Husks by Eliot Gregory
Story type: Essay
Among the Protestants driven from France by that astute and liberal-minded sovereign Louis XIV., were a colony of weavers, who as all the world knows, settled at Spitalfields in England, where their descendants weave silk to this day.
On their arrival in Great Britain, before the looms could be set up and a market found for their industry, the exiles were reduced to the last extremity of destitution and hunger. Looking about them for anything that could be utilized for food, they discovered that the owners of English slaughter-houses threw away as worthless, the tails of the cattle they killed. Like all the poor in France, these wanderers were excellent cooks, and knew that at home such caudal appendages were highly valued for the tenderness and flavor of the meat. To the amazement and disgust of the English villagers the new arrivals proceeded to collect this “refuse” and carry it home for food. As the first principle of French culinary art is the pot-au-feu, the tails were mostly converted into soup, on which the exiles thrived and feasted.
Their neighbors, envious at seeing the despised French indulging daily in savory dishes, unknown to English palates, and tempted like “Jack’s” giant by the smell of “fresh meat,” began to inquire into the matter, and slowly realized how, in their ignorance, they had been throwing away succulent and delicate food. The news of this discovery gradually spreading through all classes, “ox-tail” became and has remained the national English soup.
If this veracious tale could be twisted into a metaphor, it would serve marvellously to illustrate the position of the entire Anglo-Saxon race, and especially that of their American descendants as regards the Latin peoples. For foolish prodigality and reckless, ignorant extravagance, however, we leave our English cousins far behind.
Two American hotels come to my mind, as different in their appearance and management as they are geographically asunder. Both are types and illustrations of the wilful waste that has recently excited Mr. Ian Maclaren’s comment, and the woeful want (of good food) that is the result. At one, a dreary shingle construction on a treeless island, off our New England coast, where the ideas of the landlord and his guests have remained as unchanged and primitive as the island itself, I found on inquiry that all articles of food coming from the first table were thrown into the sea; and I have myself seen chickens hardly touched, rounds of beef, trays of vegetables, and every variety of cake and dessert tossed to the fish.
While we were having soups so thin and tasteless that they would have made a French house-wife blush, the ingredients essential to an excellent “stock” were cast aside. The boarders were paying five dollars a day and appeared contented, the place was packed, the landlord coining money, so it was foolish to expect any improvement.
The other hotel, a vast caravansary in the South, where a fortune had been lavished in providing every modern convenience and luxury, was the “fad” of its wealthy owner. I had many talks with the manager during my stay, and came to realize that most of the wastefulness I saw around me was not his fault, but that of the public, to whose taste he was obliged to cater. At dinner, after receiving your order, the waiter would disappear for half an hour, and then bring your entire meal on one tray, the over-cooked meats stranded in lakes of coagulated gravy, the entrees cold and the ices warm. He had generally forgotten two or three essentials, but to send back for them meant to wait another half-hour, as his other clients were clamoring to be served. So you ate what was before you in sulky disgust, and got out of the room as quickly as possible.
After one of these gastronomic races, being hungry, flustered, and suffering from indigestion, I asked mine host if it had never occurred to him to serve a table d’hote dinner (in courses) as is done abroad, where hundreds of people dine at the same moment, each dish being offered them in turn accompanied by its accessories.
“Of course, I have thought of it,” he answered. “It would be the greatest improvement that could be introduced into American hotel-keeping. No one knows better than I do how disastrous the present system is to all parties. Take as an example of the present way, the dinner I am going to give you to-morrow, in honor of Christmas. Glance over this menu. You will see that it enumerates every costly and delicate article of food possible to procure and a long list of other dishes, the greater part of which will not even be called for. As no number of chefs could possibly oversee the proper preparation of such a variety of meats and sauces, all will be carelessly cooked, and as you know by experience, poorly served.
“People who exact useless variety,” he added, “are sure in some way to be the sufferers; in their anxiety to try everything, they will get nothing worth eating. Yet that meal will cost me considerably more than my guests pay for their twenty-four hours’ board and lodging.”
“Why do it, you ask? Because it is the custom, and because it will be an advertisement. These bills of fare will be sown broadcast over the country in letters to friends and kept as souvenirs. If, instead of all this senseless superfluity, I were allowed to give a table d’hote meal to-morrow, with the chef I have, I could provide an exquisite dinner, perfect in every detail, served at little tables as deftly and silently as in a private house. I could also discharge half of my waiters, and charge two dollars a day instead of five dollars, and the hotel would become (what it has never been yet) a paying investment, so great would he the saving.”
“Only this morning,” he continued, warming to his subject, “while standing in the dining room, I saw a young man order and then send away half the dishes on the menu. A chicken was broiled for him and rejected; a steak and an omelette fared no better. How much do you suppose a hotel gains from a guest like that?”
“The reason Americans put up with such poor viands in hotels is, that home cooking in this country is so rudimentary, consisting principally of fried dishes, and hot breads. So little is known about the proper preparation of food that to-morrow’s dinner will appear to many as the ne plus ultra of delicate living. One of the charms of a hotel for people who live poorly at home, lies in this power to order expensive dishes they rarely or never see on their own tables.”
“To be served with a quantity of food that he has but little desire to eat is one of an American citizen’s dearest privileges, and a right he will most unwillingly relinquish. He may know as well as you and I do, that what he calls for will not be worth eating; that is of secondary importance, he has it before him, and is contented.”
“The hotel that attempted limiting the liberty of its guests to the extent of serving them a table d’hote dinner, would be emptied in a week.”
“A crowning incongruity, as most people are delighted to dine with friends, or at public functions, where the meal is invariably served a la russe (another name for a table d’hote), and on these occasions are only too glad to have their menu chosen for them. The present way, however, is a remnant of ‘old times’ and the average American, with all his love of change and novelty, is very conservative when it comes to his table.”
What this manager did not confide to me, but what I discovered later for myself, was that to facilitate the service, and avoid confusion in the kitchens, it had become the custom at all the large and most of the small hotels in this country, to carve the joints, cut up the game, and portion out vegetables, an hour or two before meal time. The food, thus arranged, is placed in vast steam closets, where it simmers gayly for hours, in its own, and fifty other vapors.
Any one who knows the rudiments of cookery, will recognize that with this system no viand can have any particular flavor, the partridges having a taste of their neighbor the roast beef, which in turn suggests the plum pudding it has been “chumming” with.
It is not alone in a hotel that we miss the good in grasping after the better. Small housekeeping is apparently run on the same lines.
A young Frenchman, who was working in my rooms, told me in reply to a question regarding prices, that every kind of food was cheaper here than abroad, but the prejudice against certain dishes was so strong in this country that many of the best things in the markets were never called for. Our nation is no longer in its “teens” and should cease to act like a foolish boy who has inherited (what appears to him) a limitless fortune; not for fear of his coming, like his prototype in the parable, to live on “husks” for he is doing that already, but lest like the dog of the fable, in grasping after the shadow of a banquet he miss the simple meal that is within his reach.
One of the reasons for this deplorable state of affairs lies in the foolish education our girls receive. They learn so little housekeeping at home, that when married they are obliged to begin all over again, unless they prefer, like a majority of their friends, to let things as go at the will and discretion of the “lady” below stairs.
At both hotels I have referred to, the families of the men interested considered it beneath them to know what was taking place. The “daughter” of the New England house went semi-weekly to Boston to take violin lessons at ten dollars each, although she had no intention of becoming a professional, while the wife wrote poetry and ignored the hotel side of her life entirely.
The “better half” of the Florida establishment hired a palace in Rome and entertained ambassadors. Hotels divided against themselves are apt to be establishments where you pay for riotous living and are served only with husks.
We have many hard lessons ahead of us, and one of the hardest will be for our nation to learn humbly from the thrifty emigrants on our shores, the great art of utilizing the “tails” that are at this moment being so recklessly thrown away.
As it is, in spite of markets overflowing with every fish, vegetable, and tempting viand, we continue to be the worst fed, most meagrely nourished of all the wealthy nations on the face of the earth. We have a saying (for an excellent reason unknown on the Continent) that Providence provides us with food and the devil sends the cooks! It would be truer to say that the poorer the food resources of a nation, the more restricted the choice of material, the better the cooks; a small latitude when providing for the table forcing them to a hundred clever combinations and mysterious devices to vary the monotony of their cuisine and tempt a palate, by custom staled.
Our heedless people, with great variety at their disposition, are unequal to the situation, wasting and discarding the best, and making absolutely nothing of their advantages.
If we were enjoying our prodigality by living on the fat of the land, there would be less reason to reproach ourselves, for every one has a right to live as he pleases. But as it is, our foolish prodigals are spending their substance, while eating the husks!