Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Thus you in Chouder always must begin": From the Poetry & Popular Culture Mailbag

Kevin Lindamood of Healthcare for the Homeless in Baltimore and an amateur poetry sleuth in his own right writes in:

Saw this poem re-printed from the Sept. 23 1751 edition of the Boston Evening Post and thought of you. Doesn't this fit with your thesis in some way? Earlier time period to be sure, but still, it proves your point.

Published in the Boston Evening Post
September 23, 1751

Meant to educate and delight, this poem was the first recipe for chowder to appear in this country. Its musicality and rhyming may have made it easy to remember, as many colonists never learned to read.

First lay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning,
Because in Chouder there can be no turning:
Then lay some Pork in Slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crosswise very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak'd some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel:
For by repeating o're the Same again,
You may make Chouder for a thousand Men.
Last bottle of Claret, with Water eno' to smother 'em
You'll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather 'em.

Poetry & Popular Culture Responds:

With its fourteen lines of rhyming couplets, this fishy sonnet is indeed a delight, although "Poetry & Popular Culture" has its suspicions about any poem claiming to be "the original" or "the first" of anything. However, more than one history of chowder cites the poem as originary, so I'll not, ahem, stew over that aspect of the recipe for now.

What intrigues me about "The Original Fish Chowder" is its print history. To begin with, I wonder why the recipe needed to be printed by the Boston Evening Post in the birthplace of chowder in the first place. Was there a chowder duel that this poem attempted to resolve? A longstanding feud about to boil over? Was some chowdery flash-in-the-pan marketing his or her new brand of soup and thus threatening to eclipse the original? Indeed, by harnessing the Augustan heroic couplets of poet-essayist Alexander Pope (who died seven years before the recipe was published), the poet of "The Original Fish Chowder" affords this particular recipe a certain authority it wouldn't perhaps have in prose.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that "The Original Fish Chowder" has been reprinted in Martha Stewart Living of all places—a fact that you, dear correspondent, neglected to mention in your missive to "Poetry & Popular Culture." Why did you clam up so? Were you ashamed to admit that you've been dallying in these pages? Why the hush, puppy? It appears that Martha's in touch with our favorite side of American literary history, and for that, I hoist a tall one in her name.