Thoughts On Cider by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

Our friend Dove Dulcet, the poet, came into our kennel and found us arm in arm with a deep demijohn of Chester County cider. We poured him out a beaker of the cloudy amber juice. It was just in prime condition, sharpened with a blithe tingle, beaded with a pleasing bubble of froth. Dove looked upon it with a kindled eye. His arm raised the tumbler in a manner that showed this gesture to be one that he had compassed before. The orchard nectar began to sluice down his throat.

Dove is one who has faced many and grievous woes. His Celtic soul peers from behind cloudy curtains of alarm. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago fume in the smoke of his pipe. His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes. He sees the world moving on the brink of horror and despair. Sweet dalliance with a baked bloater on a restaurant platter moves him to grief over the hard lot of the Newfoundland fishing fleet. Six cups of tea warm him to anguish over the peonage of Sir Thomas Lipton’s coolies in Ceylon. Souls in perplexity cluster round him like Canadian dimes in a cash register in Plattsburgh, N. Y. He is a human sympathy trust. When we are on our deathbed we shall send for him. The perfection of his gentle sorrow will send us roaring out into the dark, and will set a valuable example to the members of our family.

But it is the rack of clouds that makes the sunset lovely. The bosomy vapours of Dove’s soul are the palette upon which the decumbent sun of his spirit casts its vivid orange and scarlet colours. His joy is the more perfect to behold because it bursts goldenly through the pangs of his tender heart. His soul is like the infant Moses, cradled among dark and prickly bullrushes; but anon it floats out upon the river and drifts merrily downward on a sparkling spate.

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It has nothing to do with Dove, but we will here interject the remark that a pessimist overtaken by liquor is the cheeriest sight in the world. Who is so extravagantly, gloriously, and irresponsibly gay?

Dove’s eyes beaconed as the cider went its way. The sweet lingering tang filled the arch of his palate with a soft mellow cheer. His gaze fell upon us as his head tilted gently backward. We wish there had been a painter there–someone like F. Walter Taylor–to rush onto canvas the gorgeous benignity of his aspect. It would have been a portrait of the rich Flemish school. Dove’s eyes were full of a tender emotion, mingled with a charmed and wistful surprise. It was as though the poet was saying he had not realized there was anything so good left on earth. His bearing was devout, religious, mystical. In one moment of revelation (so it appeared to us as we watched) Dove looked upon all the profiles and aspects of life, and found them of noble outline. Not since the grandest of Grand Old Parties went out of power has Dove looked less as though he felt the world were on the verge of an abyss. For several moments revolution and anarchy receded, profiteers were tamed, capital and labour purred together on a mattress of catnip, and the cosmos became a free verse poem. He did not even utter the customary and ungracious remark of those to whom cider potations are given: “That’ll be at its best in about a week.” We apologized for the cider being a little warmish from standing (discreetly hidden) under our desk. Douce man, he said: “I think cider, like ale, ought not to be drunk too cold. I like it just this way.” He stood for a moment, filled with theology and metaphysics. “By gracious,” he said, “it makes all the other stuff taste like poison.” Still he stood for a brief instant, transfixed with complete bliss. It was apparent to us that his mind was busy with apple orchards and autumn sunshine. Perhaps he was wondering whether he could make a poem out of it. Then he turned softly and went back to his job in a life insurance office.

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As for ourself, we then poured out another tumbler, lit a corncob pipe, and meditated. Falstaff once said that he had forgotten what the inside of a church looked like. There will come a time when many of us will perhaps have forgotten what the inside of a saloon looked like, but there will still be the consolation of the cider jug. Like the smell of roasting chestnuts and the comfortable equatorial warmth of an oyster stew, it is a consolation hard to put into words. It calls irresistibly for tobacco; in fact the true cider toper always pulls a long puff at his pipe before each drink, and blows some of the smoke into the glass so that he gulps down some of the blue reek with his draught. Just why this should be, we know not. Also some enthusiasts insist on having small sugared cookies with their cider; others cry loudly for Reading pretzels. Some have ingenious theories about letting the jug stand, either tightly stoppered or else unstoppered, until it becomes “hard.” In our experience hard cider is distressingly like drinking vinegar. We prefer it soft, with all its sweetness and the transfusing savour of the fruit animating it. At the peak of its deliciousness it has a small, airy sparkle against the roof of the mouth, a delicate tactile sensation like the feet of dancing flies. This, we presume, is the 4-1/2 to 7 per cent of sin with which fermented cider is credited by works of reference. There are pedants and bigots who insist that the jug must be stoppered with a corncob. For our own part, the stopper does not stay in the neck long enough after the demijohn reaches us to make it worth while worrying about this matter. Yet a nice attention to detail may prove that the cob has some secret affinity with cider, for a Missouri meerschaum never tastes so well as after three glasses of this rustic elixir.

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That ingenious student of social niceties, John Mistletoe, in his famous Dictionary of Deplorable Facts–a book which we heartily commend to the curious, for he includes a long and most informing article on cider, tracing its etymology from the old Hebrew word shaker meaning “to quaff deeply”–maintains that cider should only be drunk beside an open fire of applewood logs:

And preferably on an evening of storm and wetness, when the swish and sudden pattering of rain against the panes lend an added agreeable snugness to the cheerful scene within, where master and dame sit by the rosy hearth frying sausages in a pan laid on the embers.

This reminds one of the anecdote related by ex-Senator Beveridge in his Life of John Marshall. Justice Story told his wife that the justices of the Supreme Court were of a self-denying habit, never taking wine except in wet weather. “But it does sometimes happen that the Chief Justice will say to me, when the cloth is removed, ‘Brother Story, step to the window and see if it does not look like rain.’ And if I tell him that the sun is shining brightly, Judge Marshall will sometimes reply, ‘All the better, for our jurisdiction extends over so large a territory that the doctrine of chances makes it certain that it must be raining somewhere.’”

Our own theory about cider is that the time to drink it is when it reaches you; and if it hails from Chester County, so much the better.

We remember with gusto a little soliloquy on cider delivered by another friend of ours, as we both stood in a decent ordinary on Fulton Street, going through all the motions of jocularity and cheer. Cider (he said) is our refuge and strength. Cider, he insisted, drawing from his pocket a clipping much tarnished with age, is a drink for men of reason and genteel nurture; a drink for such as desire to drink pleasantly, amiably, healthily, and with perseverance and yet retain the command and superintendence of their faculties. I have here (he continued) a clipping sent me by an eminent architect in the great city of Philadelphia (a city which it is a pleasure for me to contemplate by reason of the beauty and virtue of its women, the infinite vivacity and good temper of its men, the rectitudinal disposition of its highways)–I have here (he exclaimed) a clipping sent me by an architect of fame, charming parts, and infinite cellarage, explaining the virtues of cider. Cider, this clipping asserts, produces a clearness of the complexion. It brightens the eye, particularly in women, conducing to the composition of generous compliment and all the social suavity that endears the intercourse of the sexes. Longevity, this extract maintains, is the result of application to good cider. The Rev. Martin Johnson, vicar of Dilwyn, in Herefordshire, from 1651 to 1698 (he read from his clipping), wrote:

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This parish, wherein sider is plentiful, hath many people that do enjoy this blessing of long life; neither are the aged bedridden or decrepit as elsewhere; next to God, wee ascribe it to our flourishing orchards, first that the bloomed trees in spring do not only sweeten but purify the ambient air; next, that they yield us plenty of rich and winy liquors, which do conduce very much to the constant health of our inhabitants. Their ordinary course is to breakfast and sup with toast and sider through the whole Lent; which heightens their appetites and creates in them durable strength to labour.

There was a pause, and our friend (he is a man of girth and with a brow bearing all the candor of a life of intense thought) leaned against the mahogany counter.

That is very fine, we said, draining our chalice, and feeling brightness of eye, length of years, and durable strength to labour added to our person. In the meantime (we said) why do you not drink the rich and winy liquor which your vessel contains?

He folded up his clipping and put it away with a sigh.

I always have to read that first, he said, to make the damned stuff palatable. It will be ten years, he said, before the friend who sent me that clipping will have to drink any cider.

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