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poemSan Francisco Chronicle, December 21, 1920. Walt Mason, aka “Uncle Walt,” was a newspaper doggerlist of some renown, though I’m not sure I’d sign off on this website’s proposition that “there are few people to-day who have not, at some time or other, heard of” the scribbling old rhymer.

Anyway, this shabbily typeset verse implicitly places mince in the context of the rise of urban industrialism and accompanying changes in way we ate. In addition to all of its dark and dangerous attributes (indigestibility, oneiric volatility, indeterminacy of content, etc.), mince pie was also the nostalgia food par excellence. The dividing line between the wholesome, innocent pie of “old times” and the dangerous pie of the present coincides with the line between home and market production of foodstuffs. One moment we were all–at least according to the myth– enjoying the reified, pastry-wrapped love of Aunt Jemimah, the next we were sitting in an anonymous urban beanery chomping down on telephone slugs and bus transfers embedded in stewed cat meat. And mince pie prepared by indifferent strangers wasn’t just bad, it was a “crime.” There is an underlying symbolic truth at work here: the collective callousness of food industries in the early 20th century necessitated the federal government to get serious about enacting food and drug laws to save us all from, for example, milk enriched with plaster, alum, flour or chalk. Free market, anti-regulation fundamentalists should all be made to choke on such wholesome fare until they outgrow their taste for Ayn Rand.

(Parenthetically: A warm Hope Chest shout-out to regular commenter Melynda, who has posted her great grandma’s mince recipe at her fun food-and-crafts website, with nice things to say about our obsessive efforts at the historical decoding of the pie. Awesomely, the meat component of the recipe is a roasted venison neck. Mmmm, venison neck… ).

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10 Comments

  1. This totally explains what happened to mince pie: Aunt Jemima stopped making it when she switched to pancakes.

    • Ha!
      I was hoping Uncle Walt would turn out to be a Southerner, and thus likely to be referring exactly that Mammy kind of Auntie, but the dude was from Kansas.

  2. Walt Mason is obviously the source for Sinclair Lewis’s Chum Frink, “T. Cholmondeley Frink, who was not only the author of “Poemulations,” which, syndicated daily in sixty-seven leading newspapers, gave him one of the largest audiences of any poet in the world, but also an optimistic lecturer and the creator of ‘Ads that Add.’ Despite the searching philosophy and high morality of his verses, they were humorous and easily understood by any child of twelve; and it added a neat air of pleasantry to them that they were set not as verse but as prose. Mr. Frink was known from Coast to Coast as ‘Chum.'”

    Another mystery solved by Mr. Parallel! (And thanks for the shout-out.)

  3. This is the first I’ve heard of Chum Frink, but also sounds quite a bit like Edgar Guest. Perhaps he was a composite figure like Tipsy McStagger?

  4. Chum (T. Cholmondeley Frink) is the hometown poet character in Lewis’s 1920 novel, *Babbit.* At the risk of clogging up the comments, here’s the sample poem Lewis provides for the character–it’s a dead ringer for Mason’s paean to pie:

    “When I am out upon the road, a poet with a pedler’s load I mostly sing a hearty song, and take a chew and hike along, a-handing out my samples fine of Cheero Brand of sweet sunshine, and peddling optimistic pokes and stable lines of japes and jokes to Lyceums and other folks, to Rotarys, Kiwanis’ Clubs, and feel I ain’t like other dubs. And then old Major Silas Satan, a brainy cuss who’s always waitin’, he gives his tail a lively quirk, and gets in quick his dirty work. He fills me up with mullygrubs; my hair the backward way he rubs; he makes me lonelier than a hound, on Sunday when the folks ain’t round. And then b’ gosh, I would prefer to never be a lecturer, a-ridin’ round in classy cars and smoking fifty-cent cigars, and never more I want to roam; I simply want to be back home, a-eatin’ flap jacks, hash, and ham, with folks who savvy whom I am!

    “But when I get that lonely spell, I simply seek the best hotel, no matter in what town I be—St. Paul, Toledo, or K.C., in Washington, Schenectady, in Louisville or Albany. And at that inn it hits my dome that I again am right at home. If I should stand a lengthy spell in front of that first-class hotel, that to the drummers loves to cater, across from some big film theayter; if I should look around and buzz, and wonder in what town I was, I swear that I could never tell! For all the crowd would be so swell, in just the same fine sort of jeans they wear at home, and all the queens with spiffy bonnets on their beans, and all the fellows standing round a-talkin’ always, I’ll be bound, the same good jolly kind of guff, ‘bout autos, politics and stuff and baseball players of renown that Nice Guys talk in my home town!

    “Then when I entered that hotel, I’d look around and say, “Well, well!” For there would be the same news-stand, same magazines and candies grand, same smokes of famous standard brand, I’d find at home, I’ll tell! And when I saw the jolly bunch come waltzing in for eats at lunch, and squaring up in natty duds to platters large of French Fried spuds, why then I’d stand right up and bawl, “I’ve never left my home at all!” And all replete I’d sit me down beside some guy in derby brown upon a lobby chair of plush, and murmur to him in a rush, “Hello, Bill, tell me, good old scout, how is your stock a-holdin’ out?” Then we’d be off, two solid pals, a-chatterin’ like giddy gals of flivvers, weather, home, and wives, lodge-brothers then for all our lives! So when Sam Satan makes you blue, good friend, that’s what I’d up and do, for in these States where’er you roam, you never leave your home sweet home.”

    Ah, poetry!

  5. Yes, I think you’ve proven your case. I guess I really ought to take another run at Sinclair Lewis.

  6. Well, I thought I was done, but I have another question. Why on earth would the dead Aunt Jemima be wearing bells in the afterlife?

    • She’s a Morris dancer maybe? Or for the benefit of blind cherubs?

    • It makes me think of the line “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings” from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but this obviously predates it. Perhaps there was some (now-forgotten) cultural connection between angels and bells that was the source for both.

  7. The Lewis poem is like an inversion of the rock star’s lament about how tough it is “on the road” , avoiding all those yellow Smarties , recieving all those blowjobs , etc. For example , I might present Bob Seger , who purports to “walk into the restaurant , strung out from the road.”


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