Liszt: Totentanz

52 Authors: Week 40 - Mary Douglas

Week40-Mary Douglas-Paul_html_1e021b8d

In the late 1940s Mary Tew, an Oxford doctoral student in anthropology, was looking around for a suitable place to do fieldwork. These days that could mean anything (Kate Fox’s Watching the English is an entertaining example of turning an anthropologist’s eye on one’s native surroundings), but in the 1940s, in a European context, it meant trying to understand the foreign thought-worlds of less developed communities in far-flung parts of colonial empires. She later wrote that her choice fell on the Lele people of what was then the Belgian Congo because she had been given to understand that they practiced not just polygyny (a relatively widespread form of polygamy) but also polyandry (much rarer), and she was intrigued by the idea of a woman having more than one husband.

By the time her doctorate was published as a book, in 1963, she had been married for about a decade and was working under the name Mary Douglas. (There is a Wikipedia entry, but it is not very informative.) The Lele of the Kasai is a readable observation-based analysis of a vanishing way of life in Central Africa, but it would be of little interest to those outside the academy. So far as polyandry was concerned, the Lele might have been something of a disappointment: male elders controlled access to brides, but there was also a ‘village wife’ who would take turns with the available men. This is not quite the harem of husbands that the word ‘polyandry’ might bring to mind, and missionaries regarded it as a form of prostitution. Mary Douglas, however, saw elements of honour and agency in the village wife’s status that gave her a key role in village life, not the sort of marginalised status one would associate with a prostitute in Western societies.

It might have been polyandry that first piqued Douglas’s interest in the Lele, but once living among them her intellectual engagement shifted to beliefs and practices relating to divination, sorcery, witchcraft, and notions of pollution and ritual purity. The fruit of her reflection on pollution and purity, encountered among the Lele but explored intellectually for over a decade once back in Britain, was the book for which she is probably most famous, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.

The book is the work of a brilliant mind, honed in the intellectual discipline of social anthropology, broadened by life among an utterly alien people, reflecting not just on theoretical questions but on the everyday concerns of a wife and mother. Douglas ranges widely through anthropological literature of all kinds, on castes in India, Nigerian smallpox priests, sexual taboos in New Guinea, to her own fieldwork among the Lele, but questions that she addresses include why it should be thought shameful to serve a guest tea in a chipped cup, and why we happily let children play in the sea, knowing that it houses many corpses, when we would not let them into a swimming pool with a single corpse in it. At what point is pollution perceived, and at what point is it perceived as a danger?

This is a question that has bearing on ecological questions as well, and Douglas explored these implications in Risk and Culture (1983), written with Aaron Wildavsky, although this made her unpopular with some ecologists who felt she had described them as a tribe whose beliefs about purity could be understood anthropologically (Roger Scruton, in contrast, says that the book 'captures tendencies within social and political thinking that help to show why there is a real, lasting and rooted difference between "left" and "right". And it provides a language with which both left and right can discuss their shared concerns without regarding their opponents as inhuman.')

To return to Purity and Danger, one of the most famous aspects is her discussion of Jewish dietary laws. She takes issue with the 19th-century idea, still apparently widely prevalent in the mid-20th century, that the dietary prohibitions of the Mosaic law were primitive regulations of health and hygiene, designed for the avoidance of disease. Instead, she seeks to understand them through notions of ritual purity. She points out that Jews are permitted to eat animals of the land, water and air that clearly fall into the category of a herd animal, or a fish, or a bird that does not eat carrion, but not those that lacked some of the key defining characteristics, or had ‘mixed’ features. Pork became the symbol of Jewish difference because it was the one animal prohibited that was widely eaten by neighbouring peoples, but the reason it was prohibited was not hygienic but conceptual: it shares some but not all of the key characteristics of herd animals as a set. This was a modelling of the body on the sacrificial altar: humans could eat only those animals that they would be permitted to give to God, and should avoid even physical contact with the rest.

If the proposed interpretation of the forbidden animals is correct, the dietary laws would have been something which at every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, surety and completeness of God. By the rules of avoidance, Holiness was given a physical expression in every encounter with the animal kingdom and at every meal.

Later she revised her view on the dietary rules, in two books I have not read, In the Wilderness (1993) and Leviticus as Literature (1999). When this series was mooted late last year, I put my name down for three authors (Christopher Derrick, Mary Douglas and Edith Stein) thinking it would encourage me to read those of their works that I had been meaning to get round to reading. So far, this has not actually happened. If anything, I have been reading what others have written about, rather than what I am supposed to be writing on. I gather indirectly that in her later thinking the concept of ‘covenant’ came to the fore: the ancient Israelites ate only those animals that did not eat other animals and that humans could in some sort raise. But this is something I may have misunderstood.

Douglas’s writing is fascinating for the broad themes she addresses, but also for the many anthropological details she fishes up from the literature as well as from her own experience both of fieldwork and of life in the United Kingdom (unlike most of her academic peers, she was herself consciously involved in making rituals happen, as a parish volunteer, and knew how much thought and work went into them each time, even when they were ‘traditional’). A lot of her books are relatively pricey (as academic books tend to be) and sometimes hard to get hold of, but the two major works, Purity and Danger and Natural Symbols, are both still in print in paperback editions.

This latter, Natural Symbols, published in 1970, examines the importance of shared symbols to social cohesion. It is a logical next step (in the Jewish case, having thought about why the prohibition on pork arose, she was now thinking about how it set them apart as a people; and also about how Friday abstention from meat set Catholics apart from non-Catholic neighbours.) As a social anthropologist she was convinced that ‘There is no person whose life does not need to unfold in a coherent symbolic system. ... it is an illusion to suppose that there can be organisation without symbolic expression.’ She placed both symbols and societies on spectra of hierarchy and informality, seeking to correlate world-view and life-style through a plethora of contemporary and historical examples.

One of the insights of Douglas’s work is that people have a remarkable tendency to model the concept of the person on the concept of society, and to regard people who do not fit standard social categories as being dirty people (disease-bearing sexual delinquents who will cheat you or steal from you and who eat disgusting food) — who can then be labelled as lepers, witches, an underclass, ‘dirty foreigners’, or whatever else might fit the circumstances. This fits with her earlier work on sorcery and pollution, but questions of symbol and community also bring her to consider the sacraments. Writing of the modernizing liturgists and catechists of the day, she says:

The mystery of the Eucharist is too dazzlingly magical for their impoverished symbolic perception. Like the pygmies (I say it again, since they seem often to pride themselves on having reached some high peak of intellectual development) they cannot conceive of the deity as located in any one thing or place. But ... vast unlettered flocks scattered over the globe do not share this disability. ... What is too strong meat for the pastors is their natural food. ‘The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.’ There is no question now that the flocks are neglected by jolly, hunting parsons bent on pleasure. But there seems to be a case for arguing that serious, well-intending pastors misunderstand the need for a nourishing food, because it does not seem to suit their own digestive systems.

Speaking personally, to find an intra-ecclesial polemic such as this in the midst of a learned book that discusses every possible type of symbolic action and social system was exhilarating and breath-taking. (Perhaps this post should include a spoiler alert?)

Much of social anthropology as it developed up to the middle of the 20th century was, directly or indirectly, part of the colonialist project to understand what made the natives tick. There was a sense that our behaviour made sense, while that of other societies needed explaining. If there is a single main point throughout Douglas’s writing it might be that ‘primitive’ people (whether backwoods African tribesmen, or Bronze Age Israelites, or anybody between) are no more stupid than the rest of us: their behaviours make perfect sense, and are perfectly rational, when understood in the light of their societies and their preconceptions; and our own behaviours are just as much conditioned by the presuppositions we imbibe from our societies.

As Risk and Culture puts it: “standing inside our own culture, we can only look at our predicament through our culturally fabricated lenses”. Social anthropology gives us one way of getting a longer perspective on our own culture. This aspect of her writing has led some to label her a ‘postmodernist’, but don’t let that put you off. All it means is that she could see through modernism. She had none of the anti-humanism so typical of literary postmodernism, and she certainly didn’t take the view that people are prisoners of their cultures: a culture makes it possible to be human, providing the tools with which people respond to their environment; but the different ways in which people respond are conditioned by what tools they have available. Mary Douglas herself provides some of the sharpest tools one could wish for. While not a novelist, Mary Douglas is a writer who engages the sympathetic imagination at every turn, in helping to understand social behaviours and beliefs that are sometimes amazingly foreign.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Belgium.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Seeing it on the blog, it does look very long.

About 700 words shorter than my latest. I think all of mine have been well over 2000 words and this one is 1840. So, don't worry about it.


Thank you so much for this.

Well that's reassuring!

No it's not too long. It's a very well written piece.

The most likely long term reason the English Bishops restored meatless Fridays is that theologians and others constantly used Mary Douglas' essay about 'Fish on Fridays' as a kind of rallying point, and they kept on and on repeating the message until it became common sense. It was a message accepted both by 'Tablet' catholics and by conservatives.

I think the basic idea that 'dirt is stuff that is out of place' is really good, and well taken. The old idea, that pigs are 'unhygenic in hot countries' is still very common, though - people still think this is a clever piece of reductionism.

I remember the first time I made a class read the 'Fish on Friday' essay. It was about 1999, or no later than 1991. The student said she was not going to eat fish on Friday, or go meatless, 'just in order to shore up a club identity'. I think this is a strong counter-argument. Because, the essay in itself is anthropology - and does not claim to be anything more. All it is claiming to indicate is that, anthropologically, Catholics felt a stronger sense of group identity when they all shared in this one single ritual. It had the advantage in those days that fish was 'poor man's food'. Unlike today, it was cheap. My student's point makes sense if the essay is used to do more than make that anthropological or sociological point. Because 'Catholic group identity' in and of itself is nothing to work for. There's nothing wrong with it, but anthropology and sociology are not theology. Catholic group identity is not the Body of Christ.

Still, over the years I have come to think that this rallying point has done less harm than good in England.

I have attempted the later books, and I could not get through them. I suspect they are over complicated and muddled. At least, I found them too to require to intricated a model of the composition of biblical books to be convincing.

I heard Mary Douglas speak twice. Once in about 1995, in Lancaster, where she was dazzlingly brilliant. A second time, shortly before she died, at Aberdeen in 2008 or 2009. By that time, the poor dear was too old to be speaking on a stage.

It was about 1999, or no later than 1991

I mean 'about 1989 or no later than 1991'


It's a case of "seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto to you": you couldn't do it to create group identity, but that is one of the beneficial side-effects of doing it for other reasons.

She's very funny on the reasons for abolishing the discipline, which she summarises (I paraphrase) as "It's not enough of a challenge to be significant, except for the times when it's too difficult to expect it at all."

Eamon Duffy was one person who persistently appealed to the essay in an intelligent way.

Teaching confirmation classes in Belgium, meatless Good Fridays always seem to come as a shock. I've wondered whether the English bishops are any better at getting the word out to the flock in general about meatless Fridays.

Very interesting piece, Paul! I recently finished David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed, and his findings in that book would seem to bear out some of what Douglas argues.

Where does the Scruton quote come from, by the way?

"Because 'Catholic group identity' in and of itself is nothing to work for. "

No kidding. We have certainly seen vast evidence of that in the American Church over the past 30 or 40 years. "My Catholic heritage is part of who I am blah blah blah, and abortion is a sacred right."

I'm often surprised at how much longer posts look on the blog than in their original word processor format. Narrower margins. It's interesting, when we started this I was thinking that going much over 1200 words or so might be a problem, just because people tend not to read anything very long online, but it doesn't seem to have been, and the longer posts would have been worse for being shortened. We've come close to hitting the 3000 mark a few times. May have gone over, I can't remember for sure.

The Mary Douglas books sound interesting, but the one I really want to read is the one by the anthropologist studying the English.

It never occurred to me before, but I don't think I have ever read anything approaching this length on another blog. I don't mean that they aren't there; I mean I wouldn't take the time. But in this context the length seems perfectly reasonable and I really enjoy reading them. And, you're right, Maclin, about the posts needing to have been as long as they are.



This is really great. You write so well. I will never have time to read these books, but I'm glad to have read about them.


So what you are saying is that all those sleepless nights I spent in a futile attempt to pare my essays down were unnecessary?

Well, de Lubac was almost 2500 words, so I don't know how long it would have been. ;-)

It's not that I haven't pared down my posts. I think that Greene piece might have been better at 5000 words, but who would have read it?


People at that time sometimes spoke as if more togetherness was a good in itself. But doubtless this was to misuse Douglas

Paul - about whether anyone is obeying the injunction. I was asked that by Elizabeth Scalia a few years ago and replied'I dont know'. She took that to mean no, and said these things have to come up from the grass roots not down from above

That's puzzling.


Well I did read this piece in the Catholic Herald not so long ago, but I have no idea how representative it is.

Yes i read that but i have no idea if average catholics are following. The great thing about the fish was that it was so ingrained

Robert must have done de Lubac during Lent or some other time when I was not online, and I never caught it.

February 2, I think.


I need to look at it

If a sense of Catholic identity helps us bear witness to our faith, wouldn't strengthening that identity with an act (no-meat Fridays) that brings faith into our daily lives be a good thing?

Here it is.

Well quite a lot of people have more sense of Catholic identity than sense of Catholic faith. It's much easier. Its a huge danger for everyone.

But that does not detract an iota from Mary Douglas' achievement. Purity and Danger was a great book.

She also wrote an odd introduction to a new edition of Christopher Dawson's Progress and Religion. Did you ever see that, Paul? I thought it was odd, anyway.

Robert, your piece on de Lubac absolutely gets to the heart of the matter.

Catholic identity is a good thing, definitely, in and of itself--just not the same thing as believing.

My wife and I decided some years ago to adopt the meatless Friday rule, and I find that it does help to reinforce both identity and faith. Even if you're having something that you like as well as you do meat, it's still a conscious gesture of fidelity. I must say, though, I do like the fact that it's not absolutely required, because occasionally you get in a situation where refusing meat would seem like refusing hospitality.

Its difficult! A few weeks ago i was having donner at my sisters and i deliberately didnt tell her about the friday fast because, as all my family know, i dont eat fish either! That wiukd make me the nightmare guest, so i did not tell. But i forgot and shared the catholic herald article Paul saw, and my sister saw it..,

It might have been that piece in the Catholic Herald that spurred me to get round to writing about Mary Douglas without having got round to reading her later works. Not that there was a conscious connection; it just sort of bubbled to the surface.

I haven't seen her introduction to Progress and Religion (my copy is a really old second-hand one). I'm going to have to track it down.

Oh, and in belated answer to Rob G: the Scruton quotation is from his How to Think Seriously About the Planet (2012).

The link to Wikipedia doesn't seem to be working. Not that there's much there.

Thanks, Paul. I have that Scruton book but haven't read it yet.

Btw, his new book on the thinkers of the New Left comes out this week in the UK. Not out in the states until December, although Book Depository will ship it from England for $19, postpaid. It's called Fools, Frauds and Firebrands. :)

re: fasting. As you all may know, we Orthodox refrain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, but it's not 'absolutely' required, in the sense that there's a penalty for not abstaining. Generally speaking, charity trumps the fast, so we are taught that a refusal of hospitality might be a reason to not adhere to it on a given day.

Still, the idea is that even though you may be "allowed" to eat meat under such a circumstance you do so with the fast still in mind. Thus you wouldn't take advantage of the situation by eating three hamburgers when one would suffice or whatever. It's all quite ascetical in spirit, and not really legalistic at all.

Btw, Protestants often have quite a difficulty with this idea. They seem to want either a set of hard and fast rules, or no rules at all. The in-betweenness of actual asceticism tends to flummox them.

Of course the Reformation jettisoned asceticism early, and once you do that your understanding of Christian morality will default towards either legalism or antinomianism.

"[O]nce you do that your understanding of Christian morality will default towards either legalism or antinomianism."

That makes a lot of sense to me.

Yes, it does.

Just an aside: The phrase "I don't eat..." such-and-such always sort of tickles me. It sounds so absolute and determined: "It shall never pass my lips." I hate brussels sprouts, but I don't say "I don't eat them," because I will force them down if they're put in front of me (which they sometimes are, as my wife loves them--and of course I tell myself they're good for me). I realize it's just a turn of speech, but it strikes me as funny. Especially if you know someone who responds to a fairly long list of foods with "I don't eat that."

Sorry but I don't eat fish! The smell alone makes it revolting to me. Of course I do if I go out to dinner and someone has been slaving over a hot stone for hours! But I just force it down, I don't 'eat' it :)

I guess in that sense I can say I don't eat brussels sprouts, either.

It always strikes me as weird that something which one person thinks is delicious can be completely repulsive to someone else. I mean even within more or less the same culture, not like an American or European trying to eat live caterpillars or something.

I should explain myself a bit better. As children, we were allowed to 'not eat' one thing. I did not eat fish, and my brother did not eat cooked tomatoes. So to me it remains a quite literal statement, 'I don't eat fish' - because fish is the one thing I'm allowed to 'not eat'. Not just to dislike but to 'not eat'

I could say I don't eat liver. I can only think of one time since I left home that I've eaten it, and that was just because I wondered if it was really as revolting as I remembered. It was a chicken liver, which wasn't quite as bad as the beef liver we sometimes had at home, but it was still revolting. In another category altogether from brussels sprouts. At one time I had a deal with a cousin who lived nearby that whenever one of us learned that liver was on the dinner menu the other would invite him/her over. Not sure we ever succeeded--it was a pretty transparent ploy.

It's very sad to think of all the wonderful seafood you're missing. I take it "fish" includes shrimp etc?

I mean, literally don't eat, not just have to force it down.

I have run across only two things that I would never eat again, charity be damned: tripe and escargot. But there are quite a few things I'd prefer not to eat, and will avoid if possible, but could eat in a pinch.

For instance, I like fresh pineapple, but I don't like pineapple "in" anything. So I won't eat a pineapple danish, or pineapple upside-down cake, or ice cream with pineapple, etc.

I think, too, that some people have taste-aversions to certain things that can be sick-making to them. My dad was like that with cumin. He hated that particular flavor and would not eat anything that had cumin in it -- chili, Mexican food, etc.

We probably should be discussing this in term's of pollution and taboo.


Left to my own devices, I would probably never eat a cooked vegetable. They always cause me a certain slight queasiness. I have absorbed all the sermons, going back to childhood, about how my body needs them, so I eat them anyway. Raw vegetables don't give me the queasiness, but they're not really appetizing, either.

Never had tripe or escargot, probably never will.

"term's" Save us.


I've had very good tripe, more than once (and different recipes - Roman and Milanese). I would recommend it if you know the cook knows what s/he's doing. Snails are just chewy. I can't see the point.

Surely there's a reason, though, why "tripe" is a synonym for something more or less worthless.

There's a Mexican restaurant here which has a page in their menu called "Autentico". I've tried several things from it, not really knowing what they were (for some reason they don't translate the names), but have steered clear of "tripa" and "lingua".

I have a taboo on all fish including shell fish. Like Leviticus.

I've tried tripe in both a Puerto Rican version, cooked by a friend's mother, and in an Italian version. I liked neither.

With escargot, I just didn't like the flavor; the texture didn't bother me. I didn't mind the chewiness, as I like clams, calamari, etc.

I have only ever eaten one snail in my life and only because I was cajoled into eating it by the lovely wife a major league baseball player. I happened to be sitting next to her at dinner at Tony's on the Hill in St. Louis, and if most of you do not know what that means, some of you might. I was thirteen and starry-eyed at being noticed by such a magnificent person, and so I ate. Although I knew that eating would not make me like God, I thought it might eventually make me like Ann. I took a bite and it popped. I tried not to show my disgust. My only desire was to get it down as quickly as possible, but I kept chewing and chewing, and it was like trying to eat a big rubber eraser. I have no idea what it tasted like.

Despite all my effort to emulate my dinner companion, I did not grow up to be beautiful and charming and wealthy, but then, I don't ever have to eat another snail, so there's that.


A fair trade, I guess.

I was trying to remember the word "calamari" yesterday and coming up blank--I remembered the thing but not the word. But now that Rob has jogged my memory, I'll say that my reaction to it is similar to what Paul said about escargot.

And speaking of taboos, Grumpy's is tragic. I keep thinking longingly of shrimp and grits.

This reminds me of a very embarrassing situation I assisted in producing a long time ago. I was working for a high-tech company, and we had an Israeli guy come in for a couple of days of training on a new software technology. There was (is) a barbecue restaurant nearby that we sometimes went to for lunch. You probably see what's coming. It's a big local favorite and of course we were going to take the guy out to lunch, so we all (a dozen or so of us) agreed that this was the place to go. So we get there and I notice the Israeli guy looking at the menu with a certain distress in his face, and it hit me: can't eat any of this stuff!. The menu featured pork, catfish (bottom feeder), and shrimp. He finally settled on chicken fingers as, I suppose, the safest-looking thing, but something he could just as well have gotten at Burger King. I really felt bad. I don't remember whether I tried to apologize to him or not. I think I decided that would just make it worse.

When is the next time you need an authors post?


Either the 18th or the 25th. I'm tentatively planning to do Hopkins for the 18th but if you would like to take that week instead I won't complain. And as usual I have neglected to update the schedule so if I've forgotten anybody's commitment, please let me know.

I definitely won't be able to do it by the 18th. I can do the 25th if no one else volunteers, but on Nov. 1, it will probably be a better post. Rumer Godden. I know Sally is down for her, but we've talked, and I'm going to do it.


Mac, I've got Madison Jones for the 25th.

Oh, that is so great. So, I will do Rumer Godden on November 1.


I just read all of these posts about what everyone won't eat and am reminded of being in a small diner in Kansas a few winters ago, me, my parents, and my wife. The special was liver and onions which everyone except my wife ordered. She was appalled, and had a hamburger, and had to put up with the liver and onions smell at the table. She claims in her version of the story that the waitress was grossed out also. I don't remember that. Yummy.

I did promise Leo Tolstoy ... Mac, will you repost the schedule based on these conversations? Just put me in for Tolstoy in an open slot and I'll deal with it.

Here's the schedule, such as it is, but I doubt it will be much help.


I'm grossed out just reading that story, Stu.

Ok, I **promise** to update the schedule later this afternoon.

Me too. I've had that experience so many times. Every time I go out to lunch with the three people I work with, they all get liver and onions.


After my dad died I found out that my mom couldn't stand liver and onions, but she would prepare it at least once a month because my dad loved it. So do I.

But then again I love anything made with onions.

If you could just fill in going forward, Mac. I don't mean to imply that the schedule should show anything already posted ... I just looked at the link Janet shared. Thank you!

I mean later this evening.

Ok, the schedule is updated. Let me know if anything is incorrect. Stu, I put you down for Tolstoy on Nov 15, but you can move it to any of the other open dates if you want to. Robert, you picked Dec 6 for Merton a long time ago--is that still ok? I put myself down for Percy because last I heard from Toby he didn't think he was going to be able to do his. My remaining ones will pretty much be a lick and a promise, especially Percy, but I guess that's ok.

So there are 5 open slots between now and the end of the year.

So ive got this sunday for the piece on Fitzhugh which i already gave Mac. Then im doing Hume and Danielou Ie two more apart from the one i already submitted

Mertonb is still a go.

Robert and Grumpy, if you want to pick specific dates, just let me know. And I WILL update the schedule.

Dec. 6 is fine.

"Just an aside: The phrase "I don't eat..." such-and-such always sort of tickles me. It sounds so absolute and determined: "It shall never pass my lips.""


"Snails are just chewy. I can't see the point."

Snails are snails! I can't see the point. Blech! :) (Maybe if I were starving to death).

Calimari has to be cooked properly in order not to be rubbery. I love it when it's cooked properly.

I'm happy to submit my promised Jane Austen for November 8th.

I'm beginning to think we might make it.


I cant do anymore after fitzhugh fir a minth

Nothing before mid november

Could I take December 20 and December 27


Does anyone want to do George Orwell? If not, I will (if needed).

Ok thats me and also this sunday us that right - with the one i sent over?

Right. Or rather all! right! We now have only two holes in the schedule, if I've got this right. I just updated it but will paste it in her for your convenience. So, Louise, if you really are able and willing to do Orwell, you can take either Nov 29 or Dec 13.

Oct 11: Grumpy - Louise Fitzhugh
Oct 18: Mac - Hopkins
Oct 25: Rob G - Madison Jones
Nov 1: Janet - Rumer Godden
Nov 8: Louise - Austen
Nov 15: Stu - Tolstoy
Nov 22: Mac - Percy (tentative)
Nov 29:
Dec 6: Robert Gotcher - Merton
Dec 13:
Dec 20: Grumpy - Hume or Danielou
Dec 27: Grumpy - Danielou or Hume

I can do Mary Renault on whichever week you don't want, Louise.

will paste it in her for your convenience.

Who is she? It might be convenient for us, but I imagine it's really inconvenient to be pasted in.


So that's it?! I can actually read a book that I don't have to read to write about it? O frabjous day!


She had it coming, I assure you.

And speaking of shrimp and grits, having been introduced to them, I'm afraid they are going to be calling to me frequently.


I've heard that call several times since y'all were here.

I had said I would do Christopher Derrick, Mary Douglas, and Edith Stein, but have done Christopher Derrick, Mary Douglas and Josef Skvorecky instead (the last on a bit of a whim). While it's a little bit of a relief not to have to, I'm still willing to do Edith Stein if a piece is needed.

I know it's a gastronomical heresy, but I like grits with butter, milk, and sugar -- like cream of wheat.

If I ate them with shrimp I'd probably leave out the sugar. :-)

Speaking of cream of wheat, have any of you ever had that Indian dessert that's like cream of wheat with butter, honey, and slivered almonds? That's stuff's amazing.

And speaking of grits, in our family, being Northerners, grits meant something entirely different: it was ground beef grilled up loose, like Sloppy Joe, but without the sauce. My mom would just throw in a little salt and pepper and Worcestershire. We kids didn't like it much, but my dad did, so we had it to have it every so often.


Before visiting the Hortons, I had always had grits with butter and sugar. I think you would really like them with shrimp. I'd never heard of the northern kind of grits.


Butter, yes; sugar, no.

"I'd never heard of the northern kind of grits."

Yeah, no idea where that comes from. I know it from growing up with it, but not otherwise.

Sounds kinda good to me.

Butter, salt, and usually pepper are the standard with grits in my experience. I guess maybe some people ate them with sugar but I don't remember encountering that.

Grits were always basically just a very cheap food. In recent years fashionable chefs have sort of upscaled them, which I guess is where shrimp and grits came from. I never liked grits, actually, till well into adulthood--I classified them with cream of wheat, oatmeal, and other bland mush. But now I love them with eggs, or bacon and eggs. Even more, a variant called cheese grits, where you stir in grated cheese, which melts and creates something really delicious.

Is it lunchtime yet?

I know there's a restaurant that I do to with my friends that has s&G. I wish I could remember what it is.


Dec 13 thanks.

For a long time, grits to me were just a prop in My Cousin Vinnie. After moving to Maryland, I found them in the grocery store, tried them, and said, "Meh." Then we went to Charleston for our 25th anniversary and I had two different upscale versions of shrimp and grits. YUM!
Could grits ever have been a poor man's food even with shrimp? Was there a time when poor people could catch their own shrimp, in a place where grits were eaten?

It's funny you mention that, because I had an argument about it with someone a while back. She was pooh-poohing s&g in restaurants, claiming it was an old-fashioned poor people's food. I claimed that it was exactly what you suggest, an upscale thing of recent development. She claimed poor people used to eat it "all the time." I asked my wife, who grew up in this town and whose uncle was a shrimper, and she had never heard of it till recently. So...I'm not sure. Can't say it didn't happen. As far as I remember it was unknown in restaurants until relatively recently.

12:40. AM

When I was a boy I remember how my heart sank when I opened the door after returning from school and smelled ... liver. I vowed that I would never eat it once I left home, and I never have.

Escargot, on the other hand, I really enjoy, and am a little surprised to see all these negative remarks about it. Fry them up with some butter and garlic. Like calamari, they must be lightly cooked or they get rubbery.

My mother sometimes made cornmeal mush for breakfast when I was a child. I couldn't get it down. But the next day she'd fry up the leftovers like pancakes and serve them with maple syrup. Those were yummy.

Grits and polenta and that mush all sound very much alike.

Grits is white corn, i think. The times I had polenta (in Austria) it was yellow corn.

Google Books turns up a 1945 description of a shrimp and grits breakfast.

The context (a book called Favorite Recipes of a Famous Hostess, author Cornelia Donovan O'Donovan Calhoun, does not immediately suggest poverty.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)