Neither Fish Nor Flesh: Creatures That Swim the Air

Only when they leap in the air do flying fish, with their small, box-like heads and gunmetal-gray bodies, betray their avian affinities. Aloft on broad pectoral fins, they sail just above the ocean waves. Should an impediment in the form of a ship cross their path, they in a body take flight in order to avoid it, rising as a glittering, undulating cloud to glide diagonally to the ship’s course, against the wind and seemingly also against gravity. Rough seas prod flying fish to greater feats: They glide without ever touching water, thus behaving more like gulls than like any gilled creature.

The singular ability of flying fish has occasioned rather fanciful speculation by some of history’s most formidable philosophical and literary minds. Aristotle conjectured that flying fish spent their days in their watery environs but decamped at night for dry land. And Victor Hugo likely drew from them inspiration for the seaside reflections of Gilliatt, the meditative Guernseyman of his 1866 novel, The Toilers of the Sea. Gilliatt refused to believe the air a “mere desert.” He thought it must be teeming, rather, with “creatures colorless and transparent.” Indeed, this “man of dreams” sees no evidence to suggest why this should not be the case. “Since the water is is filled with life,” he wonders, “why not the atmosphere?” After all, the sea harbors creatures which, out of the water, resemble “soft crystal,” and when returned to their natural habitat disappear in “that medium by reason of their identity in transparency and color.” Why then cannot other transparencies inhabit the air? If men were to “fish the air as we fish the depths of the sea,” Gilliatt argues, “we should discover a multitude of strange animals.” Upon such discovery, he concludes, “many things would be made clear.”

When not engaged in metaphysical speculation on the nature of etheric beings Gilliatt earns a living by harvesting the sea’s bounty. His skill in that trade is such that he often brings home “heavy takes of fish,” which he shares with the poor of the island — who, it should be noted, “were little grateful” to receive these donations.

The ingratitude of the needy proceeds from their distrust of Gilliatt, whom they consider strange, as well as possessed of unnaturally good luck. Whatever their attitude toward him, the Guernsey poor would no doubt find their condition remedied upon the discovery that the odd fisherman’s daydreams are correct: Creatures do exist that swim the air as fish do the sea. The air would become, then, a second hunting ground from which humankind could draw sustenance. Having the air to “fish” as well as the sea, even the most unfortunate would never again know want. Growning under their sumptuous burdens, the poors’ tables and cupboards would be mere deserts no longer.

An 1875 issue of  The Guernsey Magazine reports that most of the creatures caught in the familiar medium of the sea were mackerel, which “abounds round the island.” Perhaps the beneficiaries of Gilliatt’s largess fixed dishes similar to this recipe for baked mackerel from the 1865 tome, Mrs. Beeton’s Dictionary of Every-Day Cookery.

Baked Mackerel

279. Ingredients. 4 middling-sized mackerel, a nice delicate forcemeat …  3 oz. of butter; pepper and salt to taste.

Mode.—Clean the fish, take out the roes, and fill up with forcemeat, and sew up the slit. Flour, and put them in a dish, heads and tails alternately, with the roes; and, between each layer, put some little pieces of butter, and pepper and salt. Bake for an hour, and either serve with plain melted butter or a maitre d’hotel sauce.

Time.—1/2 hour. Average cost for this quantity, 1s. 10d.

Seasonable from April to July.
Sufficient for 6 persons.

Note.—Baked mackerel may be dressed in the same way as baked herrings … and may also be stewed in wine.

Weight Of The Mackerel.—The greatest weight of this fish seldom exceeds 2 lbs., whilst their ordinary length runs between 14 and 20 inches. They die almost immediately after they are taken from their element, and, for a short time, exhibit a phosphoric light.

The Miser’s Unbearable Tightness of Being

The Miser, Thomas Couture 1876

A bowl of soup would have spared the life of Osterwald. A crust of bread would have kept the Berliner Danden from wasting away.

To what depths of destitution had Osterwald and Danden sunk that they would die in such a needlessly agonizing manner? The answer is, none at all. Both men were rich – indeed perhaps fatally so, each unwilling to part with the few shillings necessary to secure their sustenance.

Though he did not share Osterwald and Danden’s fortunes, John Overs certainly gave them a run for their money when it came to world-class miserliness. Overs never allowed quality to trump savings; only the moldiest marrow bones would he buy for his daily broth, which he no doubt needed in order to soften the stale bread that was his other staple. On the subject of Overs, Frederick Somner Merryweather writes in his Lives and Anecdotes of Misers (1850) that the old skinflint “would buy meat so tainted that even his dog would refuse it.” This squeamishness on the canine’s part Overs treated with contempt. He would chide the hound, calling it “a dainty cur,” one that was “better fed than taught.” Otherwise unfazed by this show of ungratitude, Overs would help himself to his mongrel’s miserable portion.

Such obduracy Overs extended to include his two-legged fellow creatures. So avaricious was he that he would feign death so that his servants would not “be so unnatural as to partake of food whilst his body was above ground, but would lament his loss, and observe a rigid fast.” But rather than lament the death of their master, the servants threw open his cupboards and “indulged in huge slices of cheese. ” So joyful were they that they “even ventured to cast aside the parings, and to take copious draughts of the miser’s ale.” Wrapped in his death shroud, Overs could only lie mutely by and suffer “their mutinous disrespect.”

Yet Overs found he could endure this saturnalia but briefly. Enraged by the pillaging of his larder he started up, intending to chastise his perfidious servants. Thinking he was seeing Over’s ghost, one of them caught hold of an oar, and smashed the poor miser’s brains from his head. The servant, however, never suffered punishment for his action. A novel bit of legal reasoning secured his acquittal. It was determined that Overs, “who thought only to counterfeit death, occasioned it in earnest,” and was therefore “the prime cause of his own death.” The festivities, Merryweather happily reports, continued unabated.

Should a spirit of thrift take hold of you, consider preparing this casserole known as Ffest Y Cybydd, or “The Miser’s Feast,” the recipe for which appears in Bobby Freeman’s guide to Welsh cuisine, First Catch Your Peacock (1996).

The Miser’s Feast (Ffest Y Cybydd)

Cover the bottom of a saucepan with peeled potatoes (whole) and a sliced onion, with a little salt. Cover with water and bring to a boil. When the water is boiling, place on top of the potatoes and onion a few slices of bacon or a piece of ham, replace the lid and allow to simmer till the potatoes are cooked, when most of the water will be absorbed.

The Curious Career of the Cambridge Book-Fish

Of the various vegetable hawkers, meat sellers, poulterers and pastry vendors crying up their wares the morning of June 23, 1626, the loudest outburst issued from a fishmonger. Her shout was not, however, one solicitous of traffic but expressive of surprise; for in the stomach of one cod, sliced, salted and ready for sale, she spied a prodigy so arresting as to bring the shoppers of the great Cambridge market stampeding to her stall: a small book wrapped in sail cloth.

“I saw all with mine own eyes, the fish, the maw, the piece of sail cloth, the book, and observed all I have written,” remarked one eyewitness in a letter, who hastened to add that he observed “not the opening of the fish, which not many did, being upon the fish-woman’s stall in the market.” Indeed, the fish-woman was alone with the cod for some time. It was she “who first cut off [its] head” and noticed that it seemed “much stuffed with somewhat.” Having aroused curiosity, it was duly searched and the contents “found as aforesaid.” Yet lest there arise any suspicion of funny business the eyewitness adds, “He that had had his nose as near as I yester morning, would have been persuaded there was no imposture here without witness.”

Whether an imposture was indeed pulled off remains a matter of speculation. It was determined, however, that this curious find, which was “much soiled, and covered with slime,” was penned by one John Frith, an adherent of the “reformed religion.” Condemned for his heretical beliefs, Frith composed his text while imprisoned in a fish cellar in Oxford. His was a mostly solitary confinement, his cellmates having succumbed to “the impure exhalations of unsound salt fish.” One supposes that just before his removal to the Tower of London, where in 1533 he was burned at the stake, Frith slipped his work into one of the fish that shared his quarters.

Frith’s book, a duodecimo volume of religious treatises, endured this second confinement for almost a century, commingling matters of the spirit with decidedly less wholesome vapors. Upon its fortuitous discovery, authorities at Cambridge commissioned a reprint. Rechristened Vox Piscis, or The Book-Fish, it featured a frontispiece depicting emblems of that fateful market morning — a stall, a cod, a knife, and a book.

A summer meal of salted codfish ought not to encourage schisms. Folks of all confessions will enjoy this recipe for salted cod with egg sauce, which appears in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769). After all, they have far less at stake than did poor John Frith.

Salted Cod with Egg Sauce

To dress a Salt Cod.

Steep your salt Fish in Water all Night, with a Glass of Vinegar, it will fetch out the Salt, and make it eat like fresh Fish, the next Day boil it, when it is enough, pull it in streaks into your Dish, then pour Egg Sauce over it, or Parsnips boiled and beat fine, with Butter and Cream; send it to the Table on a Water Plate, for it will soon grow cold.

To make Egg Sauce for a Salt Cod.

Boil four Eggs hard, first half chop the Whites, then put in the Yolks, and chop them both together, but not very small, put them into half a Pound of good melted Butter, and let it boil up, then pour it on the Fish.

Fanfare for a Common Fungus: The "Trumpet of Death"

Depending on the region, June heralds the arrival of a coal-black mushroom known variously as the “trumpet of death,” the “horn of plenty” or “black chanterelles.” The fruiting bodies of this mushroom encircle oaks and tend to bunch under rhododendrons, proliferating seemingly overnight and disappearing usually within a week.

In his 1908 guide The Mushroom, Edible and Otherwise, American mycologist Miron Elisha Hard offers a sense of the trumpet of death’s distinctive morphology. “[N]o one one will have any trouble in recognizing the species,” he writes, “having once seen its picture and read its description.” Unmistakeable are its “elongated or trumpet-shaped cap, and … dingy-gray or sooty-brown hue.” Though this coloration may not whet the casual onlooker’s appetite, the mushroom’s flavor, once sampled, is sure to. The trumpet of death “proves a favorite whenever tested,” Hard assures readers, “and may be dried and kept for future use.”

British mycologist Mrs. Thomas June Hussey voices her concurrence with the impressions of her American colleague, writing that “La Trombetta di morte” (Italian for Trumpet of Death) is a “very peculiar and elegant fungus” that despite its appearance makes for delicious eating. She recounts how one convert to “the wisdom of Mycology purchased half a bushel in Covent Garden … to convert into ketchup,” a culinary experiment that at a mere two shillings “was cheap enough” to justify the effort — though “for the poor woodland denizens so ruthlessly torn from their habitat and crammed into a hamper” a heavy toll, indeed. Despite its low cost, the experiment involving these displaced denizens was a failure: “Ketchup, we need scarcely say, they did not afford.”

Though perhaps an unfit condiment, the trumpet of death makes a terrific garnish for beef, chicken and pasta dishes of all kinds, and pizzas gain added pizazz when topped with it. The mushroom can even improve beverages served with meals; a single black chanterelle, it is said, can make a bottle of rotgut white wine taste like the rarest vintage.

Though difficult to spot, the trumpet of death occurs commonly enough to reward any patient search with bounty. Almost any park or patch of open woodland is certain to harbor it, and it is a great “starter” mushroom for beginning mycologists. No other mushroom resembles the trumpet of death, which means that a dinner featuring them won’t result in, well, death.

Fungus-curious individuals interested in sampling the trumpet of death should try this recipe for a mushroom ragoût from William Hamilton Gibson’s 1895 field guide, Our Edible Toadstools and Mushrooms and How To Distinguish Them. It can be poured on pasta or, as the recipe suggests, toasted bread.

Mushroom Ragoût

“Put into a stewpan a little stock, a small quantity of vinegar, parsley and green onions chopped up, salt, and spices. When this is about to boil, the mushrooms being cleaned, put them in. When done remove them from the fire and thicken with yolks of eggs.” — Worthington Smith. Another recommends that the stew should be poured upon toast, or upon crusts of bread previously fried in butter.

A New England Tomato Tour de Force

A dinner in which each dish features the humble tomato? Sounds excessive. But that’s exactly what one housewife hosted, according to an 1894 edition of The New England Kitchen Magazine. Known for her “delightful little dinners,” she was eager to prepare one her guests would not soon forget. Only five invitations were sent; her “home was small but dainty and cosey.”  Her guests she chose carefully: “Five friends that she knew to be very fond of tomatoes.”

She omitted no detail when it came to ensuring her party would be a success. Cards were made upon which each guest’s name was “printed across the center in gilt. A small branch representing a tomato plant with a ripe tomato upon it was painted in water colors across the top of the card. The printing and the painting were done by the skillful hand of the hostess.” The day the hostess also selected with care, one “early in the summer … when tomatoes were more of a rarity then they would have been later in the season.”

And the menu? To begin the guests enjoyed a plate of raw tomatoes, followed by tomato soup. Tomato appetizers tuned tongues to taste boiled halibut with tomato sauce. The main course was a fillet of beef with escalloped tomatoes. Stuffed tomatoes were made available to those who wanted more … er … tomatoes. The dishes were savored, the five guests deeming them “a great success.”

Now that summer has arrived, and with it bushels of tomatoes, you too can host such a dinner. Try this recipe for stuffed tomato salad from The New England Cookbook (1912). If you wish to outdo the tomato-loving hostess featured in The New England Kitchen Magazine, serve your tomato salad with tomato pudding and a generous ladleful of tomato soup, all from the 1867 edition of The New England Farmer.

Stuffed Tomato Salad

Choose firm ripe tomatoes. Cut off a piece from the top and remove the seed. Stuff with chopped cucumber, green pepper and minced onion thoroughly mixed with mayonnaise. Chill on ice and serve on delicate lettuce leaves.

Tomato Pudding

Pour boiling water on tomatoes; remove the skins. Put in the bottom of the pudding-dish some bread-crumbs, then slice the tomatoes on them, season with sugar, butter, pepper and salt, add some more bread-crumbs, then the sliced tomatoes and seasoning; and if the tomato does not wet the bread-crumbs, add a little water. Then for a small pudding beat up two eggs and pour over the top. Bake about twenty minutes.

Tomato Soup

Wash, scrape, and cut small the red part of three large carrots, three heads of celery, four large onions, two large turnips: put them into a saucepan, with a teaspoonful of butter, half a pound of lean, new ham; let them stew very gently for an hour; then add three quarts of brown gravy soup and some whole black pepper, with eight or ten ripe tomatoes; let it boil an hour and a half, and pulp it through a sieve; serve it with fried bread cut in dice.

The Government Hospital for the Insane: Nutrition for Those Deemed Non Compos Mentis

The United States Office of Experiment Stations conducted a number of dietary studies at the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. The hospital was “designed primarily for the benefit of persons who have become insane while performing Government duty as soldiers and sailors,” though it also housed “all the insane of the District of Columbia.” Home to some 2,200 souls, the hospital was chosen as the site of the dietary study because its inmates were said to be “of an exceptionally good class”; the majority of them were neither hostile nor untidy. Being former military men, they were believed to possess above average in intelligence and a decent education.

According to the Secretary of Agriculture, the studies were intended to improve the diet of inmates, while at the same time discovering more cost-effective ways of feeding them. The inmates received three meals a day — at seven, twelve, and five o’clock. Hot bread was served with breakfast. Dinner (lunch) featured hearty fare and supper lighter. These meals were closely monitored, for the investigation of the Office of Experiment Stations wished to determine the nutritional value of the asylum’s food, the amount of food actually consumed, and the success of different methods of handling, cooking and serving it.

The studies differed by ward. The study conducted on the residents of the “Beech” ward, which consisted mainly of “young men who were quiet and orderly” and who “would probably recover,” was one of the more successful. Most of the men on the Beech ward worked in the laundry room, tailor shop, mattress shop, and other areas of industry within the asylum. Their relatively cooperativeness made them an ideal population for such an experiment.

The Beech ward study began on March 30, 1903 with a hearty breakfast of fried sausage and hominy “and continued for 7 days, with 21 meals. The total number of meals taken was 615.”

The meals were varied and nutritious. On the Friday following the study’s inception, the inmates of the Beech ward enjoyed a hearty supper of “beef stew, prune sauce, bread, butter, tea.” The stew was likely similar to this recipe for “a nice beef stew” from the 1901 The “Home Queen” Cook Book. Serve it with prune sauce or boiled potatoes for an economical yet hearty dinner.

A Nice Beef Stew

Take the lean of the top of the round, or of the ribs, and cut into cubes about 2 inches square, cover the meat with a coating of flour and season with pepper and salt. Slice 1 or 2 small onions and fry in the kettle in which you make your stew, with some beef fat or drippings until quite brown, then put in the meat, cover closely and place on back of stove and cook for 6 or 7 hours slowly. When ready to serve, if gravy is not thick enough, add a little flour into which a small piece of butter has been blended. Boil some carrots cut in slices lengthwise and serve with this dish, also baked potatoes — Irish or sweet — and served in their jackets. A comfortable family dinner for a cold or rainy day. Be careful to keep your stew pan covered and cook slowly.

Rinktum Ditty: An Arizona Logger’s Treat

In the 1917 travel guide Arizona, the Wonderland author George Wharton James writes that the “casual traveler, riding through Arizona on a railway train, oftentimes passes through the most romantic and fascinating regions” whose charms, because they are of a scrubby, subtle variety, tend to go unappreciated. Yet “no one with an eye for beauty could regard the town of Williams in this light,” James maintains. Situated 6780 feet above sea level and covered in vanilla-scented pines, Williams, Arizona enjoys “a wonderful outlook over the great prehistoric inland sea to the very rim of the Grand Canyon.” Indeed, nature “has done much to make the town attractive,” James concludes.

Williams was as industrious as it was beautiful. A great lumber-making town, it supplied trainloads of logs daily for sawmills that turned out over 30 million feet of lumber a year. It was the terminus of the Grand Canyon Railroad and a commercial point on the A. T. & S. F. Railway. A plant west of town processed the virgin wood, making it fit for the largest Southwestern box factory, which operated nearby. Fragrant pines were then transformed into “dry goods, shoe and other packing boxes” that went east, and boxes for the “great meat and fruit packers,” some of which journeyed as far away as South Africa.

Not all of Williams’ pine timber ended up as boxes. Many thousands of feet were sent to “the great mines of Arizona,” and other carloads went to “the Great Lakes States, to be converted into doors and windows, and other factory uses.”

The lumber industry, along with copper mining and ranching, supported many of Williams’ families in modest comfort. The town boasted the “most modern school buildings in the Territory, and an efficient corps of teachers.” Residents enjoyed “most of the modern conveniences, electric lights, water works, and a sewer system.” The telephone service was said to be eminently superior. But in 1911 the bustling town of 2,500 was missing one important amenity: a public library.

The Williams Public Library Association sought to remedy this lack. It published The Arizona Cookbook, the proceeds from which were to go to constructing and maintaining a public library. Town residents and other supporters of the initiative contributed hundreds of tasty, economical recipes. With the help of The Arizona Cookbook one can whip up a “sheep or cow camp menu,” “a lunch basket for the Arizona cowboy,” or something more simple like this recipe, submitted by a sympathetic Coloradan, for “Rinktum Ditty.” Serve it over French bread or, as the contributor suggests, salted crackers.

Rinktum Ditty

Two tablespoons butter (melt in pan), one cup tomato soup (add to butter), one-fourth teaspoon soda, one cup cream, one-half pound American cheese. Have cheese well melted with other mixture, add three well beaten eggs, season with pepper, salt and paprika. Serve on salt crackers. — Miss Leatto Thompson, Los Annmas, Colo.