Now and again in a spare moment I will take from a shelf one of my beautiful volumes of the Library of America — not exactly at random but with a certain element of caprice. It is never hard to find new things that need and reward reading. Recently I took down the volume of Frank Norris’ “Novels and Essays.” In college I learned that Norris (1870-1902) was a naturalist and a muck-raker, but as we never actually read him, that didn’t mean much. Years later I did take up “The Octopus” in a social novel binge mainly centered on Dreiser. I just read Norris’ first novel, “Vandover and the Brute”; it turned out to be pretty good for a book written in a Harvard undergraduate writing course. The setting is fin-de-siècle San Francisco — young men about town. Its subject is moral decay. To one anesthetized by post-modernism, it is almost shocking in its moral clarity. Norris seems entirely unembarrassed to use words like depravity, degeneracy, corruption, etc., and to analyze the sins of the flesh from a perspective other than the merely quantitative.
It is, however, a very minor aspect of the material culture described that is the inspiration for this post: the carnivore breakfast. Vandover and his pals spend a good deal of time chowing down in various Frisco taverns and bordellos. Standard evening snacks are large platters of oysters and “Welsh rabbits” — neither Welsh nor rabbits, of course, but a delivery system for scrumptious, cheesy calories devised by our ancestors before the blessings of pizza came to the land — washed down with goodly quantities of beer or champagne. But they regularly start off their days with a huge chunk of quadruped flesh. The standard conversational gambit for chums meeting up during the course of the day is a report on the avoirdupois of the morning’s meat. The 14-ounce beefsteak is apparently the favorite breakfast, though the odd chop or cutlet will do in a pinch. Pork products — ham, bacon, sausage — are for people on strict diets.
If you are used of a morning to facing half a grapefruit, a few choice grains of granola, or even a whole bowl of steel cut oats, the young carnivores of Frank Norris may be a cause for alarm. But it was not always thus.
In the autumn of 1958 I sailed for Europe with a cohort of my fellow Rhodes Scholars-elect. The ship was very grand, a floating city block from the Upper East Side; and though we were in the twilight of the age of the Atlantic Crossing, everything about the arrangements seemed specially designed to boggle the mind of a young man from the sticks. The food, served up by an abundance of waiters clad in bright, starchy white, was endless in its variety and apparently inexhaustible in its quantity.
I was eager for knowledge of the old culture I would soon be encountering. Someone had given me a light-hearted book full of advice for Americans about to visit the mother country for the first time. I cannot remember its title, and I lost the book itself ages ago. Still one or two of its gobbets of advice have stuck with me. “It is quite easy to get three good meals a day in England,” said my author, “so long as you eat three breakfasts.” The gastronomic scene in the British Isles has long since undergone a revolution, but in the late fifties, if you happened to be taking most of your meals in a college dining hall, the advice proved prescient.
While I never disdain the information offered by textbooks, I try always to test theory with observed practice. I discovered on shipboard that the “full English breakfast” invariably included — in addition to fried eggs, fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes and apparently deep fried bread — both sausages and bacon, the bacon being of the genre usually called “Canadian” on this side of the Atlantic.
There was among our fellow passengers on the ship a middle-aged guy who struck me as the quintessence of Britishness. He had a ruddy face adorned with a large russet moustache. He was never seen without a coat and tie, and rarely without a suit of coarse-threaded tweed that looked about as thick as a Bokhara carpet and about as comfortable as a wire brush. From his general demeanor one sensed he had not gotten the memo about having lost India.
Excess being addictive I was already by the fourth breakfast of the voyage looking for new worlds to conquer. Eschewing the “full English breakfast” I boldly ordered from the meaty sub-section of the huge menu kippered herrings and something called Köningsberger Klopse. How the waiter could accept this order with a straight face astonishes me in retrospect, but he did. The Klopse turned out to be meatballs in a kind of caper-flavored gravy and could have on their own constituted an ample evening meal. It’s not the kind of dish that required a supplement, especially a supplement of kippers.
Just as this breakfast was arriving under its gleaming metal dome the Imperial-tweeded gentleman whom I mentioned earlier happened to be ushered in and seated at a nearby table in my sight-line. We did not speak or even acknowledge each other’s presence; yet we shared a Jamesian moment. I could not help noticing the slight recoil on this man’s face when he saw what lay on the plates before me. He quickly recouped, averted his eyes and gave his own order to his own waiter. The distance between us was not great; I could not help overhearing his order. “Please bring me a cup of tea,” he said. “And a bowl of corn flakes.”