How Frail I Am

Breakfast in the Loggia. John Singer Sargent. Date: 1910.

I know a woman who spent her summers growing up in a small town on the coast of Maine. One day, in the town’s library, she noticed a row of books atop one of the bookshelves. The books attracted her attention; they were classics, dust-covered, and neglected. She discovered by checking the cards in the books’ pockets that most of them had sat unread for many years. So, one summer, she started at one end of the row, and over the years, read all the books to the other end. In the seven or eight years she spent doing this, in her imagination, she visited hundreds of places, met many people, great and small, and acquired the wisdom of one who has lived several lifetimes, which, in a sense, she had.

For me, reading has always been a complicated activity, a tedious, and at times painful, process. Recently I learned that the late Harold Bloom could read and absorb a four-hundred-page book in an hour. An astonishing feat! I’ve been working my way through a large book for several months now. The end still is not yet in sight.

One of the great powers of reading, and here I am referring to literary works, both fiction and non-fiction, is its ability to transport readers out of their particular space and time constraints to another world at another time in another place. I love to visit Victorian London, for example. Ironically, my favorite guide to it is a Frenchman, Jules Verne. He introduced me to one of my best fictional friends, the quintessential Englishman, Phileas Fogg. I joined Fogg at lunch at his club, the Reform Club on Pall Mall in London, in the autumn of 1872. Upon arrival:

At once Phileas Fogg made his way to the dining room, whose nine windows opened onto a lovely garden where the trees were already turning an autumnal gold. He sat down at his usual table, now laid and waiting for him. His lunch featured an appetizer of boiled fish sharply seasoned with a first-rate Reading Sauce, roast beef done rare and trimmed with mushroom pieces, a pastry with rhubarb and green gooseberry filling, and a wedge of Cheshire cheese—all of it washed down with a couple cups of excellent tea brewed from leaves picked exclusively for the Reform Club’s pantry.

Verne, Jules. Around the World in 80 Days. State University of New York Press, 2013. Translated by Frederick Paul Walter.

To get some idea of the complexity of the preparations and the time involved in making this lunch, consider a recipe only for the “Reading Sauce” taken from a classic Victorian book on managing a household.

READING SAUCE. 502. INGREDIENTS.—2-1/2 pints of walnut pickle, 1-1/2 oz. of shalots, 1 quart of spring water, 3/4 pint of Indian soy, 1/2 oz. of bruised ginger, 1/2 oz. of long pepper, 1 oz. of mustard-seed, 1 anchovy, 1/2 oz. of cayenne, 1/4 oz. of dried sweet bay-leaves. Mode.—Bruise the shalots in a mortar, and put them in a stone jar with the walnut-liquor; place it before the fire, and let it boil until reduced to 2 pints. Then, into another jar, put all the ingredients except the bay-leaves, taking care that they are well bruised, so that the flavour may be thoroughly extracted; put this also before the fire, and let it boil for 1 hour, or rather more. When the contents of both jars are sufficiently cooked, mix them together, stirring them well as you mix them, and submit them to a slow boiling for 1/2 hour; cover closely, and let them stand 24 hours in a cool place; then open the jar and add the bay-leaves; let it stand a week longer closed down, when strain through a flannel bag, and it will be ready for use. The above quantities will make 1/2 gallon.

Beeton, Mrs. Isabella Mary. The Book of Household Management. First Published in a Bound Edition 1861.

Walnut pickle, no less, and bruised ginger! The Reform Club’s dining room is, without a doubt, the most elegant one in which I’ve ever been. I was as much impressed with the setting, the tableware, and the waiters as I was with the meal itself. Although, I was unable to eat with Phileas, what sheer pleasure to sit with him, and to watch the club’s staff serve him.

When he ate lunch or dinner, the club’s kitchens, larder, pantry, fish market, and dairy furnished his table with their sumptuous stores; the club’s waiters—solemn individuals dressed in black and shod in slippers with padded soles—served his food on exclusive china and marvelous saxony table linen; the club’s goblets came from a lost line of glass molds and held his sherry, his port, and his claret, which had been seasoned with cinnamon, maidenhair, and cassia; finally the club’s ice—imported at major expense from America’s lakes—kept his drinks satisfactorily chilled.

Verne, Jules. Ibid.

Currently, I am traveling around the world with quite a different fellow, the English 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin. The date is March 1835. We are going from Valparaiso to Mendoza via the Portillo Pass on one of Darwin’s many land excursions. Here I learn something from him about cooking potatoes. I love potatoes and have them in one form or another almost every day. But in the mountains, boiling potatoes can be a problem. Darwin writes:

At the place where we slept water necessarily boiled, from the diminished pressure of the atmosphere, at a lower temperature than it does in a less lofty country; the case being the converse of that of a Papin’s digester. Hence the potatoes, after remaining for some hours in the boiling water, were nearly as hard as ever. The pot was left on the fire all night, and next morning it was boiled again, but yet the potatoes were not cooked. I found out this by overhearing my two companions discussing the cause, they had come to the simple conclusion “that the cursed pot (which was a new one) did not choose to boil potatoes.”

Darwin, Charles. The Voyage Of The Beagle (Illustrated).

Darwin’s next entry, dated March 22nd, 1835, says: “After eating our potato-less breakfast, we travelled across the intermediate tract to the foot of the Portillo range.” He seems to have missed his potatoes. A Papin’s digester is a high-pressure cooker invented by Denis Papin, a French physicist, in 1679.

Digester as designed by Denis Papin 1680

Sometimes I feel as if I haven’t time to read. But that’s not true. When I look, I often discover that I’ve squandered time, spent it doing the trivial, wasted it. Two relevant verses from Psalms come immediately to mind. The first is from Psalm 39 and addresses the brevity of life: “LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.” The second is from Psalm 90: “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” One of the best ways I’ve found to apply my heart to wisdom is by reading.

All the best,
Gershon

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