Today, January 29th …
Herman Melville wrote to his great friend Nathaniel Hawthorne on this day, urging him to visit, and tempting him with a promise of food and wine and conversation.
“ … Fear not that you will cause the slightest trouble to us. Your bed is already made, & the wood marked for your fire. But a moment ago, I looked into the eyes of two fowls, whose tail feathers have been notched, as destined victims for the table. I keep the word "Welcome" all the time in my mouth, so as to be ready on the instant when you cross the threshold. … Mark - There is some excellent Montado Sherry awaiting you & some most potent port. We will have mulled wine with wisdom, & buttered toast with story-telling & crack jokes & bottles from morning till night”.
How could anyone refuse an invitation for “mulled wine with wisdom, & buttered toast with story-telling” from such a brilliant writer? Especially another brilliant writer? What stories did they tell over their buttered toast? Did they exchange plot details from the books they were working on? Melville must have been close to finishing Moby Dick, and Hawthorne The House of the Seven Gables at that time as both books were published later the same year.
Whatever they discussed, the mulled wine would certainly have been welcome, as the temperature at Melville’s farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts would have been below freezing. What did they mull over, over this mulled wine? And what a lovely confluence of words that is!
To mull is “to consider, ponder upon”.
Mulled wine is wine “made into a hot drink with added sugar, spices, fruit, etc., and formerly sometimes thickened with beaten egg yolk”
I did hope to find a clever connection between the various uses of ‘mull’, but a prolonged foray into the OED turned it up 11 times as an adjective, and 5 as a verb (with 5 more in the form of ‘mulled’), which was far too many for this non-linguist to unravel. The various entries were also prefaced with OED-speak such as “the origin is uncertain”, “various theories have been advanced as to the origin of this word”, and “the development of the other senses is unclear”. So I gave up. A selection of the definitions does seem to be relevant however.
‘To mull’ also means ‘to grind to a powder’ (the spices) and ‘to become wet or liquid’ (mixing the spices with the wine), and ‘to warm’, all of which fit the mulled wine concept, and are pretty good metaphors for the mental process too. There is also the possible association with the Latin word ‘mulsus’, meaning mixed with honey, which would fit with the sweetening of the drink.
It might seem likely that the name of the Anglo-Indian 'Mulligatawny Soup' would reference the grinding of the spices, but the word has a completely different (and thankfully quite unequivocal etymology), which is satisfyingly descriptive. ‘Mulligatawny” comes from a Tamil word meaning “pepper water”. There is no evidence that I am aware of that either of our two literary gentlemen ever ate it, but it would have been entirely appropriate for the mid-winter weather in Massachusetts.
I give you a recipe for the soup from the same era, from Cookery, rational, practical and economical, treated in connexion with the chemistry of food by Hartelaw Reid (1853)
Cut the meat of three pounds of a breast of veal into small pieces, and simmer the trimmings, gristles, and bones, along with a knuckle of veal broken in pieces, in about three quarts of water, until these are converted into a good strong stock. Fry (sauter) the pieces of meat in butter, in a deep stewpan, along with some sliced onion, and a slice of lean ham. When slightly browned, add two tablespoonfuls of flour, mix well, and pour over them the stock previously strained. Allow this to simmer gently for nearly an hour, skimming off the fat as it rises. Then add two or three dessert-spoonfuls of curry powder, season with salt and cayenne to taste, and continue the simmering until the veal is thoroughly cooked. Before serving, remove the ham. Carrot and turnip may be used in this soup if desired, being sliced and sautéed along with the meat and onion; apples are also sometimes employed in this way. The remains of cooked fowls or rabbits, cut into pieces of the proper size, may be warmed up in this soup and served along with, or instead of, the veal.
Tomorrow’s Story …
A dish for the Empress.
Quotation for the Day …
It is true that taste can be educated. It is also true that taste can be perverted... If any man gives you a wine you can't bear, don't say it is beastly... But don't say you like it. You are endangering your soul and the use of wine as well... Seek out some other wine good to your taste. Hillaire Belloc.