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George Augustus Sala, The tyranny of pie (Review)

November 27, 2016

When I decide to write about a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week it is usually because it’s by a favourite author (like Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, or Edith Wharton), or by an author I want to read but haven’t yet (like John Updike or Washington Irving) or on a topic that interests me (like the environment or race issues or food). You can guess from the post title, then, why I chose the story I’m writing about today!

I’ve covered a few LOA food stories: Scotsman John M. Duncan’s “A Virginia barbecue” (1823), American George G. Foster’s “The eating-houses” (1849), and Cuban-American Ana Menéndez’s “Celebrations of Thanksgiving: Cuban offerings” (2004). Two are about events and one about restaurants, though they all mention food too of course. Englishman George Augustus Sala’s piece, however, starts from the point of view of food – the pie, which, I’ve just realised, is appropriate for this American Thanksgiving weekend. Sala, like Virginia-barbecue-Duncan, was a traveller to America, so wrote his piece from the perspective of an outsider.

George Augustus Sala

Sala c. 1855-65, by Mathew Brady (Public Domain via Wikipedia)

But, who was this Sala? Aussies will be interested to know that it was he who coined the still-used description “Marvellous Melbourne” when he visited Australia in 1885. He was born in 1828, and is described in LOA’s notes as a “prolific and flamboyant journalist”. He “found fame” as an acolyte of Charles Dickens, and was a regular contributor to Dickens’ journal, Household Words (about which I’ve written before). However, LOA continues, it was public praise from William Makepeace Thackeray which really launched his career. Unfortunately, although Sala published much and earned good money from writing for The Daily Telegraph, he was a spendthrift who was also often drunk, and “died virtually penniless”.

Now, the piece. It comes from his second trip to the States. His first trip was in 1863 during the Civil War, and while he was critical of much he did like American humour. He wrote, says LOA, a three-book series of anthologies, Yankee Drolleries (1866–1870), which introduced British readers to established authors like Oliver Wendell Holmes (whom I wrote about recently) and the up-and-coming writer, Mark Twain.

During his second trip, which resulted in his book America revisited, he found an improved America. LOA quotes this:

The truth is, that in New York there is room enough for Everybody, whereas in London, huge as it is, there is not sufficient room for Anybody.

By the late 1870s, we’re told, Manhattan had become a popular travel destination for the European upper class.

Sala, LOA also says “had a lot to say about American food. His comments range from despair and scorn to grudging, if infrequent, admiration”.  He apparently approved of New York, because its food and accommodation were “what Europeans usually consider to be refinement and comfort.” But on leaving New York, “you must expect nothing better than pork and beans and Indian pudding, or hog and hominy if you go South; the whole washed down by rough cider or molasses and water.” His short “The tyranny of pie” piece appears as a digression in his America revisited chapter about a train trip to Baltimore.

I’m sure you all know the phrase “as American as apple pie”. The Huffington Post provides some background to this in an article titled “Why are we ‘As American as Apple Pie’?” The pie was an English tradition, and brought to American by the Pilgrims, but by 1860, well before Sala’s second visit, the phrase was already in use. Novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, says Huffington’s Kimberly Kohatsu, that “the pie is an English tradition, which, planted on American soil, forthwith ran rampant and burst forth into an untold variety of genera and species.”

It is partly this variety which captures Sala’s eye. He commences, though, by praising signs of “improvement and reform” in America – in

everything except Pie. The national manners have become softened—the men folk chew less, expectorate less, curse less; the newspapers are not half so scurrilous as our own; the Art idea is becoming rapidly developed; culture is made more and more manifest; even “intensity” in æsthetics is beginning to be heard of and Agnosticism and other “isms” too numerous to mention find exponents in “Society,” and the one absorbing and sickening topic of conversation is no longer the Almighty Dollar—but to the tyranny of Pie there is no surcease.

What is all this about we readers wonder? Soon he writes:

The day before we left New York one of the ripest scholars, the most influential journalists (on the Democratic side) the brightest wits and most genial companions in the States lunched with us. He would drink naught but Château Yquem; but he partook twice, and in amazing profusion of Pumpkin Pie.

Ah, I was thinking, he’s like me. He doesn’t like Pumpkin Pie, and wonders about the taste of this Château Yquem drinker … but, I was disappointed because, within a couple of sentences he writes:

The worst of this dreadful pie—be it of apple, of pumpkin, of mulberry, or of cranberry—is that it is so very nice. It is made delusively flat and thin, so that you can cut it into conveniently-sized triangular wedges, which slip down easily.

He then suggests that the pie is “as important a factor in American civilisation as the pot-au-feu does in France” but that England has nothing equivalent. The closest England has to a dish “by which we nationally stand or fall” is “the roast beef of Old England” but it is expensive and

there are hundreds of thousands of labouring English people who never taste roast beef from year’s end to year’s end—save when they happen to get into gaol or into the workhouse at Christmastide.

This is where his little piece ends. I did enjoy its cheeky humour, and this pointed conclusion.

George Augustus Sala
“The tyranny of pie”
First published in: America revisited: from the Bay of New York to the Gulf of Mexico, 1882.
Available: Online at the Library of America

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2016 8:55 am

    I generally find newspaper colour pieces tedious, a writer trying too hard to be amusing about something that doesn’t interest me. At least old ones, I guess, have the virtue of being a contemporary view of times past. As for pie, I’d eat a lot more if only my waist would accommodate it without expanding.

    • November 28, 2016 9:36 am

      Fair enough Bill. I don’t read a lot of them but when I do I’m usually entertained. There’s little I think that I’m not interested in hearing something about even if there are many things I am not interested in reading in depth about, of that makes sense. I agree though that some amusing columnists can be a bit try hard.

      However, as you say, the value of reading such pieces from the past is the insight they provide into different places and times. I loved his recognition of national dishes. What is Australia’s? As Australian as a snag on the barbie perhaps? Hmm… I think I’ll take the apple pie any day.

  2. November 30, 2016 4:23 am

    Yay pie! I love pie! I recently found out about sweet potato pie but Bookman doesn’t care for sweet potatoes and I am hard pressed to convince him it is worth trying. Boo! He still owes me a gooseberry pie so I can;t really push my luck 🙂 Pie is rather democratic, cheap and easy to make and so various. I’m ok with the US being associated with pie.

    • November 30, 2016 4:58 am

      Bookman doesn’t like sweet potato? What’s wrong with the man? I love roasted sweet potato in particular. I have a lovely red lentil and sweet potato side that I make too, with a little bit of chilli. And then there’s sweet potato, walnut and fetta salad. Yum! I’d better stop as I’m making myself hungry.

      I like most pies, particularly berry ones, but being gluten free I rarely get them. I guess I could try making them but making pastry has never been my thing.

      Australians are known for meat pies, which you don’t see so much in the US… Not that you’d know!

      • November 30, 2016 6:17 am

        I know! I regularly ask him what is wrong with him 😉 No, meat pies are not popular here. Pot pies and shepherd’s pies but I think most people here think meat and pie don’t go together 🙂

        • November 30, 2016 8:24 am

          Fascinating isn’t it, how different cultures, even ones as similar as ours, can have such different food preferences. I love the food part of travelling! And not just for the food itself.

          Oh, and we do have shepherd’s pie here.

        • November 30, 2016 8:36 am

          It is fascinating! Can’t say I love the food part of travelling since my diet of choice is restrictive and makes things difficult sometimes, though I have had some unexpectedly fantastic meals.

        • November 30, 2016 1:59 pm

          No I understand that for you it would be different though vegan food places are on the rise. We even have a couple here in my small city!

  3. November 30, 2016 10:30 am

    Once, for a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in Arkansas (where I went to college), we used mince pies for the “meat pies” they are supposed to be eating in a dinner scene.

    • November 30, 2016 2:05 pm

      Haha, good one Jeanne. I guess the audience wouldn’t have known the difference!

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