This, the most important meal of the day, is attended with a certain degree of ceremony in the most modest household. Breakfast may be hurried over in haste that is not unseemly when one considers that the day's work is all ahead of the family, and luncheon may dwindle down to a "cold bite" eaten standing. Everybody must dine, and dining is always "business." A dinner party is the most serious of social functions, and even a family dinner follows a prescribed order. There must be a beginning, a middle and an end. Plates must be changed, for even in the backwoods, meat and pudding are not set on the table at the same time.
This is as it should be. If we would have "Good digestion wait on appetite, and health on both," we must bring to the discussion of the heavier nourishment set before us orderliness, leisure and tempers free from annoying discomforts. Magnificence is within the reach of a few; modest elegance is attainable by many; cleanliness and good manners are free to the humblest housemother and her brood.
So much for a general view of the wide field indicated by the word set at the head of this chapter. Before entering upon a discussion of the dishes which belong to this section of our book, I would lay stress upon a cardinal duty connected with dinner-eating - a duty the neglect of which is a proverbial national disgrace.
It is a physical impossibility to eat properly - and to digest with any prospect of healthful assimilation - a breakfast of coffee, steak, hot rolls and fried potatoes, in five minutes, or in fifteen. Yet this is what the commuter, the clerk, the collegian - and a host of other men (including an occasional capitalist) try to do six days in the week. They eat, as they live, on the jump. When an especially audacious jump lands them in the grave, intelligent scientists affect to wonder with the rest of mankind at the untimely taking-off.
A Christmas Table Decorated With Holly
An Autumn Dinner Table Decorated With Vines
A Table Decorated With Chrysanthemums And Palms
Big mouthfuls and bolting are alike part of the national trick advertised in dead earnest, not satirized, by the raucous shout of the brakeman at the half-way house - "Five minutes for refreshments!"
Mr. Gladstone did not consider it undignified to give, as one secret of the sanity of body and mind prolonged through fourscore years, his habit of chewing twenty times upon every morsel of meat taken into his mouth. The family physician who attended one of our great men - lately deceased - in his awfully brief final illness, said frankly that certain sharp attacks that had afflicted the statesman for several months before the cruel climax came, were caused by the habit of eating hurriedly such luncheons as he could snatch in the intervals of business. If the truth were told as bravely in thousands of other "mysterious visitations," business men would be startled and enlightened - if not cured - of like practices.
Dinner - the evening dinner in particular - gives the driven man a chance for his life. He sins against light and opportunity when he carries the bolting habit to the third meal. It may be vulgar to talk of chewing. Our very babies are taught to say "masticate," instead. It is more vulgar not to do the thing itself.
The cool indifference with which we admit the humiliating truth that our national digestion is chronically out of order, is more culpable even than the shiftless amiability with which we condone municipal and corporation murders. The individual citizen may well draw back from the task of fighting boards and millions. His digestive apparatus is his own, subject to no lien or disability except such as sloth and carelessness put upon it.
If there be a self-evident fact in everyday hygiene it is that food swallowed without chewing, clogs and irritates the stomach. No other health law is so shamelessly and constantly transgressed by the human animal whose habitat is the United States of America. The most stupid lout of a hostler knows that a horse must have time for chewing his oats, or he will go hungry; the scullion will tell you that, while chickens bolt whole corn and gobble down worms, the gizzard stands sentinel over the stomach, doing thoroughly the part of grinders and incisors. The cow sets us the best example of all our sensible dumb teachers. The wondrous-wise air with which she munches cud by the hour is a proverb among sages. The so-called nobler part of creation is not ashamed to seek in the pepsin, which is a memorial to her wisdom, a remedy for the ills brought upon himself by obstinate disregard of the duty her example enforces.
It is not a nice thing to talk or write of, as I have admitted. And this is not because the act of mastication is unseemly. The measured movement of the jaws in the decorous disposition of whatever is committed to them is no more grotesque than the "winking as usual," enjoined by the photographer. This is emphatically true when food is cut small before it is eaten.
The stomach is long-suffering and kind, but not omnipotent. The salivary glands are her natural and most efficient allies. The "bolter" cuts off supplies from this source. The chunks of solid matter, washed down with scalding liquid or iced water, are more than the other gastric juices can manage. The result is as sure as the addition of two and two, followed by the subtraction of four.
A judicious mother who has made physiology a study for her children's sake, teaches her little ones to chew the well-cooked cereals that form the staple of their breakfast. Furthermore, she teaches that it is indecent to swallow anything except liquids without chewing it. The rule is not arbitrary. Each child comprehends the office of the saliva, that the motion of chewing excites it, and that to take crude lumps of anything into the stomach is absolutely wrong.
In the chance that other mothers may imitate her example lies the only hope of the American stomach. The adult bolter is joined to his evil practice. He is feeding with egg-coal an engine that was built to be run with pea coal, adding to the mischief done the delicate machinery the outrage of chunking in and packing down the fuel.