The Bread of Idleness

Since antiquity, it has paid to work for the government
"Tillers of the soil have few idle months; In the fifth month their toil is double-fold. A south-wind visits the fields at night: Suddenly the hill is covered with yellow corn. Wives and daughters shoulder baskets of rice; Youths and boys carry the flasks of wine. Following after they bring a wage of meat To the strong reapers toiling on the southern hill, Whose feet are burned by the hot earth they tread, Whose backs are scorched by flames of the shining sky. Tired they toil, caring nothing for the heat, Grudging the shortness of the long summer day. A poor woman follows at the reapers' side With an infant child carried close at her breast. With her right hand she gleans the fallen grain; On her left arm a broken basket hangs. And I to-day … by virtue of… Read More...

Simplicity, Voluntary or Otherwise

In colonial America, something as simple as a bed or spoon divided the haves from the have-nots
In colonial America, something as simple as a bed or spoon divided the haves from the have-nots I will soon pick up stakes for a new home some 2,000 miles away. In preparing for what will be my third cross-country move in eight years, I've spent the last few weeks sifting through my effects, playing "eeny meeny miny moe" with everything from rhetoric guides to Römertopfs. The losers I haul off to Goodwill, the place where in many cases I found them. It's a lot of work, this constant getting and giving away. I find myself dreaming of nonattachment, of living like a Zen monk, with nothing to my name but a bowl and a grass mat. (more…) Read More...

Quiet in the Kitchen

Illustration from A Book About Travelling, Past and Present (1877) I’m in the midst of preparing for a cross-country move that I have to make…
I'm in the midst of preparing for a cross-country move that I have to make soon, so The Austerity Kitchen will be a little quiet. I'll continue to post tidbits and vignettes when I have the chance. Once I get settled, it will be back to business as usual. Read More...

An Embarrassment of Citrus

"A great liquid bite ... covers the lower part of his face with pip and drip"
"Enter an unreflecting young gentleman who has bought an orange and must eat it immediately. He accordingly begins by peeling it, and is first made aware of the delicacy of his position by the gigglement of the two young ladies, and his doubt where he shall throw the peel. 'He is in for it,' however, and must proceed; so being unable to divide the orange into its segments, he ventures upon a great liquid bite, which ... covers the lower part of his face with pip and drip. The young lady with the ringlets is right before him. The two other young ladies stuff their handkerchiefs into their mouths, and he into his own mouth the rest of the fruit, 'sloshy' and too big, with desperation in his heart, and the tears in his eyes." --Leigh Hunt, "The Inside of… Read More...

The Benevolence of the Butcher

Dressing meat and stuffing sausage meant being a cut above the rest
Dressing meat and stuffing sausage meant being a cut above the rest A schoolmaster's kindness spared Henry Mayhew from a night spent under the stars. The 19th-century British journalist had been traveling through Germany in search of "principal Lutheran localities," as he put it, and found himself in the Thuringian town of Möhra, ancestral home of that confession's founder. Road-weary and famished, Mayhew arrived at the town's lone inn only to learn that traveling bookbinders and visiting land surveyors had claimed all beds. His search for lodgings led him to the schoolmaster, who might have a room to let. (more…) Read More...

Fair Prices and Fowl

Quœ virtus et quant, boni, sit vivere parvo
"The stomach's angry roar with bread and salt. Whence can this rise, you ask, from whence the fault? In you consists the pleasure of the treat, Not in the price, or flavour of the meat. Let exercise give relish to the dish, Since not the various luxuries of fish. Nor foreign wild fowl can delight the pale, Surfeit-swoln guest; yet I shall ne'er prevail To make our men of taste a pullet choose. And the gay peacock with its train refuse; For the rare bird at mighty price is sold; And, lo! what wonders from its tail unfold! But can these whims a higher gusto raise. Unless you eat the plumage that you praise?" --Horace, Satires Read More...

Bleak House

Bringing the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people meant bringing greater misery to the already wretched
Bringing the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people meant bringing greater misery to the already wretched The indignities suffered by Joseph Merrick, who would later become known as the Elephant Man, were great and many, thanks to a rare affliction that left him bent, hobbled and covered with tumors and bony growths. Unfit for most work, the small jobs he did find came so seldom and paid so little that he could not support himself. His father nevertheless drove him from the family home into the streets of Leicester, where he wandered until he found the workhouse, the city's sole refuge. Behind its tall gray walls he lived for five years, his fellow residents the elderly, orphaned, destitute and infirm. (more…) Read More...

Peccaminous Peckishness

Sailing from the Tropic of Cancer to the Delta of Venus shouldn't be done on an empty stomach
"A full spirit creates an appetite throughout all parts and members of the body.... I would have relished anything at that moment which was rich, succulent and savory. Sinful food, that was what I craved. Sinful food and wines that were aphrodisiac." --Henry Miller, Plexus (1953) Read More...

Diner Forty Niner

There may have been gold in "them thar hills," but there wasn't much to eat
There may have been gold in "them thar hills," but there wasn't much to eat Lewis Manly wanted nothing more than to be back at the dinner table in his father's Michigan home, a heaping plate of beans and bread before him. It was the winter of 1849. For weeks he had been traveling through the Great Basin Desert, "the most wonderful picture of grand desolation one could ever see," as he later described it. He had run out of food and water, and was lost besides. He could see nothing but salt-encrusted flats and low, black mountain ranges for miles around. Alkali dust filled the air. "Here was I," he lamented, "away out in the center of the Great American Desert, with an empty stomach and a dry and parched throat, and clothes fast wearing out... It was a… Read More...

No Taste for Industry

Corporate hegemony bites
Sometime in 1910, renowned opera singer Feodor Chaliapin returned to his native Russia after completing a season with New York's Metropolitan Opera. His homecoming he capped with an audience with Nicholas II of Russia. Chaliapin reports having had with the tsar the following exchange: Czar: "I have heard the American kitchen is miserable. All the foods are prepared on a big scale and they have no individual taste or flavor. Is that true?" Chaliapin: "Yes, Your Majesty, that it true. They have a flavor of American corporations and speculation." Czar: "That I think is the drawback of the American conditions as far as I have heard. The trusts can manufacture iron and other industrial things on a big scale, but when it comes to the manufacture of food, there the commercial methods fail. As far as I have heard, they… Read More...

The Great Hog-Eating Confederacy

Tobacco and cotton may have enriched the American South, but pork and corn fed it
Tobacco and cotton may have enriched the American South, but pork and corn fed it Of the many miles Swedish merchant and man of letters Carl David Arfwedson traveled throughout the United States some of the toughest, as he would later note in an 1834 account of his wanderings, lay between Columbus, Georgia and Ft. Mitchell, Alabama. Rutted, rock-strewn, sometimes disappearing altogether in dark woods, the way at one point sent wayfarer, horse and carriage tumbling headlong into a river. The perils of rough passage were compounded by those of rough company. Cutthroats and bandits stalked the area, adversaries against whom Arfwedson’s guide, a seven-year-old boy, would likely not prove much use. Eventually there came into view a hut hidden among the trees, a discovery Arfwedson no doubt made with relief. (more…) Read More...

Ill-Digested Plots

"Nature does not smile upon the consumptive and dyspeptic"
"Old friendships are destroyed by toasted cheese, and hard salted meat has led to suicide. Unpleasant feelings of the body produce corresponding sensations of the mind, and a great scene of wretchedness is sketched out by a morsel of indigestible misguided food." --Sydney Smith Read More...

The People’s Kitchen

Does the modern workplace cafeteria owe its existence to one 19th-century activist's effort to feed the laboring multitudes?
Does the modern workplace cafeteria owe its existence one 19th-century activist's effort to feed the laboring multitudes? Though the phonograph and the funicular railway were the two marquee attractions of the 1897 World's Fair in Stockholm, Sweden, crowds flocked to another marvel that had garnered its share of buzz. Stockholm's famous People's Kitchen, which happened to occupy a space in the vicinity of the exhibition, served bowls of hearty soup, slabs of beef, pork and fish, plates of steaming vegetables, slices of rye bread, and mugs of weak beer known as iskällardricka. To partake of this smorgasbord cost a mere 40 øre (the equivalent of less than $1 U.S. today), a price that famished fair-goers found every bit as astonishing as the recorded human voice or alpine transport. (more…) Read More...

Hex Before Marriage

Turning on the charm used to mean something quite different
Turning on the charm used to mean something quite different Whatever loneliness or boredom the workers of Salzburg's famous salt mines endured they eased with an unusual pastime. They would find a tree branch, strip away its leaves and toss it in an unused pit. Two or three months later they would haul it out and delight in its transformation. Every one of its twigs bejeweled with salt crystals, it appeared more a scepter of some elf king than any piece of forest litter. It and others like it the miners would hand to tourists, who marveled at the splendid gifts. (more…) Read More...

Social Habits

A stay at a medieval monastery often featured a lavish meal hot from the friar
A stay at a medieval monastery often featured a lavish meal hot from the friar During a trek through the Bavarian Alps, German troubadour Walther von der Vogelweide paid a visit to the famous cloister of Tegernsee. Its monks, rumor had it, served sumptuous dishes, decanted excellent wine, and generally entertained in grand style. The day was hot, his exertions great. The poet reached Tegernsee monastery's gate keen on refreshing himself. Yet no sublime vintage, no comfits and sweetmeats greeted him. He received a carafe of lukewarm water, and nothing besides. (more…) Read More...