History cracked like an egg
The British have their eccentrics, but America has crackpots.
There is something quaint about the Englishman wearing a cutaway and top hat in the Sahara sun, or refusing to read any book unless its author’s name begins with the letter “A”. But the American version of this tendency usually comes out in something more oracular: Americans create new religions and build temples out of bottlecaps. And they are obsessed with peculiar certainty that nobody has got history correctly except themselves.
One of the great American crackpots wrote cookbooks. George Leonard Herter built one of the nation’s great outfitting businesses, in Waseca, Minn. His fortune was founded on shotgun cartridges and duck calls. But his lasting place in history comes from the books he wrote, most notably, the Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, and it is not for the faint of heart.
In what other cookbook would you find the claim: ”The Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ, was very fond of spinach”?
Herter goes on to say, ”This is as well a known fact in Nazareth today as it was 19 centuries ago. Her favorite music was that of the crude bagpipes of that time, and this is a well-known fact.”
He then proceeds to give us her recipe for spinach, which, he says, was the only thing she ate in the stable where Jesus was born.
No, this is not a religious book. Other ”historical” claims include, ”Sauerbraten was invented by Charlemagne,” and that St. Thomas Aquinas was so fat, ”He simply sawed out a half circle in his eating table so that his stomach could fit comfortably into the sawed out section.”
He tells us that Johannes Kepler’s work on astronomy has long since been forgotten, ”but his creating liverwurst will never be forgotten.”
He has Bat Masterson’s recipe for prairie dog, Marie Antoinette’s recipe, not for cake, but for trout. He says Joan of Arc was responsible for the invention of pate de foie gras.
His standard recipe runs something like this: ”No one knows how to bake a potato anymore. I’ll tell you how to bake a potato.”
It is clear from the presentation that Herter is not trying to be funny. He is dead serious. As when he opens the book with this:
”For your convenience, I will start with meats, fish, eggs, soups and sauces, sandwiches, vegetables, the art of French frying, desserts, how to dress game, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to make wines and beer, how to make French soap, what to do in case of hydrogen or cobalt bomb attack. Keeping as much in alphabetical order as possible.”
Of course, the index is not in alphabetical order.
Herter wrote a number of books; among the more notable were How to Live With a Bitch and The Truth About Hunting in Today’s Africa and How to Go on a Safari for $690.00 (“Baboons are simply too small for leopard bait”).
I can’t vouch for any Bull Cook recipes. Most seem to involve a “well-buttered slice of bread” and some ground beef fried in even more butter. But I can say that Herter seems to have two entertaining obsessions that make up the bulk of the book, and its sequels, volumes 2 and 3.
He expresses the absolute certainty of the crackpot when he tells us his version of history:
“Napoleon Bonaparte always remained a great mama’s boy.”
“Napoleon not only liked green beans very well, but believed that they helped to produce more sperm in male humans. As he was always a man who played the ladies frequently, this was just as important to him as winning wars.”
Napoleon shows up frequently in the book. So does Cleopatra. Let Herter explain ancient Roman Egypt for you.
According to Herter’s version of ancient history, Cleopatra tired of Marc Anthony and tricked him into killing himself.
“Cleopatra went over to where Mark Anthony lay and made sure that he was dead. She then sent a messenger to Octavian telling the good news and asking him to come over for the weekend. Octavian did come over to visit her as he well remembered her charms when she lived in Rome. She did her best to charm him in every way possible and he was willing. Cleopatra was now thirty-nine and had produced five children. They did not have girdles in those days, nor uplift brassieres. She had widened out and her famous bosom had sagged considerably. The old charm simply was not there. Octavian decided that the younger models were more to his liking and told her she better get out of Egypt and he did not want to see her in Italy either. Octavian made Egypt a part of the Roman Empire. The Roman Legion, now that the fighting was over, had a well-earned vacation putting Italian blood into Egypt. It is still very much there today. They actually changed the appearance of the Egyptians to a very Italian look which they still have today. Cleopatra was just in the way. Octavian had one of his men pay a servant to poison her. Her record proved she was not the type to kill herself for anything or anyone. Besides, there were no asps anywhere near the town she was in. If she did have an asp and let it bite in one of her breasts as the fable goes, it would not have killed her anyway. A woman’s breast is mostly fat and it is one of the places where the bite of any poisonous snake has little effect.”
There follows a recipe for “Watermelon Pickles Cleopatra.”
He is a fountain of prejudices, and has no doubts about his opinions.
“Henry the VIII actually never amounted to anything and would not have made a good ditchdigger. The only thing that he ever did to to his credit was to highly endorse the kidneys made by Elizabeth Grant, one of his many cooks.”
He knows with dead certainty how Genghis Kahn liked his steaks prepared and how Gregor Mendel cooked his eggs. And according to Herter, it is not his banditry or gunslinging for which Billy the Kid will be remembered by posterity, but for his recipe for cornmeal pancakes.
“Here is his own recipe which will long outlive Billy’s memory.”
Herter’s other obsession is sex, and most specifically, women’s breasts. The second volume of the Bull Cook is full of bad black-and-white reproductions of famous paintings of the nude, and his historical commentary often features descriptions of famous cleavages of the past.
He tells us that Cleopatra “was said to have the longest, most pointed breasts in all the world. The movie actresses that have tried to play Cleopatra from time to time never qualified on this point.”
“Greek women have always been known for their unusually well-developed breasts. They have always felt that bare breasts gave them more grace and beauty and that exposing breasts was not at all immodest.”
“In those days, if you didn’t have breasts worth showing, you were really in trouble. A flat chested pendulent breasted woman just did not have a chance in life.
In another place, he reprints a portrait by Bartolomeo Veneto (and misattributing it as he does so) and tell us:
“Lucrezia Borgia, well-known poisoner, painted by Veneziano in 1520. By this time, it was popular to wear dresses with one breast exposed and the breast nicely rouged. As you can well see, this style did nothing for Lucrezia as she had nothing special to show.”
He has a chapter titled: “Bare Breasts and Food In the United States.” In it and passim, he describes various topless establishments, comparing those in Paris with those in Las Vegas. Vegas wins, by his reckoning.
“For my part I enjoy eating very much. I do not like to look at female breasts while I am eating as I like to concentrate on my food. There is a time and place for everything and I prefer exposed female breasts in a bedroom, a tepee or a clean cave.”
It isn’t only breasts, though.
“Michelangelo learned to paint and sculpture sexual organs probably better than anyone that ever lived. He never learned to use his own properly, however, and was a homosexual.”
And he has a way of combining his questionable grasp on history with his prurience:
“Charles the II of England was born in 1630 and died Feb. 6 in 1685. He married the beautiful Portuguese woman, Catherine of Braganza who brought Bombay, India and Tangier to England as part of her dowry. Those were the days when getting married could really get you something. He never had any legitimate children as Catherine was just plain scared of pushing out a child through so small a space. She became an early expert and exponent on birth control.”
There is more than an undercurrent of bigotry in him. While he exults American Indians (not always reliably: “Pizza pies were of course, unknown as these too are of American Indian origin.”), and recounts many instances where white America has raped and pillaged the Indians, he holds many questionable ideas about women and other races.
In that section on Michelangelo, for instance, he says: “Michelangelo’s statue of David shows what can be done with a piece of marble. As far as showing what David might have looked like, it is a masterpiece of errors. David was a Jew and undoubtedly had the high cheekbones and nose of a Jew. This figure is strictly Anglo-Saxon in appearance, not even Roman.”
On a section (see below) spent with Horatio Nelson and his mistress Lady Hamilton, he includes a portrait of the woman, misspelling the name of the artist (Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun) and in his caption tells us something about his opinion of women.
“The portrait was painted by Madam Vigee-Ledrun , one of the few good women artists the world has ever known. Women because of the effect of menstruation upon them, rarely can become even fair painters.”
Not to mention his take on Joan of Arc: “Never underestimate the strength and courage of a woman that is really mad at you.”
Among his other obsessions are nuclear war and art.
“Red pepper good for radiation and upset stomachs”
“We always have the money to buy good soap in this country and women folk look down on such menial tasks as making soap these days. An H bomb strike in this country would change the whole picture.”
“I never have been an admirer of the paintings of Matisse but I always thought his cooking was excellent.” What follows is a recipe for “Beans Matisse.”
I could go on all day giving you quotes from the Bull Cook.
“Joshua 10:13 in about 1451 years before Christ says that the sun stood still in heaven and did not go down for the space of one day. This caused Indian Mexico to become dark.”
“Mozart was a man that believed just putting a lady on her back was not at all enough. Seducing an actress was a game with him that had to be done properly or not at all. He wined and dined his amours very well before getting down to any serious romancing. His dessert I like far better than his music and his orange wine is a classic. Here are his original recipes.”
Not to mention:
Eggs “are best eaten in a well ventilated room.”
“Never drink coffee right after eating peppered fried eggs or soft-boiled eggs.”
The combination of sex and history, scrambled, fried and soft-boiled can be enjoyed in his version of the life and appetites of Lord Horatio Nelson:
“Horatio Nelson was a fragile, very sensitive man nearly always in poor health. He was not at all good looking and women shunned him.”
“In the West Indies, on March 11, 1787, he made the greatest blunder of his life. He was more or less trapped into marrying Frances Nesbit, the widow of a doctor Nevis. Nelson had simply spent too many years on the seas with only men to look at and the prospect of having any nude woman looked like a catch to him.”
“Emma Lyon was born on May 12, 1765 … She grew up to be a lively, robust, big-breasted beauty that attracted any normal man.”
“Emma had a way with men, which consisted mainly of taking off her clothes. During Nelson’s battle of the Nile she obtained valuable information for Nelson. When Nelson returned from the campaign of the Nile to Naples, Emma arranged to meet him in her bedroom with nothing on but a string of pearls. Nelson’s wife had turned out to be a cold unenthusiastic bed partner and Emma, the vivacious, warm, bubbling prostitute was a welcome change.”
“I have always admired Horatio Nelson. He was not much physically or mentally, but he was an honest, hard-working man. He never cared what anyone thought or said about him. He liked Emma because she was a good bed partner and a light-hearted, depression chaser around the house.
“Horatio Nelson was not much of an eater as he had a bad stomach. His favorite food was a sandwich which he ate both on ship and shore. Here is his original recipe.”
It is a kind of onion sandwich on well-buttered bread. “Eat with a bottle of strong beer,” Herter recommends.
“This is a truly great sandwich befitting a truly great man and besides, it burps beautifully.”
Like this nutty review of a nutty life. Herter’s catalogue for paranoids and survivalists and actual outdoors people was a wonder to behold and to read. Hyperbole re the attributes of the products sold was the norm. All ended with “Order one out.”
Best rendition of Herter’s books that I have seen. I have for of them and will look for the others you mentioned.