Jerome K. Jerome, most famous for his book Three Men in a Boat also penned a series of essays that are at times funny and at times deeply insightful.
In this essay , On Eating and Drinking, Jerome takes us through those most pleasurable activities, and how time changes how we view (and enjoy) them.
You listen to me read it outloud, can read it here, or online at Gutenberg.org
ON EATING AND DRINKING.
I always was fond of eating and drinking, even as a child—especially eating, in those early days. I had an appetite then, also a digestion. I remember a dull-eyed, livid-complexioned gentleman coming to dine at our house once. He watched me eating for about five minutes, quite fascinated seemingly, and then he turned to my father with—
“Does your boy ever suffer from dyspepsia?”
“I never heard him complain of anything of that kind,” replied my father. “Do you ever suffer from dyspepsia, Colly wobbles?” (They called me Colly wobbles, but it was not my real name.)
“No, pa,” I answered. After which I added:
“What is dyspepsia, pa?”
My livid-complexioned friend regarded me with a look of mingled amazement and envy. Then in a tone of infinite pity he slowly said:
“You will know—some day.”
My poor, dear mother used to say she liked to see me eat, and it has always been a pleasant reflection to me since that I must have given her much gratification in that direction. A growing, healthy lad, taking plenty of exercise and careful to restrain himself from indulging in too much study, can generally satisfy the most exacting expectations as regards his feeding powers.
It is amusing to see boys eat when you have not got to pay for it. Their idea of a square meal is a pound and a half of roast beef with five or six good-sized potatoes (soapy ones preferred as being more substantial), plenty of greens, and four thick slices of Yorkshire pudding, followed by a couple of currant dumplings, a few green apples, a pen’orth of nuts, half a dozen jumbles, and a bottle of ginger-beer. After that they play at horses.
How they must despise us men, who require to sit quiet for a couple of hours after dining off a spoonful of clear soup and the wing of a chicken!
But the boys have not all the advantages on their side. A boy never enjoys the luxury of being satisfied. A boy never feels full. He can never stretch out his legs, put his hands behind his head, and, closing his eyes, sink into the ethereal blissfulness that encompasses the well-dined man. A dinner makes no difference whatever to a boy. To a man it is as a good fairy’s potion, and after it the world appears a brighter and a better place. A man who has dined satisfactorily experiences a yearning love toward all his fellow-creatures. He strokes the cat quite gently and calls it “poor pussy,” in tones full of the tenderest emotion. He sympathizes with the members of the German band outside and wonders if they are cold; and for the moment he does not even hate his wife’s relations.
A good dinner brings out all the softer side of a man. Under its genial influence the gloomy and morose become jovial and chatty. Sour, starchy individuals, who all the rest of the day go about looking as if they lived on vinegar and Epsom salts, break out into wreathed smiles after dinner, and exhibit a tendency to pat small children on the head and to talk to them—vaguely—about sixpences. Serious men thaw and become mildly cheerful, and snobbish young men of the heavy-mustache type forget to make themselves objectionable.
I always feel sentimental myself after dinner. It is the only time when I can properly appreciate love-stories. Then, when the hero clasps “her” to his heart in one last wild embrace and stifles a sob, I feel as sad as though I had dealt at whist and turned up only a deuce; and when the heroine dies in the end I weep. If I read the same tale early in the morning I should sneer at it. Digestion, or rather indigestion, has a marvelous effect upon the heart. If I want to write any thing very pathetic—I mean, if I want to try to write anything very pathetic—I eat a large plateful of hot buttered muffins about an hour beforehand, and then by the time I sit down to my work a feeling of unutterable melancholy has come over me. I picture heartbroken lovers parting forever at lonely wayside stiles, while the sad twilight deepens around them, and only the tinkling of a distant sheep-bell breaks the sorrow-laden silence. Old men sit and gaze at withered flowers till their sight is dimmed by the mist of tears. Little dainty maidens wait and watch at open casements; but “he cometh not,” and the heavy years roll by and the sunny gold tresses wear white and thin. The babies that they dandled have become grown men and women with podgy torments of their own, and the playmates that they laughed with are lying very silent under the waving grass. But still they wait and watch, till the dark shadows of the unknown night steal up and gather round them and the world with its childish troubles fades from their aching eyes.
I see pale corpses tossed on white-foamed waves, and death-beds stained with bitter tears, and graves in trackless deserts. I hear the wild wailing of women, the low moaning of little children, the dry sobbing of strong men. It’s all the muffins. I could not conjure up one melancholy fancy upon a mutton chop and a glass of champagne.
A full stomach is a great aid to poetry, and indeed no sentiment of any kind can stand upon an empty one. We have not time or inclination to indulge in fanciful troubles until we have got rid of our real misfortunes. We do not sigh over dead dicky-birds with the bailiff in the house, and when we do not know where on earth to get our next shilling from, we do not worry as to whether our mistress’ smiles are cold, or hot, or lukewarm, or anything else about them.
Foolish people—when I say “foolish people” in this contemptuous way I mean people who entertain different opinions to mine. If there is one person I do despise more than another, it is the man who does not think exactly the same on all topics as I do—foolish people, I say, then, who have never experienced much of either, will tell you that mental distress is far more agonizing than bodily. Romantic and touching theory! so comforting to the love-sick young sprig who looks down patronizingly at some poor devil with a white starved face and thinks to himself, “Ah, how happy you are compared with me!”—so soothing to fat old gentlemen who cackle about the superiority of poverty over riches. But it is all nonsense—all cant. An aching head soon makes one forget an aching heart. A broken finger will drive away all recollections of an empty chair. And when a man feels really hungry he does not feel anything else.
We sleek, well-fed folk can hardly realize what feeling hungry is like. We know what it is to have no appetite and not to care for the dainty victuals placed before us, but we do not understand what it means to sicken for food—to die for bread while others waste it—to gaze with famished eyes upon coarse fare steaming behind dingy windows, longing for a pen’orth of pea pudding and not having the penny to buy it—to feel that a crust would be delicious and that a bone would be a banquet.
Hunger is a luxury to us, a piquant, flavor-giving sauce. It is well worth while to get hungry and thirsty merely to discover how much gratification can be obtained from eating and drinking. If you wish to thoroughly enjoy your dinner, take a thirty-mile country walk after breakfast and don’t touch anything till you get back. How your eyes will glisten at sight of the white table-cloth and steaming dishes then! With what a sigh of content you will put down the empty beer tankard and take up your knife and fork! And how comfortable you feel afterward as you push back your chair, light a cigar, and beam round upon everybody.
Make sure, however, when adopting this plan, that the good dinner is really to be had at the end, or the disappointment is trying. I remember once a friend and I—dear old Joe, it was. Ah! how we lose one another in life’s mist. It must be eight years since I last saw Joseph Taboys. How pleasant it would be to meet his jovial face again, to clasp his strong hand, and to hear his cheery laugh once more! He owes me 14 shillings, too. Well, we were on a holiday together, and one morning we had breakfast early and started for a tremendous long walk. We had ordered a duck for dinner over night. We said, “Get a big one, because we shall come home awfully hungry;” and as we were going out our landlady came up in great spirits. She said, “I have got you gentlemen a duck, if you like. If you get through that you’ll do well;” and she held up a bird about the size of a door-mat. We chuckled at the sight and said we would try. We said it with self-conscious pride, like men who know their own power. Then we started.
We lost our way, of course. I always do in the country, and it does make me so wild, because it is no use asking direction of any of the people you meet. One might as well inquire of a lodging-house slavey the way to make beds as expect a country bumpkin to know the road to the next village. You have to shout the question about three times before the sound of your voice penetrates his skull. At the third time he slowly raises his head and stares blankly at you. You yell it at him then for a fourth time, and he repeats it after you. He ponders while you count a couple of hundred, after which, speaking at the rate of three words a minute, he fancies you “couldn’t do better than—” Here he catches sight of another idiot coming down the road and bawls out to him the particulars, requesting his advice. The two then argue the case for a quarter of an hour or so, and finally agree that you had better go straight down the lane, round to the right and cross by the third stile, and keep to the left by old Jimmy Milcher’s cow-shed, and across the seven-acre field, and through the gate by Squire Grubbin’s hay-stack, keeping the bridle-path for awhile till you come opposite the hill where the windmill used to be—but it’s gone now—and round to the right, leaving Stiggin’s plantation behind you; and you say “Thank you” and go away with a splitting headache, but without the faintest notion of your way, the only clear idea you have on the subject being that somewhere or other there is a stile which has to be got over; and at the next turn you come upon four stiles, all leading in different directions!
We had undergone this ordeal two or three times. We had tramped over fields. We had waded through brooks and scrambled over hedges and walls. We had had a row as to whose fault it was that we had first lost our way. We had got thoroughly disagreeable, footsore, and weary. But throughout it all the hope of that duck kept us up. A fairy-like vision, it floated before our tired eyes and drew us onward. The thought of it was as a trumpet-call to the fainting. We talked of it and cheered each other with our recollections of it. “Come along,” we said; “the duck will be spoiled.”
We felt a strong temptation, at one point, to turn into a village inn as we passed and have a cheese and a few loaves between us, but we heroically restrained ourselves: we should enjoy the duck all the better for being famished.
We fancied we smelled it when we go into the town and did the last quarter of a mile in three minutes. We rushed upstairs, and washed ourselves, and changed our clothes, and came down, and pulled our chairs up to the table, and sat and rubbed our hands while the landlady removed the covers, when I seized the knife and fork and started to carve.
It seemed to want a lot of carving. I struggled with it for about five minutes without making the slightest impression, and then Joe, who had been eating potatoes, wanted to know if it wouldn’t be better for some one to do the job that understood carving. I took no notice of his foolish remark, but attacked the bird again; and so vigorously this time that the animal left the dish and took refuge in the fender.
We soon had it out of that, though, and I was prepared to make another effort. But Joe was getting unpleasant. He said that if he had thought we were to have a game of blind hockey with the dinner he would have got a bit of bread and cheese outside.
I was too exhausted to argue. I laid down the knife and fork with dignity and took a side seat and Joe went for the wretched creature. He worked away in silence for awhile, and then he muttered “Damn the duck” and took his coat off.
We did break the thing up at length with the aid of a chisel, but it was perfectly impossible to eat it, and we had to make a dinner off the vegetables and an apple tart. We tried a mouthful of the duck, but it was like eating India-rubber.
It was a wicked sin to kill that drake. But there! there’s no respect for old institutions in this country.
I started this paper with the idea of writing about eating and drinking, but I seem to have confined my remarks entirely to eating as yet. Well, you see, drinking is one of those subjects with which it is inadvisable to appear too well acquainted. The days are gone by when it was considered manly to go to bed intoxicated every night, and a clear head and a firm hand no longer draw down upon their owner the reproach of effeminacy. On the contrary, in these sadly degenerate days an evil-smelling breath, a blotchy face, a reeling gait, and a husky voice are regarded as the hall marks of the cad rather than or the gentleman.
Even nowadays, though, the thirstiness of mankind is something supernatural. We are forever drinking on one excuse or another. A man never feels comfortable unless he has a glass before him. We drink before meals, and with meals, and after meals. We drink when we meet a friend, also when we part from a friend. We drink when we are talking, when we are reading, and when we are thinking. We drink one another’s healths and spoil our own. We drink the queen, and the army, and the ladies, and everybody else that is drinkable; and I believe if the supply ran short we should drink our mothers-in-law.
By the way, we never eat anybody’s health, always drink it. Why should we not stand up now and then and eat a tart to somebody’s success?
To me, I confess the constant necessity of drinking under which the majority of men labor is quite unaccountable. I can understand people drinking to drown care or to drive away maddening thoughts well enough. I can understand the ignorant masses loving to soak themselves in drink—oh, yes, it’s very shocking that they should, of course—very shocking to us who live in cozy homes, with all the graces and pleasures of life around us, that the dwellers in damp cellars and windy attics should creep from their dens of misery into the warmth and glare of the public-house bar, and seek to float for a brief space away from their dull world upon a Lethe stream of gin.
But think, before you hold up your hands in horror at their ill-living, what “life” for these wretched creatures really means. Picture the squalid misery of their brutish existence, dragged on from year to year in the narrow, noisome room where, huddled like vermin in sewers, they welter, and sicken, and sleep; where dirt-grimed children scream and fight and sluttish, shrill-voiced women cuff, and curse, and nag; where the street outside teems with roaring filth and the house around is a bedlam of riot and stench.
Think what a sapless stick this fair flower of life must be to them, devoid of mind and soul. The horse in his stall scents the sweet hay and munches the ripe corn contentedly. The watch-dog in his kennel blinks at the grateful sun, dreams of a glorious chase over the dewy fields, and wakes with a yelp of gladness to greet a caressing hand. But the clod-like life of these human logs never knows one ray of light. From the hour when they crawl from their comfortless bed to the hour when they lounge back into it again they never live one moment of real life. Recreation, amusement, companionship, they know not the meaning of. Joy, sorrow, laughter, tears, love, friendship, longing, despair, are idle words to them. From the day when their baby eyes first look out upon their sordid world to the day when, with an oath, they close them forever and their bones are shoveled out of sight, they never warm to one touch of human sympathy, never thrill to a single thought, never start to a single hope. In the name of the God of mercy; let them pour the maddening liquor down their throats and feel for one brief moment that they live!
Ah! we may talk sentiment as much as we like, but the stomach is the real seat of happiness in this world. The kitchen is the chief temple wherein we worship, its roaring fire is our vestal flame, and the cook is our great high-priest. He is a mighty magician and a kindly one. He soothes away all sorrow and care. He drives forth all enmity, gladdens all love. Our God is great and the cook is his prophet. Let us eat, drink, and be merry.