What We Eat by Bill Nye

Story type: Essay

On 3d street, St. Paul, there stands a restaurant that has outside as a sign, under a glass case, a rib roast, a slice of ham and a roast duck that I remembered distinctly having seen there in 1860 and before the war. I asked an epicure the other day if he thought it right to keep those things there year after year when so many were starving throughout the length and breadth of the land. He then straightway did take me up close so that I could see that the food was made of plaster and painted, as hereinbefore set forth and by me translated, as Walt Whitman would say.

A day or two afterward, at a rural hotel, I struck some of that same roast beef and ham. I thought that the sign had been put on the table by mistake, and I made bold to tell the proprietor about it, on the ground that “any neglect or impertinence on the part of servants should be reported at the office.” He received the information with great rudeness and a most disagreeable air.

There are two kinds of guests who live at the average hotel. One is the party who gets up and walks over the whole corps de hote, from the bald-headed proprietor to the bootblack, while the other is the meek and mild-eyed man, doomed to sit at the table and bewail the flight of time and the horrors of starvation while waiting for the relief party to come with his food.

I belong to the latter class. Born, as I was, in a private family, and early acquiring the habit of eating food that was intended to assuage hunger mostly, it takes me a good while to accustom myself to the style of dyspeptic microbe used simply to ornament a bill of fare. Of course it is maintained by some hotel men that food solely for eating purposes is becoming obsolete and outre, and that the stuff they put on their bills of fare is just as good to pour down the back of a guest as diet that is cooked for the common, low, perverted taste of people who have no higher aspiration than to eat their food.

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Of course the genial, urbane and talented reader will see at once the style of hotel I am referring to. It is the hotel that apes the good hotel and prints a bill of fare solely as a literary effort. That is the hotel where you find the moth-eaten towel and the bed-ridden coffee. There is where you get butter that runs the elevator day times and sleeps on the flannel cakes at night.

It is there that you meet the weary and way-worn steak that bears the toothprints of other guests who are now in a land where the early-rising chambermaid cannot enter.

I also refer to the hotel where the bellboy is simply an animated polisher of banisters, and otherwise extremely useless. It is likewise the house where the syrup tastes like tincture of rhubarb, and the pancakes taste like a hektograph.

The traveling man will call to mind the hotel to which I refer, and he will instantly name it and tell you that he has never spent the Sabbath there.

I honestly believe that some hotel men lose money and custom by trying to issue a large blanket-sheet bill of fare every day, when a more modest list containing two or three things that a human being could eat with impunity would be far more acceptable, healthy and remunerative.

Some people can live on cracked wheat, bran and skimmed milk, no matter where they go, and so they always seem to be perfectly happy; but, while simplicity is my watchword, and while I am Old Simplicity himself, as it were, I haven’t been constructed with stomachs enough to successfully wrestle with these things. I like a few plain dishes with victuals on them, cooked by a person who has had some experience in that line before. I am not so especially tied to high prices and finger-bowls, for I have risen from the common people, and during the first eighteen years of my life I had to dress myself. I was not always the pampered child of enervating luxury that I now am, by any means. So I can subsist for weeks on good, plain food, and never murmur or repine; but where the mistake at some hotels seems to have been made, is in trying to issue a bill of fare every day that will attract the attention of literary minds and excite the curiosity of linguists instead of people who desire to assuage an internal craving for grub.

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I use the term grub in its broadest and most comprehensive sense.

So, if I may take the liberty to do so, let me exhort the landlord who is gradually accumulating indebtedness and remorse, to use a plainer, less elaborate, but more edible list of refreshments. Otherwise his guests will all die young.

Let him discard the seamless waffle and the kiln-dried hen. Let him abstain from the debris known as cottage pudding, that being its alias, while the doctors recognize it as old Gastric Disturbance. Too much of our hotel food tastes like the second day of January or the fifth day of July. That’s the whole thing in a few words, and unless the good hotels are nearer together we shall have to multiply our cemetery facilities.

Poor hotels are responsible for lots of drunkards every year. The only time I am tempted to soak my sorrows in rum is after I have read a delusive bill of fare and eaten a broiled barn-hinge with gravy on it that tasted like the broth of perdition. It is then that the demon of intemperance and colic comes to me and, in siren tones, says: “Try our bourbon, with ‘Polly Narius’ on the side.”

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