The Problem with U.S.

H. L. Mencken explains:

. . . here in this great republic we have the materials for the most superb victualry the world has ever seen, and our people have the money to pay for it. Even the poorest Americano, indeed, eats relatively expensive food. His wife knows nothing of the hard pinching that entertains her French sister. He has meat in abundance and in considerable variety, and a great wealth of fruits and vegetables. Yet he eats badly, gets very little enjoyment out of his meals, and is constantly taking pills. The hot dog is the reductio ad absurdum of American eating. The Sicilian in the ditch, though he can never be President, knows better: he puts a slice of onion between his slabs of bread, not a cartridge filled with the sweepings of the abattoirs.

The national taste for bad food seems all the more remarkable when one recalls that the United States, more than any other country of the modern world, has been enriched by immigrant cuisines. Every fresh wave of newcomers has brought in new dishes, and many of them have been of the highest merit. But very few of them have been adopted by the natives, and the few have been mainly inferior. From the Italians, for example, we have got only spaghetti; it is now so American that it is to be had in cans. But spaghetti is to the Italian cuisine simply what eggs are to the Spanish: a raw material. We eat it as only those Italians eat it who are on the verge of ceasing to eat at all. Of the multitudinous ways in which it can be cooked and garnished we have learned but one, and that one is undoubtedly the worst.

So with the German sauerkraut — a superb victual when properly prepared for the table. But how often, in America, is it properly prepared? Perhaps once in 100,000 times. Even the Germans, coming here, lose the art of handling it as it deserves. It becomes in their hands, as in the hands of American cooks, simply a sort of stewed hay, with overtones of the dishpan. To encounter a decent dish of it in an American eating house would be as startling as to encounter a decent soup.


What ails our victualry, principally, is the depressing standardization that ails everything else American. There was a time when every American eating house had its specialties, and many of them were excellent. One did not expect to find the same things everywhere. One went to one place for roast goose, and to another for broiled soft crabs, and to another for oysters, and to yet another for mutton chops. Rolls made the old Parker House in Boston famous, and terrapin a la Maryland did the same for Barnum’s and Guy’s hotels in Baltimore. . . .

in America the public cooks have all abandoned specialization and everyone of them seems bent upon cooking as nearly as possible like all the rest. The American hotel meal is as rigidly standardized as the parts of a flivver, and so is the American restaurant meal. The local dishes, in all eating houses pretending to any tone, are banned as low. So one hunts in vain in Boston for a decent plate of beans, and in Baltimore for a decent mess of steamed hard crabs, and in St. Louis for a decent rasher of catfish. They are obtainable, perhaps, but only along the wharves. One must take a squad of police along to enjoy them in safety. (“Victualry as Fine Art,” 1926)

H. L. Mencken Wasn't Roman Catholic and He Could Write

First Christian presidents and now Peter Leithart explores Christian writers. Why do Christians feel the need to describe human activities in the context of sanctification? Isn’t that a tad provincial?

Leithart’s argument is that because Roman Catholics rely more on sacraments than Protestants who treat them as merely symbols, Roman Catholicism produces better writers:

Marburg is important not so much for what it achieved but as a symbol of what it failed to achieve. It provides a symbolic marker not only for the parting of the ways between Lutheran and Zwinglian, but also, for Zwinglians, the final parting of the ways between symbol and reality. J. P. Singh Uberoi claimed that “Spirit, word and sign had finally parted company at Marburg in 1529. For centuries, Christian sacramental theology had held symbol and reality together in an unsteady tension, but that alliance was ruptured by the Zwinglian view of the real presence. For Zwingli, “myth or ritual . . . was no longer literally and symbolically real and true.” In short, “Zwingli was the chief architect of the new schism and . . . Europe and the world followed Zwingli in the event.”

For many post-Marburg Protestants, literal truth is over here, while symbols drift off in another direction. At best, they live in adjoining rooms; at worst, in widely separated neighborhoods, and they definitely inhabit different academic departments.

Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology. Protestants will learn to write when we have reckoned with the tragic results of Marburg, and have exorcised the ghost of Zwingli from our poetics. Protestants need not give up our Protestantism to do this, as there are abundant sacramental resources within our own tradition. But contemporary Protestants do need to give up the instinctive anti-sacramentalism that infects so much of Protestantism, especially American Protestantism.

And Reformed Protestantism is particularly lacking:

Many Protestant churches (often the didactic ones) celebrate the Eucharist infrequently; many are deliberately, self-consciously anti-sacramental. Their worship consists of teaching but not doing, word but not sign. When they do celebrate the Supper, many Protestant churches are informed that it is a sign rather than a reality.

This is a simplification of what goes on in many Protestant churches. It is not, I think, a caricature.

The argument, based on the assumption and the assertion, comes in several stages: Churches whose worship focuses on didactic, doctrinal teaching are going to shape minds, imaginations, and hearts in a particular way. Churches with infrequent communion, and churches that treat communion as “mere sign” are also shaping the imaginative lives of their members.

Churches with didactic preaching and unsacramental worship, I submit, do not produce poets.

A poetic imagination is cultivated in churches where the beauty of Scripture is as important as its truth. Poetic imagination is cultivated in churches that celebrate Eucharist regularly. Every week, their worship climaxes with a great sacramental metaphor, a metaphor that is more than metaphor, a metaphor that also states (in some fashion) what is the case: “This is my body. This is my blood.”

By this argument, some forms of Protestantism – Anglicans with their prayer books and Eucharistic piety, Lutherans with their ins-withs-unders – are more conducive to cultivating poetic imagination than others.

What Leithart doesn’t consider apparently is that the logocentric quality of Protestantism, attention to the meaning of Greek and Hebrew involved in the study of Scripture, consideration of different biblical genres, or even the oratory involved in preaching — all of these could fire the imagination and fascinate young boys and girls with words in a way that could create good writing every bit as much as looking at statues, paintings, a wafer, and a chalice from which you’re never served.

At the same time, what does Leithart do with all those good writers who have no dog in the hunt of Christianity, like H. L. Mencken, who somehow learned to write even without going to church:

. . . the people of New York do even worse; they eat Chesapeake soft crabs fried in batter! What is cannibalism after that? I’d as lief eat a stewed archdeacon. Think of immersing a delicate and sensitive soft crab, the noblest of decapods, in a foul mess of batter, drenching it and blinding it, defacing it and smothering it — and then frying it in a pan like some ignoble piece of Pennsylvania scrapple. As well boil a cocktail, or a smelt, or a canvasback duck.

There is, of course, but one civilized way to prepare soft crabs for the human esophagus, and it goes without saying that it is the one way never heard of by the Greek bootblacks who pass as chefs in New York. It is, like all the major processes of the bozart, quite simple in its essence. One rids the crab of its seaweed, removes the devil, and then spears it with a long, steel fork upon the prongs of which a piece of country bacon, perhaps three inches long, has already made fast. Then one holds the combination over a brazier of glowing charcoal or a fire of hickory . . ., say three or four minutes.

What happens belongs to the very elements of cookery. The bacon, melted by the heat, runs down over the crab, greasing it and salting it, and the crab, thus heated, greased and salted, takes on an almost indescribable crispness and flavor. Nothing imaginable by the mind of man could be more delicious. It is a flavor with body, delicacy and character. Slap the crab upon a square of hot toast and then have at it. (“Callinectes Hastatus,” from The Impossible Mencken, 449)

The man could write and eat.