned and obese, reared her culinary Taj Mahals and attained to her immortality. Then it was that cornbread soared the interstellar spaces and the corn flitter (not fritter) was born.

But the black mammy of that arcadian day was too exquisite, too sensitive an artist to last. (The rose is a fragile flower. The sunset flames—and is gone.) Her daughter, squeezed into corsets, failed of her technique and her imagination. The seventies saw the rise of false ideals, of spurious tools and materials—saleratus, self-rising buckwheat, oleomargarine, Chicago lard, the embalmed egg, the carbolated ham, the gas stove. Today the destruction is complete. The native Baltimore cook, granddaughter to kitchen Sapphos and Angelica Kauffmanns, is now a frank mechanic, almost bad enough to belong to a union—a frowzy, scented houri in the more preposterous gauds of yesteryear, her veins full of wood alcohol and cocaine, her mind addled by the intrigues of Moorish high society, her supreme achievement a passable boiled egg, a fairish kidney stew or a wholly third-rate pot of sprouts.

And if cooking in the home thus goes to the devil in Baltimore, cooking in the public inns departs even further from its old high character and particularity. In sober truth, it has almost ceased to exist—that is to say, as a native art. The Baltimore hotel chef of today shows his honorable discharges from the Waldorf-Astoria, the Auditorium Annex, the Ponce de Leon. He is simply a journeyman cook, a single member of the undistinguished world brotherhood; and the things he dishes up in Baltimore are exactly the same things he was taught to dish up in New York, or Chicago, or wherever it was that he escaped from the scullery. Good food, I do not deny, but not of Baltimore, Baltimorean. Demand of him a plate of lye hominy in the Talbot County manner, with honest hog meat at its core—and he will fall in a swoon. Ask him for soft crabs—and he will send them to the table in cracker dust! Talk to him of chitlings—and you will talk to a corpse. The largest oyster he has ever heard of is about the size of a watch. The largest genuine Maryland oyster—the veritable bivalve of the Chesapeake, still to be had at oyster roasts down the river and at street stands along the wharves—is as large as your open hand. A magnificent, matchless reptile! Hard to swallow? Dangerous? Perhaps to the novice, the dastard. But to the veteran of the raw bar, the man of trained and lusty esophagus, a thing of prolonged and kaleidoscopic flavors, a slow slipping saturnalia, a delirium of joy!

Here, it may be, I go too far. Not, of course, in celebrating the Chesapeake oyster, but in denouncing the Baltimore hotels. Let me at once ameliorate the indictment by admitting exceptions. There are hotel cooks in Baltimore, I freely grant, who have absorbed a lingering secret or two from the native air—not many, but still a few. At one hotel, for example, you will find, amid a welter of a la’s, the authentic soft crab of Maryland, cooked at the open fire, pronged to a sliver of country bacon—and without cracker dust. At another, perhaps, a very decent plate of jowl and sprouts. At a third, pawnhoss in season, fresh from the woodland sausage vats of Frederick County—and fried properly in slender shingles. At a fourth, Ann’ ‘Ran’el strawberries with their arteries still pulsing. At a fifth, genuine Patuxent sweet potatoes, candied in their own sugar. And always, in the background, there is that last truly Baltimore hotel—sole survivor of the glorious dynasty of Guy’s and Barnum’s—wherein, at the lunch bar down in the cellar, the oyster potpie is still a poem and a passion, a dream and an intoxication, a burst of sunlight and a concord of sweet sounds.

Oh, the mellowness of it! Oh, the yellowness of it! A rich, a nourishing, an exquisite dish! A pearl of victualry, believe me, and not for swine. The man who appreciates and understands it, who penetrates to the depths of its perfection, who feels and is moved by those nuances which transfigure it and sublimate it and so lift it above all other potpies under the sun—that man is of the lineage of Brillat-Savarin, and no mere footman of metabolism. But the oyster pie, however ravishing, is yet but transitory—here today and gone tomorrow, a mirage as much as a miracle—for no cultured Baltimorean will eat an oyster, dead or alive, if the mercury in the tube be above thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit.

Thus experience speaks. A thawed oyster is, at best, a dubious oyster, and may be a downright homicidal oyster. Visitors gobble the bivalve far into May and June, and then bulge the hospitals and morgues; the native, save drink masters him, is more cautious. But even if the oyster pie is thus a fleeting guest, there yet remains crab soup, its cousin and rival. I mean here, of course, not the vulgar crab soup of the barrooms, full of claws and tomato skins and with a shinbone as its base, but crab bisque, of white meat, country butter and rich cream all compact. You can find it, from May to October, just where the oyster pie blooms and glows from November to March, and that is, to give away the secret at last, in the lower eating room of the Rennert Hotel. There Maryland cookery lives out the palsied evening of its days. There the oyster pie, crab soup, boiled tongue and spinach, turkey wings with oyster sauce, early York cabbage, Charles County ham and a few other such doddering thoroughbreds make their last gallant stand against the filet mignon, the Wiener schnitzel and all the rest of the exotic a la’s. When the old Carrollton went up in smoke, in 1904, the planked shad, as planks and shad were known to Lord Fairfax and Charles Carroll, vanished from the earth. And when, in the course of human events, the Rennert gives way to some obscene skyscraper, the last genuine oyster potpie will say good-bye.

Sic transit gloria—and whatever the bad Latin is for eating with the heart. Baltimore, of course, yet offers decent food to the stranger within her gates, but it is food he knows at home and is tired of. The native idiocracy, the local color, save as I have indicated, are gone. One must have a guide to find a plate of indubitable hog and hominy; even so noble a dish as crab Creole, a Louisiana invention raised to the stars by Maryland crabs and Maryland genius, now hides at Joyce’s, an eating house remote from the white lights of the town. And for Chesapeake oysters of adult growth, the visitor must go, as I have said, down the river, a hazardous journey in winter, or brave the stenches and shanghaiers of the docks.

So, too, with the legendary processions of monks, to which we now come back after a long excursion into victualry. One looks for them in the American Rome—and finds them only after a hard search. Go out to Paca Street and peep through the portcullis of St. Mary’s Seminary, alma mater of unnumbered bishops (and perhaps of some pope of day after tomorrow), and one may see sedate scholastics treading the shady walks, digesting their Angelic Doctor and their fast day mackerel; go out to St. Joseph’s, on the Frederick Road, and one may see paunchy Passionists pottering about their grapevines—learned and venerable men; drop down Maiden Choice Lane to St. Mary’s Industrial School, and one may happen upon half a dozen young Xaverians, their cassocks flapping about their legs, helping their boys at market gardening or baseball. But of ecclesiasticism in any genuine and general sense, Baltimore is bare. No Neapolitan love of processions and ceremonials, no liking for following the crozier and bowing low to the passing holy image, no feeling for the poetry and beauty of religious show seems to be left in her people. Those of them who cling to the old faith have taken away from it, I think, much that is of its essence and more that is of its spell. They go to church on Sundays; they are faithful, they are reverent, they are pious. But the old romance has gone out of their piety.

Thus the effect of the American air, of a diverse and enticing life, of the so-called enlightenment. But is that really an enlightenment which reduces gilt and scarlet to drab and gray? Alas, I am pagan enough, if not Catholic enough, to doubt it—pagan enough to lament that the pomp and circumstance visible in the ancient cathedral on a high day have so little echo in the town on all days. But whatever the pity, there is the fact. The American Rome sets no feast of crosses and banners for the pilgrim’s eye; he may wander its streets for days, and yet fall upon no single hint that Holy Church has here her Western sentry post. The truth is, in brief, that the Romanism of Baltimore has a lot more of tradition in it than of reality. To speak of it, to assume it, to posit it with delight or with horror, has become a sort of convention, like the habit of calling Broadway gay. But go behind that convention to things as they are, and you will make the rather startling discovery that Baltimore, for all its primacy, is scarcely a Catholic town at all, but a stronghold of dour and dismal Puritanism—a town in which faith has lost inner beauty as well as outer ceremonial, and joy has gone with beauty. I mean, of course, joy in the Greek sense, the joy rooted in innocence, the joy of a Neapolitan procession. The Baltimore of today is not innocent. Its curse, indeed, is its conscience, an extraordinarily alert and sensitive organ. And to attend and poke that conscience, to keep alive the notion that all that is joyful must be sinful and all that is good must give pain, there are hordes of male vestals in chokers and white cravats, virtuosi of virtue, moralists clerical and moralists lay, hounds of happiness, specialists in constructive and esoteric sin.

Few things that stir the blood of man and lift him out of his wallow of lost hopes are permitted by the laws of Maryland. It is unlawful in Baltimore to throw confetti on New Year’s Eve; it is unlawful, without elaborate permissive process, for a harpist to accompany flute music on the public street; it is a crime to sell chewing gum on Sunday, or to play tennis, or to have one’s chin shaved, or to give a concert—or to go hawking! Fact! The Blue Laws were passed in 1723, and go back to the hellfire harangues of Cotton Mather, but every effort to mitigate and modernize them is opposed with truly savage violence. Under them, the impresario who had an orchestra play the nine symphonies of Beethoven on nine successive Sunday afternoons would be liable to a minimum fine of $25,550 and 220 days in jail.

Remember, I said “minimum.” The maximum would be $127,600 and fifteen months—and Baltimore judges, being elected officers, sometimes woo the parsons in their sentences. No wonder the festive drummer, finding himself in Baltimore on a Saturday night, flees in hot haste. Even if Washington, but forty miles away, be his furthest bourne, he may at least divert himself there, on the ensuing Sunday, with moving pictures. But not in Baltimore. Baltimore fears such Babylonish lecheries. Baltimore sees the flickering film as something unspeakably secular and demoniacal. On weekdays it may be tolerated, as a concession to Adam’s fall. But on the Sabbath it must rest.

Yet, for all that brummagem goody-goodiness, that bogus virtue, that elaborate hocus-pocus of chemical purity, that grotesque conspiracy against beauty and festivity and joy, there remains the indubitable charm of the old town. Stay there only long enough and it will infallibly descend upon you and consume you, and you will remain a Baltimorean, in spirit if not in bodily presence, to the end of your days. And it is not merely the charm of the picturesque, nor of the South, nor of the ancient, nor of the celebrated and honorable—though Baltimore delights the painter, and stands sentry for the South, and looks back to the seventeenth century, and has given the nation not only heroes but also poets to sing them. The roots and sources of that charm, in truth, go deeper than that.

Trace them down and you will come at last, I believe, to certain genuine peculiarities, to certain qualities which may not be so conveniently ticketed, to certain traits and combinations of traits which, shading into one another, give the net effect of uncommon and attractive individuality, of something not remote from true distinction. The authentic Baltimorean, the Baltimorean of Baltimoreans born and ever filled with that fact, the Baltimorean lifted above all brute contact and combat with the native blacks and the invading Goths and Huns—in brief, the Baltimorean whose home you must enter if you would really know Baltimore—is a fellow who touches civilization at more places, perhaps, than any other American. There is a simplicity about him which speaks of long habituation to his own opinions, his own dignities, his own class. In a country so largely dynamic and so little static that few of its people ever seem (or are) quite at home in their own homes, he represents a more settled and a more stately order. There yet hangs about him some of the repose, the air, the fine superiority of the Colonial planter, despite the pianola in his parlor and his daily journey to a skyscraper. One sees as the setting of his ultimate dream, not a gilded palace and a regiment of servitors, nor the bent necks of multitudes and a brass band playing “Hail to the Chief!” but only his own vine and fig tree and the good red sun of Maryland beating down.

I speak, of course, of the civilized, the cultured, the mellowed, the well rooted Baltimorean, not of the mere mob man living in Baltimore. This Baltimorean makes up, putting the test as low as you will, but a small minority of Baltimore’s people, and yet no long acquaintance with him is necessary to show you that whatever is essentially Baltimorean in the town is the reflection of his philosophy and his personality. The black, nearly a hundred thousand strong, is a mere cipher. Indirectly, as I shall presently show, he has greatly influenced the communal life, but directly he is as little to be considered as the cab horses. And the swarming foreigner, with his outlandish customs and his remoteness from the stream of tradition, is almost as negligible. Go down into Albemarle or President streets, and you are as far from Mt. Vernon Place or Peabody Heights or Harlem Park or Walbrook or Roland Park or any other genuine part of Baltimore as you are from the North Pole.

And yet it is precisely this vast body of servi and ignobiles, once all black, but of late grown disconcertingly yellow and white, that must be blamed for most of the austerity of Baltimore, and by secondary effect, for that peculiar hominess which is always marked as the distinguishing quality of the town. It was the darkey who inspired, in the years long past, many of the draconian statutes which yet linger upon the books, and many of the stern habits and self-restraints which reinforce them. Even today it is common to hear a Baltimorean say in defense of a given prohibition, not that he himself is opposed to the antithetical privilege, or thinks it, in itself, immoral or demoralizing, but that it would be unwise to let the nigger taste it. And if not the nigger, then the foreigner newly come. So, for example, with the Blue Laws above mentioned. The Baltimorean’s fear of a more humane Sunday is not a fear that it would imperil his own soul, but a fear that the Lithuanian and the Sicilian, aided and abetted by the native Ethiop, would make of it a debauch. And so he clings to his ancient rigors.

To what has all of this brought us? To the fact, in brief, that the conditions of the Baltimorean’s life have thrown him upon himself, that they have forced him to cultivate those social qualities which center particularly about the home and are inseparable from the home. It is a New Yorker’s tendency, once he attains to ease, to make his home merely one of the hotels at which he stops. In the end, perhaps, it becomes the least of these hotels: desiring to show special favor to a guest, he will hesitate between his club, a favorite grillroom and his own hearth. The training and traditions of the Baltimorean all pull in a different direction. He cannot quite rid himself of the notion that, until a newcomer has stretched comfortably in his dining room, and admired the children and the family portraits, and examined the old water pitcher brought from England in 1735, and petted the cat, and fingered the old books in the library upstairs, and praised the bad biscuits of black Gwendolyn in the kitchen, with her high heel shoes, her eminence in the Grand United Order of Nazarenes and her fond hopes of wedding a Colorado maduro barrister—that, until all this ceremonial has been gone through, he and the newcomer are yet strangers. Down to ten or twelve years ago, I believe, it was still considered a bit indecent for a Baltimore gentleman to take his own wife to a hotel for supper after the theater. That was not asceticism, but mere habit. The social tradition of the town had no concern with public places. The Baltimoreans had so devised their chief joys, for years and years, that the home was the background of every one. And something of that old disposition still lingers.

A quaint town! A singular people! And yet the charm is there! You will miss the prodigal gaiety of New York—the multitude of theaters, the lavishness of entertaining, the elaborate organization of the business of pleasure. Baltimore has, between November and April, but ten performances of grand opera on a metropolitan scale. For her six hundred thousand people there are but three first class theaters. In the whole town there is not a single restaurant, not merely a hotel dining room, worth mentioning to your friends. And yet—and yet—it is not dull, it is not a prison—at least not to the Baltimoreans—at least not to those who get the Baltimore point of view.

What if the Carusos and Farrars pipe their lays but ten times a year? So much greater the joy in hearing them when they come! What if the theaters be but three? Washington, down the trolley line, has but two. And three are sufficient to house all the plays really worth seeing. Baltimore misses, perhaps, a few that Broadway enjoys—but more that Broadway suffers. And who wants to gobble the à la’s in a gilded and public hell when a Smithfield ham is on the sideboard at home, with beer on ice to wash it down, and a box of smuggled cigars in the lower drawer of the old secretary—and the hour invites to a neighborly palaver with Smith and Benson and Old Taylor, while the ladies exchange fashions and scandals, novel plots and obstetrics in the parlor? What fool would be in New York tonight, dodging the taxicabs, blinded by the whiskey signs, robbed by the waiters? Who would leave Baltimore, once Baltimore has taken him to her arms?

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380425;view=1up;seq=128)