"Watch out how that egg runs": Hemingway and the rhetoric of American Road food.
Ernest Hemingway described his time in expatriate Paris as his "hungry years." Despite his persistent claims that he struggled and starved throughout the 1920s, this was the era he would later look back upon most fondly. As Philip Young noted in his review of A Moveable Feast (1964), Hemingway's exceptional productivity during this time coincided with "the great years of Americans in Paris [...] The wine was nearly free, the food was excellent and cheap, it was a good place to work, or not work" (706).
Young aptly associates Hemingway's most productive period with the author's penchant for food and drink. Indeed, the title A Moveable Feast combines a number of themes which resonated in Hemingway's life and art: religious celebration, the joy of eating and drinking, and the sense of mobility and freedom that comes from being a traveler in a foreign land. These themes would shape Hemingway's public image: by the 1930s, he was no longer a hungry and struggling artist, but an international celebrity developing a connoisseur's knowledge of fine restaurants and hotel bars in a variety of exotic locales. Over time, he became an icon of conspicuous consumption.
Just before fame overtook Hemingway in the 1930s, the American reviewer Robert Morss Lovett invoked the author's earlier period. Focusing on Hemingway's first short stories, and the image of "Nicholas Adams in his camp after fishing the Big Two-Hearted River" Lovett reflected:
In more genial aspects of his work Mr. Hemingway [...] recalls the full-blooded vigor of an earlier time, especially in the sense of well-being which his characters experience after action [...]. He reminds us of Dickens in the amount of creature-comfort--food, liquor, warmth, sleep--which he diffuses among his characters. He not only tells what they eat but also how it is cooked, and again the simple satisfaction of hunger is accentuated by connoisseurship. (613)
Although Lovett does not limit his discussion to Nick Adams, the critic is sensitive to Hemingway's art in its earliest stages, when the author's memories of boyhood summers in rural Michigan were still fresh. Before Hemingway's exposure to European cafe society, he was arguably an American natural, a self-styled vagabond who rode the rails through northern Michigan to escape his parents' respectable suburban home. His travels on the highways and railroads of the United States instilled a love of Americana and a wanderlust that were lifelong qualities. Additionally, the young Hemingway (whose avatar is Nick Adams) valued the elemental experience of simple food in unadorned and unpretentious settings. In campsites and hobo jungles, in roadside diners and at urban lunch counters, Ernest Hemingway first attempted to establish a code of connoisseurship that would communicate the authentic experience of an American traveler.
In the Nick Adams stories of In Our Time (1925), road food serves as a figurative language that encodes both masculine independence and male camaraderie. Despite the pretensions of elegance and luxury often associated with the term "connoisseurship" the word "connoisseur" denotes knowing. In the context of Hemingway's early fiction, road food embodies the true meaning of connoisseurship, referring to an insider's knowledge of survival in the American roadscape and to a shared understanding of this experience among fellow travelers. The rhetoric of road food creates a communal bond between those who speak this shared language; it can exclude outsiders and expose those who might intrude upon this mystical fraternity. (The legendary slang of the American diner, including such epithets as "Adam and Eve on a raft" for two poached eggs on toast and "Drag it through the garden" for adding lettuce and tomato serves a similar purpose.) Philip Young perceives that the ritualistic preparation of food during Nick Adams's travels re-establishes "serenity and order," much as Hemingway himself would later attempt to order his own life by recounting "places and times, and even specific bottles and meals" throughout A Moveable Feast (706-707).
Nick Adams's version of the movable feast is, appropriately, a meal prepared from foodstuffs that he carries in his backpack in "Big Two-Hearted River." After venturing beyond the burnt-out remnants of structure and order in Seney and into a verdant forest, Nick makes a camp that seems "mysterious and homelike" (IOT 139). While reflecting that "[h]e was in his home where he had made it," Nick has a sudden epiphany: "Now he was hungry" (139). Critics have often examined the detailed account of Nick's arduous journey and his subsequent construction of a home where "[n] othing could touch him" (139), concluding, like Philip Young, that Nick's fishing trip is "therapeutic" (706)-perhaps Nick's method of dealing with a physical or psychic wound. What is particularly notable here, though, is the assertion of hunger after the establishment of the new home. After striking out into the woods alone, Nick has built a good place that he can call his own, and he celebrates both his locus and his newfound independence by cooking himself a meal over a campfire. The food is as simple and elemental as the setting, and stirs within Nick primordial feelings of hunger, as well as a defiant note of self-reliance:
Nick was hungry. He did not believe he had ever been hungrier. He opened an emptied a can of pork and beans and a can of spaghetti into the frying pan.
"I've got a right to eat this kind of stuff, if I'm willing to carry it," Nick said. His voice sounded strange in the darkening woods. He did not speak again. (IOT 139)
Following this brief declaration of independence, and the strange feeling that accompanies it, the text provides a precise litany of steps detailing how Nick creates and then partakes in a movable feast of American road food:
Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato catchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. [...] [H]e was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue. For years he had never been able to enjoy fried bananas because he had never been able to wait for them to cool. His tongue was very sensitive. He was very hungry. Across the river, in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising. He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a full spoonful from the plate. (IOT 139-140)
After skillfully building suspense through an accumulation of details and thought processes, Hemingway brings us to a moment of heightened tension, as Nick impatiently waits to eat. When he does take that first spoonful, the climax of his moveable feast is announced in a statement of blasphemous jubilation: "Chrise," Nick said, "Geezus Chrise," he said happily (IOT 140). His half-intelligible, sacrilegious reaction may seem an ironic reversal of what one would expect from a ceremony of communion. Still, it is important to note that Nick speaks "happily": despite fears based upon past experience, he has successfully indulged his eagerness to partake in food that he has cooked himself, proving his independence on this symbolic frontier by supplying himself with food as well as shelter.
As tinned beans and spaghetti become potent symbols of hegemonic masculinity in "Big Two-Hearted River," ham and eggs come to signify male solidarity in "The Battler;' wherein Nick is again a road-worn traveler. After being ejected from a train by a devious and sadistic brakeman, Nick happens upon a campfire attended by two fellow hoboes: Ad Francis (a punch-drunk former boxer) and his traveling companion, an African-American man named Bugs. Hemingway again invokes anticipation with great detail: "Into a skillet [Bugs] was laying slices of ham. As the skillet grew hot the grease sputtered and Bugs [...] turned the ham and broke eggs into the skillet, tipping it from side to side to baste the eggs with the hot fat" (IOT 57). As Bugs prepares this communal supper, Nick admits to being "Hungry as hell" (57).
The process of preparing food is interrupted by a brief but uncomfortable incident in which Ad tries to persuade Nick, who is cutting bread, to give him the knife. Bugs warns Nick not to give Ad his knife, and then attempts to smooth over this awkward moment by continuing to build a rapport with Nick, while offering him hospitality:
"Do you like to dip your bread in the ham fat?" the negro asked.
"Perhaps we'd better wait until later. It's better at the finish of the meal. Here."
The negro picked up a slice of ham and laid it on one of the pieces of bread, then slid an egg on top of it.
"Just close that sandwich, will you, please, and give it to Mister Francis."
"Watch out how that egg runs," the negro warned. "This is for you, Mister Adams. The remainder for myself." (IOT 58)
The taste of this simple, shared meal reflects Nick's appreciation for this offering of male companionship. In a somewhat awestruck and adolescent fashion, he perceives that the "hot fried ham and eggs tasted wonderful" (58). This peaceful interlude is soon broken, however, when Ad becomes aggressive and challenges Nick to a fight. Bugs is forced to knock Ad out with a blackjack. Over coffee, Bugs tells Nick that Ad "took too many beatings," leaving him '"sort of simple'" (IOT 60); Bugs then discloses that Ad was married to his manager, a woman widely rumored to be his sister. Bugs concludes this narrative by stating that after the woman left Ad, "He just went crazy. Will you have some more coffee, Mister Adams?"' (61).
Bugs's account of the Battler's fall from grace serves as a cautionary tale for Nick. According to this story, it was the woman who ruined Ad. The beatings only made him "simple," while the female influence eventually drove him "crazy," However, Bugs admits that she sends Ad money (IOT 61), allowing the two male companions to travel wherever they want. Regarding his relationship with Ad, Bugs tells Nick "'I like to be with him and I like seeing the country and I don't have to commit no larceny to do it. I like living like a gentleman'" (61). Life on the road, it seems, is the life of a gentleman--domestic discord assuaged by male camaraderie, the pangs of heartbreak replaced by hard, clean feelings of hunger around a campfire. Ham, eggs, and coffee become the communal meal that binds together questing males, who seem to be always on the run from something or someone. But as Bugs indirectly warns Nick Adams while handing him a sandwich, "Watch out how that egg runs" (58). That which sustains male solidarity can be easily broken, and the result can be a life spent forever in flux.
Ham and eggs must have held a special place in Hemingway's cosmology, as this particular road food appears in several of his early works. In "The Killers" ham and eggs (and its near-relative, bacon and eggs) figure prominently as lunch-counter staples distinguishing the genuine connoisseur from the social deviant. In this story, Hemingway shifts his focus from the iconic "Great Outdoors" to its equally iconic urban counterpart: the American diner. The change of setting demonstrates that Hemingway was as familiar with the hardboiled language of the city dweller as he was with the rhetoric of the natural man.
The story opens as Nick Adams observes two men entering Henry's lunch room and placing their order with the server, George. In the opening dialogue, Hemingway delineates the characters of the two men by demonstrating their incongruity with the setting. The first man orders roast pork tenderloin, only to be informed that this is a dinner item, unavailable before six o'clock. When the second man claims that "'[t]he clock says twenty minutes past five'" George corrects him; the clock is twenty minutes fast (MWW 78). Failing to understand that all of their expectations are out of joint, the second man compounds his blunder by making the same mistake as the first: he orders chicken croquettes with peas and mashed potatoes, but is again rebuffed:
"That's the dinner."
"Everything we want's the dinner, eh? [...]"
"I can give you ham and eggs, bacon and eggs, liver--"
"I'll take ham and eggs," the man called A1 said. He wore a derby hat and a black overcoat buttoned across the chest. His face was small and white and he had tight lips. He wore a silk muffler and gloves.
"Give me bacon and eggs," said the other man. (MWW 79-80)
Even before we learn of their physical characteristics, the two men are established as outsiders: they fail to comprehend the internal logic of the diner, whereas regular patrons understand that the clock runs twenty minutes fast (as saloon clocks do) and that dinner can only be ordered at six o' clock. Both men register their frustration and antagonism with George, ordering their respective meals (ham and eggs, and bacon and eggs) grudgingly. Other customers, such as the man who later comes into the lunch-room to order a ham-and-egg sandwich "to go" (MWW 87), clearly understand the diner's protocols and act in accordance with its conventions.
When the two strangers resist these social norms, they are fully revealed as deviants: their clothing and facial features (tight overcoats, tight lips) are presented as threatening and yet ultimately comical. Nick and George soon learn that these outsiders are paid killers, waiting at the diner for their intended victim. After the men leave, readers learn that "they looked like a vaudeville team" (MWW 89). In Hemingway's early fiction, road food not only evokes knowledge, connoisseurship, and authentic experience, but also serves to expose a lack of authenticity, subverting the threat of two would-be hit-men by underscoring their ineffectuality.
The rhetoric of road food in these early coming-of-age stories marks Hemingway's first attempts to establish a code of connoisseurship. Road food provides a recurring motif for tenets of adult American masculinity: self-sufficiency, masculine communion, latent violence, and the power of the fluent insider to distinguish between the authentic and its carnivalesque inversion. Hemingway's rhetoric of American road food thus reveals the centrality of connoisseurship to his definition of maturity, of masculinity, even of Americanness, locating its earliest expression in the American Midwest of his own adolescence.
Hemingway, Ernest. In Our Time. New York: Scribner's, 1925.
... Men Without Women. New York: Scribner's, 1927.
Lovett, Robert Morss. "Ernest Hemingway" The English Journal 21.8 (October 1932): 609-617.
Young, Philip. "Our Hemingway Man:' Kenyon Review 26.4 (Autumn 1964): 676-707.
University of Lethbridge
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|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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