The Universe of Discourse

Wed, 16 May 2007

Moziz Addums
Last July at a porch sale I obtained a facsimile copy of Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by M.C. Tyree, originally published in 1879. I had been trying to understand the purpose of ironing. Ironing makes the clothes look nice, but it must have also served some important purpose, essential for life, that I don't now understand. In the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, Laura recounts a common saying that scheduled the week's work:

Wash on Monday
Iron on Tuesday
Mend on Wednesday
Churn on Thursday
Clean on Friday
Bake on Saturday
Rest on Sunday

You bake on Saturday so that you have fresh bread for Sunday dinner. You wash on Monday because washing is backbreaking labor and you want to do it right after your day of rest. You iron the following day before the washed clothes are dirty again. But why iron at all? If you don't wash the clothes or clean the house, you'll get sick and die. If you don't bake, you won't have any bread, and you'll starve. But ironing? In my mind it was categorized with dusting, as something people with nice houses in the city might do, but not something that Ma Ingalls, three miles from the nearest neighbor, would concern herself with.

But no. Ironing, and starching with the water from boiled potatoes, was so important that it got a whole day to itself, putting it on par with essential activities like cleaning and baking. But why?

A few months later, I figured it out. In this era of tumble-drying and permanent press, I had forgotten what happens to fabrics that are air dried, and did not understand until I was on a trip and tried to air-dry a cotton bath towel. Air-dried fabrics come out not merely wrinkled but corrugated, like an accordion, or a washboard, and are unusable. Ironing was truly a necessity.

Anyway, I was at this porch sale, and I hoped that this 1879 housekeeping book might provide the answer to the ironing riddle. It turned out to be a cookbook. There is plenty to say about this cookbook anyway. It comes recommended by many notable ladies, including Mrs. R.B. Hayes. (Her husband was President of the United States.) She is quoted on the flyleaf as being "very much pleased" with the cookbook.

Some of the recipes are profoundly unhelpful. For example, p.106 has:

Boiled salmon. After the fish has been cleaned and washed, dry it and sew it up in a cloth; lay in a fish-kettle, cover with warm water, and simmer until done and tender.

Just how long do I simmer it? Oh, until it is "done" and "tender". All right, I will just open up the fish kettle and poke it to see. . . except that it is sewed up in a cloth. Hmmm.

You'd think that if I'm supposed to simmer this fish that has been sewn up in a cloth, the author of the recipe might advise me on how long until it is "done". "Until tender" is a bit of a puzzle too. In my experience, fish become firmer and less tender the longer you simmer them. Well, I have a theory about this. The recipe is attributed to "Mrs. S.T.", and consulting the index of contributors, I see that it is short for "Mrs. Samuel Tyree", presumably the editor's mother-in-law. Having a little joke at her expense, perhaps?

There are a lot of other interesting points, which may appear here later. For example, did you know that the most convenient size hog for household use is one of 150 to 200 pounds? And the cookbook contains recipes not only for tomato catsup, but also pepper catsup, mushroom catsup, and walnut catsup.

But the real reason I brought all this up is that page 253–254 has the following item, attributed to "Moziz Addums":

Resipee for cukin kon-feel Pees. Gether your pees 'bout sun-down. The folrin day, 'bout leven o'clock, gowge out your pees with your thum nale, like gowgin out a man's ey-ball at a kote house. Rense your pees, parbile them, then fry 'erm with some several slices uv streekd middlin, incouragin uv the gravy to seep out and intermarry with your pees. When modritly brown, but not scorcht, empty intoo a dish. Mash 'em gently with a spune, mix with raw tomarters sprinkled with a little brown shugar and the immortal dish ar quite ready. Eat a hepe. Eat mo and mo. It is good for your genral helth uv mind and body. It fattens you up, makes you sassy, goes throo and throo your very soul. But why don't you eat? Eat on. By Jings. Eat. Stop! Never, while thar is a pee in the dish.

This was apparently inserted for humorous effect. Around the time the cookbook was written, there was quite a vogue for dialectal humor of this type, most of which has been justly forgotten. Probably the best-remembered practitioner of this brand of humor was Josh Billings, who I bet you haven't heard of anyway. Tremendously popular at the time, almost as much so as Mark Twain, his work is little-read today; the joke is no longer funny. The exceptionally racist example above is in many ways typical of the genre.

One aspect of this that is puzzling to us today (other than the obvious "why was this considered funny?") is that it's not clear exactly what was supposed to be going on. Is the idea that Moziz Addums wrote this down herself, or is this a transcript by a literate person of a recipe dictated by Moziz Addums? Neither theory makes sense. Where do the misspellings come from? In the former theory, they are Moziz Addums' own misspellings. But then we must imagine someone literate enough to spell "intermarry" and "immortal" correctly, but who does not know how to spell "of".

In the other theory, the recipe is a transcript, and the misspellings have been used by the anonymous, literate transcriber to indicate Moziz Addums' unusual or dialectal pronunciations, as with "tomarters", perhaps. But "uv" is the standard (indeed, the only) pronunciation of "of", which wrecks this interpretation. (Spelling "of" as "uv" was the signature of Petroleum V. Nasby, another one of those forgotten dialectal humorists.) And why did the transcriber misspell "peas" as "pees"?

So what we have here is something that nobody could possibly have written or said, except as an inept parody of someone else's speech. I like my parody to be rather less artificial.

All of this analysis would be spoilsportish if the joke were actually funny. E.B. White famously said that "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." Here, at least, the frog had already been dead for a hundred years dead before I got to it.

[ Addendum 20100810: In case you were wondering, "kon-feel pees" are actually "cornfield peas", that is, peas that have been planted in between the rows of corn in a cornfield. ]

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