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Home -> Jerome K. Jerome -> Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow -> On Eating and Drinking

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow - On Eating and Drinking

1. Preface

2. On Being Idle

3. On Being in Love

4. On Being in the Blues

5. On Being Hard Up

6. On Vanity and Vanities

7. On Getting on in the World

8. On the Weather

9. On Cats and Dogs

10. On Being Shy

11. On Babies

12. On Eating and Drinking

13. On Furnished Apartments

14. On Dress and Deportment

15. On Memory


I always was fond of eating and drinking, even as a child--especially
eating, in those early days. I had an appetite then, also a
digestion. I remember a dull-eyed, livid-complexioned gentleman
coming to dine at our house once. He watched me eating for about five
minutes, quite fascinated seemingly, and then he turned to my father

"Does your boy ever suffer from dyspepsia?"

"I never heard him complain of anything of that kind," replied my
father. "Do you ever suffer from dyspepsia, Colly wobbles?" (They
called me Colly wobbles, but it was not my real name.)

"No, pa," I answered. After which I added:

"What is dyspepsia, pa?"

My livid-complexioned friend regarded me with a look of mingled
amazement and envy. Then in a tone of infinite pity he slowly said:

"You will know--some day."

My poor, dear mother used to say she liked to see me eat, and it has
always been a pleasant reflection to me since that I must have given
her much gratification in that direction. A growing, healthy lad,
taking plenty of exercise and careful to restrain himself from
indulging in too much study, can generally satisfy the most exacting
expectations as regards his feeding powers.

It is amusing to see boys eat when you have not got to pay for it.
Their idea of a square meal is a pound and a half of roast beef with
five or six good-sized potatoes (soapy ones preferred as being more
substantial), plenty of greens, and four thick slices of Yorkshire
pudding, followed by a couple of currant dumplings, a few green
apples, a pen'orth of nuts, half a dozen jumbles, and a bottle of
ginger-beer. After that they play at horses.

How they must despise us men, who require to sit quiet for a couple of
hours after dining off a spoonful of clear soup and the wing of a

But the boys have not all the advantages on their side. A boy never
enjoys the luxury of being satisfied. A boy never feels full. He can
never stretch out his legs, put his hands behind his head, and,
closing his eyes, sink into the ethereal blissfulness that encompasses
the well-dined man. A dinner makes no difference whatever to a boy.
To a man it is as a good fairy's potion, and after it the world
appears a brighter and a better place. A man who has dined
satisfactorily experiences a yearning love toward all his
fellow-creatures. He strokes the cat quite gently and calls it "poor
pussy," in tones full of the tenderest emotion. He sympathizes with
the members of the German band outside and wonders if they are cold;
and for the moment he does not even hate his wife's relations.

A good dinner brings out all the softer side of a man. Under its
genial influence the gloomy and morose become jovial and chatty.
Sour, starchy individuals, who all the rest of the day go about
looking as if they lived on vinegar and Epsom salts, break out into
wreathed smiles after dinner, and exhibit a tendency to pat small
children on the head and to talk to them--vaguely--about sixpences.
Serious men thaw and become mildly cheerful, and snobbish young men of
the heavy-mustache type forget to make themselves objectionable.

I always feel sentimental myself after dinner. It is the only time
when I can properly appreciate love-stories. Then, when the hero
clasps "her" to his heart in one last wild embrace and stifles a sob,
I feel as sad as though I had dealt at whist and turned up only a
deuce; and when the heroine dies in the end I weep. If I read the
same tale early in the morning I should sneer at it. Digestion, or
rather indigestion, has a marvelous effect upon the heart. If I want
to write any thing very pathetic--I mean, if I want to try to write
anything very pathetic--I eat a large plateful of hot buttered muffins
about an hour beforehand, and then by the time I sit down to my work a
feeling of unutterable melancholy has come over me. I picture
heartbroken lovers parting forever at lonely wayside stiles, while the
sad twilight deepens around them, and only the tinkling of a distant
sheep-bell breaks the sorrow-laden silence. Old men sit and gaze at
withered flowers till their sight is dimmed by the mist of tears.
Little dainty maidens wait and watch at open casements; but "he cometh
not," and the heavy years roll by and the sunny gold tresses wear
white and thin. The babies that they dandled have become grown men
and women with podgy torments of their own, and the playmates that
they laughed with are lying very silent under the waving grass. But
still they wait and watch, till the dark shadows of the unknown night
steal up and gather round them and the world with its childish
troubles fades from their aching eyes.

I see pale corpses tossed on white-foamed waves, and death-beds
stained with bitter tears, and graves in trackless deserts. I hear
the wild wailing of women, the low moaning of little children, the dry
sobbing of strong men. It's all the muffins. I could not conjure up
one melancholy fancy upon a mutton chop and a glass of champagne.

A full stomach is a great aid to poetry, and indeed no sentiment of
any kind can stand upon an empty one. We have not time or inclination
to indulge in fanciful troubles until we have got rid of our real
misfortunes. We do not sigh over dead dicky-birds with the bailiff in
the house, and when we do not know where on earth to get our next
shilling from, we do not worry as to whether our mistress' smiles are
cold, or hot, or lukewarm, or anything else about them.

Foolish people--when I say "foolish people" in this contemptuous way I
mean people who entertain different opinions to mine. If there is one
person I do despise more than another, it is the man who does not
think exactly the same on all topics as I do--foolish people, I say,
then, who have never experienced much of either, will tell you that
mental distress is far more agonizing than bodily. Romantic and
touching theory! so comforting to the love-sick young sprig who looks
down patronizingly at some poor devil with a white starved face and
thinks to himself, "Ah, how happy you are compared with me!"--so
soothing to fat old gentlemen who cackle about the superiority of
poverty over riches. But it is all nonsense--all cant. An aching
head soon makes one forget an aching heart. A broken finger will
drive away all recollections of an empty chair. And when a man feels
really hungry he does not feel anything else.

We sleek, well-fed folk can hardly realize what feeling hungry is
like. We know what it is to have no appetite and not to care for the
dainty victuals placed before us, but we do not understand what it
means to sicken for food--to die for bread while others waste it--to
gaze with famished eyes upon coarse fare steaming behind dingy
windows, longing for a pen'orth of pea pudding and not having the
penny to buy it--to feel that a crust would be delicious and that a
bone would be a banquet.

Hunger is a luxury to us, a piquant, flavor-giving sauce. It is well
worth while to get hungry and thirsty merely to discover how much
gratification can be obtained from eating and drinking. If you wish
to thoroughly enjoy your dinner, take a thirty-mile country walk after
breakfast and don't touch anything till you get back. How your eyes
will glisten at sight of the white table-cloth and steaming dishes
then! With what a sigh of content you will put down the empty beer
tankard and take up your knife and fork! And how comfortable you feel
afterward as you push back your chair, light a cigar, and beam round
upon everybody.

Make sure, however, when adopting this plan, that the good dinner is
really to be had at the end, or the disappointment is trying. I
remember once a friend and I--dear old Joe, it was. Ah! how we lose
one another in life's mist. It must be eight years since I last saw
Joseph Taboys. How pleasant it would be to meet his jovial face
again, to clasp his strong hand, and to hear his cheery laugh once
more! He owes me 14 shillings, too. Well, we were on a holiday
together, and one morning we had breakfast early and started for a
tremendous long walk. We had ordered a duck for dinner over night.
We said, "Get a big one, because we shall come home awfully hungry;"
and as we were going out our landlady came up in great spirits. She
said, "I have got you gentlemen a duck, if you like. If you get
through that you'll do well;" and she held up a bird about the size of
a door-mat. We chuckled at the sight and said we would try. We said
it with self-conscious pride, like men who know their own power. Then
we started.

We lost our way, of course. I always do in the country, and it does
make me so wild, because it is no use asking direction of any of the
people you meet. One might as well inquire of a lodging-house slavey
the way to make beds as expect a country bumpkin to know the road to
the next village. You have to shout the question about three times
before the sound of your voice penetrates his skull. At the third
time he slowly raises his head and stares blankly at you. You yell it
at him then for a fourth time, and he repeats it after you. He
ponders while you count a couple of hundred, after which, speaking at
the rate of three words a minute, he fancies you "couldn't do better
than--" Here he catches sight of another idiot coming down the road
and bawls out to him the particulars, requesting his advice. The two
then argue the case for a quarter of an hour or so, and finally agree
that you had better go straight down the lane, round to the right and
cross by the third stile, and keep to the left by old Jimmy Milcher's
cow-shed, and across the seven-acre field, and through the gate by
Squire Grubbin's hay-stack, keeping the bridle-path for awhile till
you come opposite the hill where the windmill used to be--but it's
gone now--and round to the right, leaving Stiggin's plantation behind
you; and you say "Thank you" and go away with a splitting headache,
but without the faintest notion of your way, the only clear idea you
have on the subject being that somewhere or other there is a stile
which has to be got over; and at the next turn you come upon four
stiles, all leading in different directions!

We had undergone this ordeal two or three times. We had tramped over
fields. We had waded through brooks and scrambled over hedges and
walls. We had had a row as to whose fault it was that we had first
lost our way. We had got thoroughly disagreeable, footsore, and
weary. But throughout it all the hope of that duck kept us up. A
fairy-like vision, it floated before our tired eyes and drew us
onward. The thought of it was as a trumpet-call to the fainting. We
talked of it and cheered each other with our recollections of it.
"Come along," we said; "the duck will be spoiled."

We felt a strong temptation, at one point, to turn into a village inn
as we passed and have a cheese and a few loaves between us, but we
heroically restrained ourselves: we should enjoy the duck all the
better for being famished.

We fancied we smelled it when we go into the town and did the last
quarter of a mile in three minutes. We rushed upstairs, and washed
ourselves, and changed our clothes, and came down, and pulled our
chairs up to the table, and sat and rubbed our hands while the
landlady removed the covers, when I seized the knife and fork and
started to carve.

It seemed to want a lot of carving. I struggled with it for about
five minutes without making the slightest impression, and then Joe,
who had been eating potatoes, wanted to know if it wouldn't be better
for some one to do the job that understood carving. I took no notice
of his foolish remark, but attacked the bird again; and so vigorously
this time that the animal left the dish and took refuge in the fender.

We soon had it out of that, though, and I was prepared to make another
effort. But Joe was getting unpleasant. He said that if he had
thought we were to have a game of blind hockey with the dinner he
would have got a bit of bread and cheese outside.

I was too exhausted to argue. I laid down the knife and fork with
dignity and took a side seat and Joe went for the wretched creature.
He worked away in silence for awhile, and then he muttered "Damn the
duck" and took his coat off.

We did break the thing up at length with the aid of a chisel, but it
was perfectly impossible to eat it, and we had to make a dinner off
the vegetables and an apple tart. We tried a mouthful of the duck,
but it was like eating India-rubber.

It was a wicked sin to kill that drake. But there! there's no respect
for old institutions in this country.

I started this paper with the idea of writing about eating and
drinking, but I seem to have confined my remarks entirely to eating as
yet. Well, you see, drinking is one of those subjects with which it
is inadvisable to appear too well acquainted. The days are gone by
when it was considered manly to go to bed intoxicated every night, and
a clear head and a firm hand no longer draw down upon their owner the
reproach of effeminacy. On the contrary, in these sadly degenerate
days an evil-smelling breath, a blotchy face, a reeling gait, and a
husky voice are regarded as the hall marks of the cad rather than or
the gentleman.

Even nowadays, though, the thirstiness of mankind is something
supernatural. We are forever drinking on one excuse or another. A
man never feels comfortable unless he has a glass before him. We
drink before meals, and with meals, and after meals. We drink when we
meet a friend, also when we part from a friend. We drink when we are
talking, when we are reading, and when we are thinking. We drink one
another's healths and spoil our own. We drink the queen, and the
army, and the ladies, and everybody else that is drinkable; and I
believe if the supply ran short we should drink our mothers-in-law.

By the way, we never eat anybody's health, always drink it. Why
should we not stand up now and then and eat a tart to somebody's

To me, I confess the constant necessity of drinking under which the
majority of men labor is quite unaccountable. I can understand people
drinking to drown care or to drive away maddening thoughts well
enough. I can understand the ignorant masses loving to soak
themselves in drink--oh, yes, it's very shocking that they should, of
course--very shocking to us who live in cozy homes, with all the
graces and pleasures of life around us, that the dwellers in damp
cellars and windy attics should creep from their dens of misery into
the warmth and glare of the public-house bar, and seek to float for a
brief space away from their dull world upon a Lethe stream of gin.

But think, before you hold up your hands in horror at their
ill-living, what "life" for these wretched creatures really means.
Picture the squalid misery of their brutish existence, dragged on from
year to year in the narrow, noisome room where, huddled like vermin in
sewers, they welter, and sicken, and sleep; where dirt-grimed children
scream and fight and sluttish, shrill-voiced women cuff, and curse,
and nag; where the street outside teems with roaring filth and the
house around is a bedlam of riot and stench.

Think what a sapless stick this fair flower of life must be to them,
devoid of mind and soul. The horse in his stall scents the sweet hay
and munches the ripe corn contentedly. The watch-dog in his kennel
blinks at the grateful sun, dreams of a glorious chase over the dewy
fields, and wakes with a yelp of gladness to greet a caressing hand.
But the clod-like life of these human logs never knows one ray of
light. From the hour when they crawl from their comfortless bed to
the hour when they lounge back into it again they never live one
moment of real life. Recreation, amusement, companionship, they know
not the meaning of. Joy, sorrow, laughter, tears, love, friendship,
longing, despair, are idle words to them. From the day when their
baby eyes first look out upon their sordid world to the day when, with
an oath, they close them forever and their bones are shoveled out of
sight, they never warm to one touch of human sympathy, never thrill to
a single thought, never start to a single hope. In the name of the
God of mercy; let them pour the maddening liquor down their throats
and feel for one brief moment that they live!

Ah! we may talk sentiment as much as we like, but the stomach is the
real seat of happiness in this world. The kitchen is the chief temple
wherein we worship, its roaring fire is our vestal flame, and the cook
is our great high-priest. He is a mighty magician and a kindly one.
He soothes away all sorrow and care. He drives forth all enmity,
gladdens all love. Our God is great and the cook is his prophet. Let
us eat, drink, and be merry.

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