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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 2 (May 1, 1940.)

The Decline of Eating

page 52

The Decline of Eating

What knows he of eating who only diet knows? Eating today is an empty boast. The more we learn about food the less we cat it. Where are the trenchermen of yesteryear, the playboys of the platter, the twelve-course men, the lads who bit through bones to get at the marrow?

The art of trenchering is dead. To-day, fear prods the doughtiest diner in the liver, dyspepsia hovers over the dumb-waiter and pusillanimity putters in the pantry.

Girth and Worth.

And yet the past contains many examples of men who were trenchant yet lovers of the trencher; who combined expansive eating with expansive thinking. What about Doctor Johnson and G. K. Chesterton? Here were men whose girth and worth were of equal proportions. Both spent much time with their knees under a table, and yet both gave as much food for thought as thought for food. Eating is often a matter of opportunity, but it is the kind of opportunity that can be made to knock not once, but whenever courage and digestive determination command.

Before thinking became so high and living so low, life was practically devoted to rounding off square meals. Feudal barons spent the greater part of their time with their faces in the nose-bag. Kings also made a good deal of history with a knife and fork.

They Could “Take It.”

Take Henry the Eighth; if there was one thing he liked as well as a wedding it was a free-for-all among the giblets and knuckle-bones. It has even been suggested that it was only the wedding breakfasts that lured him to marriage so often. Of course eating was fine sport in those times when the gentlemen of the court derived good clean fun from flinging well-gnawed shin-bones and trotters at the varlets and knaves, many of whom cherished bumps or contusions as marks of the royal favour, and aim. Henry certainly could “take it.” But, even if he did believe in the adage: “Every man his own widower,” his outlook was as broad as his intake and, making allowance for his belief in the sanctity of widowerhood, he proved that character can be built from the belt up. There was gout, of course, but some maintained that it was worth it.

And little Samuel Pepys, whose days appeared to have been lived by the colander rather than the calendar, left his diary to prove that you can't rise far with a sinking feeling in the pit of the vest. Scanning the Pepysian pages one certainly feels that had Samuel devoted a little less time to
“Often a matter of opportunity.”

“Often a matter of opportunity.”

literary lip-smacking he might have been First Lord instead of secretary to the Admiralty. Still, he rose by his own efforts. Some men rise from nothing. Samuel rose from the table. Follow a few of his jottings, sandwiched between court gossip, royal intrigue and spots of departmental defalcation! On the 9th day of December, 1659, he records: “This night Mr. Gauden sent me a great chine of beef and half a dozen of tongues.” On the 22nd he remarked: “Went to the Sun Taverne on Fish Street Hill to a dinner of Captain Teddiman's …. where he had a very fine dinner, good musique, and a great deal of wine. I very merry. Went to bed; my head achine all night.” And the next day: “Home, and found my wife and maid with much ado had made shift to spit a great turkey.” And, day after day, he records such chop-smacking events as: “Here we supped very merry, and late to bed.” “Went by coach to Walthamstowe. Here we had a venison page 53 pasty brought hot from London, and were very merry.” “To a dinner of young Mr. Bernard's …. where we had a most excellent dinner, but a pie of such pleasant variety of good things, as in all my life I never tasted.” And, “To dinner to Sir W. Penn's … and we had, besides a good chine of beef and other good cheer, eighteen mince pies in a dish, the number of years that he hath been married.” “He and I went to breakfast in my chamber upon a collar of brawn.” “…. dined by my wife's bedside with great content, having a mess of brave plum porridge and a roasted pullet for dinner, and I sent for a mince pie abroad, my wife not being well, to make any herself yet.” “To dinner with my wife, to a good hog's harslet, a piece of meat I love.” “And very merry we were with our pasty, very well baked; and a good dish of roasted chickens; pease, lobsters, strawberries.” “At noon, to dinner, where the remains of yesterday's venison, and a couple of brave green geese, which we are fain to eat alone, because they will not keep, which troubled us.” “To Sir W. Batten's …. and a great feast, and good discourse and merry, and so home to bed …” “At noon a good venison pasty and a turkey to ourselves ….” “A brave dinner by having a brace of pheasants.”

Even during the great fire of London Samuel kept one eye on the Admiralty and the other on the pantry. He records: “Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it there…. And in the evening Sir W. Penn and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.”

Pepys, Up-to-Date.

Now, let us compare the Samuel Pepys of the reign of the Merry Monarch with a hypothetical Pepys of to-day,
“Some maintained that it was worth it.”

“Some maintained that it was worth it.”

saddened by dietry and maddened by dyspepsia ads. This is what he would record for posterity. “Home betide with the latest diet charte which did trouble me by the meanness of its contents. But I do fear mightily for my liver if I follow it not. So did dine right stingily upon a carrot ate uncooked and the water from barley boiled. Miserable victuals indeed; and so to bed, empty but mightily comforted that I shall live to a noble age; though I fear me most uninterestingly.”

Or, “At noon to dinner with my wife, where a heart of lettuce and a biscuit baked for dogs. I fear my wife pleases me not.”

Or, “Did meet Sir William Green-leaf, and so to the milk bar where we did discourse sombrely and did part right dismally.”

And, “The men of the Fleete did riot at the Nore, burning their diete charts on the quays, and shouting, ‘vittles, not vitamins!’ I fear me it is cannons, not calories, that our ships will need to fight the Dutch.” And, “My Lord, Sir Henry Cheesestraw, did die suddenly this week, a day or two ago, of a beef steak. I do regret his going but do envy him mightily of the beef steak.”

Full Girths and Merry Hearts.

There are people who insist that heavy eating kills us quicker; being still alive I am no authority. True, King Henry the Eighth and Samuel Pepys are dead. That may prove something. On the other hand, Adolf Hitler eats sparingly and he is still alive. That may prove something, too.

I hesitate to add another plan to the already complicated task of saving the world, but what about fatter feeds, merrier meals, cheerier chewing?

After all, Nature expended a good deal of trouble and ingenuity in fitting us up for the task, and it seems ungrateful to spurn her suggestion with “Good-bye to all that!”

page 54