Anticipating the 200th Anniversary of William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon
By John Marsh, Interim Minister, Lansing, MI
First Blog: Stirring the Cauldron!
We are coming up to the 200th anniversary of William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore sermon—May 5, 2019. In 1819 the sermon was given on a Wednesday morning, but this year’s anniversary will fall on a Sunday—just one of the many ways in which Channing continues to provide good things for us!
The sermon explores a number of ideas that not only defined the fault lines between the liberal and conservative wings of what was left of the Church of the New England Puritans—the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; it brought forth a new kind of human-centered spirituality that excited the imaginations of Congregations that worshiped in Norwegian in Minnesota, Icelandic on the Canadian prairies, and Khasi in a remote area of India.
The sermon speaks for itself. Conrad Wright brilliantly explored the context in his Three Prophets. Charles Lyttle explored the sermon’s impact on our faith in his Pentecost of American Unitarianism. I am interested in exploring another question: What did they have for lunch afterward?
We know that a coterie of New England luminaries either accompanied Channing or rendezvoused with him in Baltimore for the event. We know that some of them, presumably accompanied by local organizers, went to a restaurant together after the event. Sadly, the menu has been lost in the mists of history.
My question about that lunch is just an appetizer. I want to explore Channing’s thoughts and feelings about food? How were they shaped and how were they later informed? How did they fit with the prevailing attitudes of his contemporaries? I will be blogging about this for the next year, and YES! There will be recipes! Some of those recipes will be suitable for an anniversary lunch or dinner–it’s not too early to start planning.
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are, declared Channing’s elder contemporary—Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Unfortunately, he said it in French, so Channing did not hear the comment. Had he heard it, he would have disagreed, but other underlying questions would have caught his attention.
Those questions being—as were so nimbly put forward by the little red hen—who baked the bread? And before that who milled the flour? Who threshed the wheat? Who planted and harvested the wheat? Who put the bread on plates and served it? Who cleaned up afterward and scrubbed the pots and pans? What did those people eat and what did their children eat? Did they enjoy their meals? Was there enough food to satisfy everyone at their tables? Was there enough leisure for conversation?
In his essay On The Elevation of the Laboring Classes, Channing took up such questions and argued for what we would call the essential worth and dignity of every person. His writings anticipate those of Karl Marx. Sadly, when it came to the desires and pleasures of the body–there is nothing in Channing that anticipates Sigmund Freud or that would allow him to appreciate the wisdom of Brillat-Savarin’s comment that “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.” Channing declined to dine at some of the most exciting meals in American culinary history. (More about that later.)
Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and caldron bubble. – Shakespeare (Macbeth)
When we see a cauldron today we tend to think of our Wiccan friends. Channing would have seen a lot more cauldrons than we ever will—they would have reminded him of people cooking food.
Metal Cauldrons first appeared in the Bronze age (circa 3000 BCE onward). At the time when Shakespeare lived, they were the cooking utensil—there would have been few other pots even in the wealthiest of castles. That had changed by the time Channing came of age—by then the wealthy homes would have had cooks who would have insisted on a batterie de cusine (large range of pots and saucepans). For the not so rich, however, the cauldron was still the one essential utensil.
In western culture, from the middle ages onward, cauldron ownership was a sign that one had escaped from abject poverty—one was not one of those who did not “have a pot to piss in.” Those were a different kind of pot, less expensive, but you get the idea.
For those near the financial edge, however, there is always anxiety–hence the presence in any number of folktales of magic cauldrons who were able to replenish themselves. An empty cauldron was a sign of diminished wealth, bad management, bad luck, or all three.
Channing spent his life in and among the wealthy. His father is remembered as having kept two large gardens and took an interest in new plant varieties. Channing and his nine siblings were expected to work in the gardens as part of daily chores. This was overseen by their mother. Anyone who failed to show up for work in the garden would be excluded from supper that evening. How often this punishment was administered is unknown.
When Channing was ten years old, George Washington (the man himself!) came to dinner. Channing’s father had pushed for Rhode Island to ratify the U.S. Constitution. In 1790 it was the last of the thirteen colonies to do so (shades of Roger Williams! –the crank who founded Rhode Island because he could not get along with anyone anywhere else). Washington made the trip to celebrate Rhode Island’s joining the United States—he had avoided any previous visits to Rhode Island during his Presidency, as it would have involved traveling to foreign territory.
A few years later, Channing’s father died suddenly–with no money in the bank. Channing was the second eldest of ten children. There was anxiety about the empty cauldron.
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, with so many children she did not know what to do. She fed them some broth, without any bread, kissed them all soundly, and sent them to bed.
At age 14 Channing lived with an uncle and was enrolled as an undergraduate at Harvard College. He was still living among the wealthy, but his status was uncertain—in some ways he was a guest at the table. In a future blog, I will talk about Channing having an outsider’s perspective.
His mother did not take in and feed boarders, as many widows of that period did. She opened a shop.
Two Recipes to Stir in a Cauldron (or any large pot)!
Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.
Peas porridge is basically split pea soup. After making a pot, I now think of it as what people made soup out of before they had lentils.
It is a winter recipe. You take dried peas, soak them, and boil them up with anything you have leftover. It is hearty and nourishing and as the poem attests—some liked it in the pot nine days old. Perhaps after nine days of adding scraps to it, the pea flavor was not so prevalent.
This recipe by Nancy Harmon Jenkins from the New York Times does have one item that makes the endeavor worthwhile—THE BACON. Basically, you boil the heck out of the bacon with the porridge. Then you remove the bacon from the porridge, dry it a little—and sauté it in butter — YES.
The recipe calls for then crumbling the bacon and using it as a topping for the porridge. What a waste! A good Caesar salad might be a worthier recipient—or you could just sit down and enjoy it sans fioritures (without other distracting flavors).
As a kid, I got three meals a day. Oatmeal. Miss-a-meal, and no meal.” – Mr. T.
We know there was a meal after Channing’s Baltimore Sermon. We do not know the restaurant menu, nor do we know for sure if Channing joined the group. In my imagination, Channing declined to join the group, went back to his hotel and enjoyed a good bowl of oatmeal.
Channing never cared much for spicy foods, rich foods, or the sauces that were all the rage among the fine diners of his day. He was a child of the Scottish enlightenment. I am not an expert on the Scottish Enlightenment, but I believe it was led by the folks who figured out that in order to cook oatmeal you did not need to stuff it into sheep’s guts and roast yourself while turning it on a spit over an open fire. Instead you could put the oatmeal into a cauldron, add water, and step away from the fire for an hour or so and read theological treatises while the stuff cooked. Something like that.
In any case, Channing stood for that which is good, enjoyable, simple. Things like oatmeal.
Chilled oatmeal parfait:
Bottom layer, cooked oatmeal: next layer: your favorite yogurt or kefir: next a bit of granola or cold cereal or anything healthy and crunchy: final layer, (add before serving) fresh fruit. Keep in the fridge—perfect snack for hot summer days.
One of my favorite breakfasts is an adaptation of Mr. Breakfast’s Peach Cobbler Oatmeal: https://www.mrbreakfast.com/superdisplay.asp?recipeid=236
Which is an adaptation of a recipe from the Quaker Oats people: quakeroatmeal.com
Here’s my take:
- 1/4 cup toasted wheat germ
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1-1/2 cups whole milk
- 1-1/2 cup water
- 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 cups uncooked Oatmeal (quick, old fashioned, or steel cut)
- 1-1/4 cups sour cherries (can be purchased in jars at Trader Joes)
- 1 container (8 oz.) vanilla yogurt
- For topping, combine wheat germ, brown sugar, and cinnamon in small bowl; set aside.
- For oatmeal, bring milk, water, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg to a boil in medium saucepan; stir in oats. Return to a boil; reduce heat to medium. Cook 1 minute for quick oats, 5 minutes for old fashioned oats, 30 minutes for the steel cut oats, stirring occasionally. Stir in cherries. Continue cooking and keep stirring until cherries are heated through and most of the liquid is absorbed about 1 minute.
- Spoon oatmeal into four cereal bowls. Top with wheat germ mixture and yogurt
Next Time, we’ll talk Hasty Pudding.