Old recipes IV: George Leonard Herter

Now for some really old recipes (see here, here, and here) — like the Virgin Mary’s recipe for spinach. As relayed by George Leonard Herter is his magnificent Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices.

To come: a couple of recipes from Herter; background on the man and his work; and some remarks on cohesion vs. coherence in texts, Herter’s writing being fine on the cohesion front but often laughably deficient on the coherence front.

Two recipes from Herter. To give you some of the flavor of the book; I’ll return to these texts later. (My copy is a 10th edition, from 1965.)

[The Spinach Text]

Spinach Mother of Christ (p. 217)

The Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ was very fond of spinach. This is as well known a fact in Nazareth today as it was 19 centuries ago. Her favorite music was that of the crude bagpipes of that time, and this also is a well-known fact.

Her recipe for preparing spinach spread with Christianity throughout Europe. On the eve of Christ’s birth in the cave that was called a stable, Her only meal was spinach.

The early European immigrants from Germany, France, and Italy nearly all brought this recipe with them. This is a recipe for people who like a mild garlic flavor, it definitely is not for people who do not like some garlic.

The recipe that follows is extremely simple. You boil the spinach (6 qts.), deveined, briefly, and drain; fry 4 garlic cloves, chopped, in 3 heaping tsp. of butter; mix the butter and garlic into the spinach; and add salt and pepper to taste. This is a mother recipe, good for many greens (adjusting for their toughness or fragility) and can be translated into a Chinese stir-fry recipe, using peanut oil or a substitute, rather than butter, or into a dairy-free recipe, using any vegetable oil rather than butter.

Many years ago, my household held occasional readings from Bull Cook — there are a number of volumes, so everyone could have one. We’d take turns reading our favorites, and usually there was some discussion about whether the recipes could possibly have come from the periods Herter located them in; the attributions to specific people — Charlemagne’s sauerbraten, Genghis Khan’s duck, and Saint Thomas Aquinas’s wild birds, for instance — are mostly preposterous, but the preparations might conceivably have been around in these people’s times.

In the case of Spinach Mother of Christ, that is massively unlikely. It’s possible that there was a roughly similar preparation for greens in Biblical times, even one using butter, but not one for spinach. From Anthony F. Chiffolo & Rayner W. Hesse, Cooking With the Bible: Biblical Food, Feasts, And Lore (Greenwood, 2006), p. 246:

It is almost certain that spinach was not known to the peoples of the Bible: there is no ancient Hebrew word for spinach, and there is no written or archaeological record of the consumption of spinach in the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, or northern Africa before the common era.

According to the Wikipedia entry, the first written evidence of spinach in the Mediterranean is in three 10th-century works. The Saracens introduced spinach to Sicily in the preceding century.

Now to the second text.

[The Wiener Text]

Prairie Dog Bat Masterson (p. 52)

Bat Masterson was one of the early law officers at Dodge City, Kansas and a great friend of Wyatt Earp’s. Bat was an excellent gunfighter. He was a short, stubby man with a friendly homespun appearance that made him look like anything but a gunfighter. In later years he became a New York sports writer. He was not a heavy drinker. He preferred lemon pop to alcoholic drinks and drank large quantities of it. His favorite foods were cold tongue sandwiches and wiener sandwiches. Bat created a wiener sandwich which became well known throughout the Old West and was justly thought of as a great delicacy. Everyone called it a Prairie Dog. It is one of the greatest wiener recipes ever made and will be remembered long after Bat’s gun deeds are forgotten. Here is the original recipe.

Again, the recipe is simplicity itself: you split a wiener, rub ground sage into the sides, and broil it; then, on one side of a bun, mustard and thinly sliced dill pickle, and on the other, Worcestershire sauce.

In this case, it’s quite likely that Masterson —

William Barclay “Bat” Masterson (November 26, 1853 – October 25, 1921) was a figure of the American Old West known as a buffalo hunter, U.S. Marshal and Army scout, avid fisherman, gambler, frontier lawman, and sports editor and columnist for the New York Morning Telegraph. (link)

was familiar with wieners (frankfurters, hot dogs), and that he’d sometimes heard them referred to as dogs, but his association with this way of preparing wieners seems to be just another of Herter’s fanciful fabrications.

It is true that if you google on {“Bat Masterson” “prairie dog”}, you’ll find some old-recipe sites that connect the two, for instance Really Old RecipesGroup Recipes: Prairie Dog 1896 Wild West Junk Food, and Recipe 4 All. But it turns out that these “sources” are all (unattributed) verbatim quotes from Herter’s text!

Herter and his oeuvre. Here I’ll quote (in full) a charming piece by Paul Collins, “The Oddball Know-It-All” in the NYT of 12/5/08 (hat tip to Ned Deily):

It’s a little-known fact that the Virgin Mary was fond of creamed spinach. And did you know that sauerbraten was invented by Charlemagne? That the geneticist Gregor Mendel spent much of his time developing a recipe for fried eggs? Or that “people who use considerable red pepper in their foods are almost immune to atomic radiation”?

If you’re nodding in recognition, you’re a lucky owner of George Leonard Herter’s farrago “Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices” — one of the greatest oddball masterpieces in this or any other language. A surly sage, gun-toting Minnesotan and All-American crank — the kind of guy who would take his own sandwiches to Disneyland because the restaurants were No Damned Good — Herter wrote books on such disparate topics as candy making, marriage advice, African safaris and household cleaning.

Where could you find these books? Not in any fancy bookstore, friend. No, you needed a Herter’s sporting goods catalog. Starting in 1937 from atop his father’s dry-goods shop in Waseca, Minn., Herter over the next four decades built a mail-order sporting goods juggernaut. The arrival of the Herter’s catalog was like Christmas with bullets. Need a bird’s-eye maple gunstock? Check. How about a Herter’s Famous Raccoon Death Cry Call? Just two dollars. Fiberglass canoes? Got you covered. The catalog, which the former Waseca printer Wayne Brown recalls started as three-ring binder supplements, grew so popular — about 400,000 or 500,000 copies per run, he estimates — that Brown Printing became one of the country’s largest commercial printers.

“Herter wrote all the copy for the catalogs,” Brown said in an e-mail message, and each item was described in loving, haranguing, Barnum-esque detail. No Herter item was merely good: it was World Famous, Patented, Special, “made with infinite care by our most expert old craftsmen,” or — my favorite — “actually made far better than is necessary.” The corollary was that his competitor’s products were worthless — or, as he put it, “like they were made by indifferent schoolgirls.”

But as good as much of his gear was, talk about Herter always comes around to one thing: his books. His enchantingly bombastic catalogs included listings for more than a dozen of his self-published works, bound in metallic silver and gold covers, and bearing titles like “How to Get Out of the Rat Race and Live on $10 a Month” — which apparently involves moving to Alaska and zapping up fresh fish by running two car batteries into a stream’s shallows. (If you don’t have batteries, “drop 10 pounds of quicklime” upstream.) George often listed his wife, Berthe, as a co-author, though she’s notably absent from his marriage guide, “How to Live With a Bitch.” This, perhaps, accounts for the revised edition’s chastened advice to “under no circumstances call your wife a bitch.”

Herter’s magnum opus, though, was “Bull Cook,” a wild mix of recipes, unsourced claims and unhinged philosophy that went through at least 15 editions between 1960 and 1970. Herter claimed one million copies sold; Brown guesses it was closer to 100,000. Either number is impressive, and the wild curveball of the book’s opening lines remains unmatchedin American literature: “I will start with meats, fish, eggs, soups and sauces, sandwiches, vegetables, the art of French frying, desserts, how to dress game, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to make wines and beer, how to make French soap and also what to do in case of hydrogen or cobalt bomb attack, keeping as much in alphabetical order as possible.”

Boasting such wondrous entries as Cochise Venison Hamburgers, the book also suggests Herter had a knack for sniffing out recipes by historical personages; one of his books purports to give Hitler’s recipe for omelets. (“He always said he enjoyed the belches as much as the meal.”) But the greatest Herterisms often have the artless charm of a confused book report: “Johannes Kepler was a well-known German astrologer. He was born in 1571 and died in 1630. His work on astronomy has long since been forgotten but his creating liverwurst will never be forgotten.”

Herter never acknowledges — not once — that his facts are any less sturdy and real than his Herter’s Famous No. 153 Saskatchewan Goose Call. No, sir: Herter facts are the finest, the most famous, specially selected and custom-made by only the oldest and most experienced craftsmen — even more factual than is necessary. No sooner do you digest his account of drinking with Hemingway in Key West (where Papa recommends a mixture of three parts light rum to one ounce of port wine as “great for dandruff”) than you come across a chapter called “Milking Scorpions Brings You $150 or More a Week.”

Alas, neither scorpion milk nor leopard ranching — another Herter get-rich idea — could keep George himself afloat. Herter’s Inc. went bankrupt in 1981 amid reports of millions of dollars in debt and unfilled orders. Already the holder of dozens of patents, Herter continued innovating — his name turns up in a byzantine 1982 patent for petroleum refining — but he appears to have stopped writing long before, and he died in 1994. Today worn copies of his books circulate among a Herter under­ground drawn to the irresistible bluster of such lines as “Being eaten alive by hyenas is less painful than you would think.”

But those who worked with Herter recall a pale, quiet, squeaky-voiced man often lost in his ideas, with what might have been an understandable aversion to photographs and interviews. One of the few published images of him (above), which accompanied a 1966 article in The New York Times by Craig Claiborne, reveals a physiognomy eerily evocative of another genius of straight-faced balderdash: think John Hodgman, but with a gun.

Surely this wasn’t the same man who titled one of his chapters “How to Kill a Wild Boar With a Shirt”? But it was. An unreliable narrator who sold reliable gear, Herter embodied a range of American archetypes: ornery survivalist, unabashed huckster, eccentric gastronome, reclusive tinkerer, teller of tall tales. A 1966 Herter’s catalog lists a book of his own fiction, “The World’s Finest Short Stories to Take Your Mind Off From the Rat Race,” promising, among other yarns, “the greatest safari story ever written” and a tale of “a schoolteacher deer hunter and the perfect double murder.” I’ve never been able to find a single copy, so perhaps it was an ambition left unfulfilled. But then again, George Leonard Herter was a great storyteller already.

Cohesion and coherence. Note Collins’s reference, above, to “the artless charm of a confused book report”. That captures Herter’s style beautifully: the wandering from subtopic to subtopic, either in a free association of ideas or a pouring out of brute facts, but all circling around the larger discourse topics (the Virgin Mary and the spinach recipe, Bat Masterson and the wiener recipe). Go back and look at the two texts in this light.

The result is a text that has plenty of local cohesion, conveyed by linguistic features that signal relations between parts of the text: deixis, anaphora, ellipsis, repeated phrases, connectives, etc. But it lacks coherence, a discourse structure that causes the text to hang together for the reader (or hearer), via informational relationships between the sentences in the text. The reader is constantly puzzled as to where the texts are going and why Herter is telling you these things (why are we told what Mary’s favorite music was? why move from the spread of the spinach recipe throughout Europe to Mary’s Christmas meal of spinach? why are we told about Masterson’s preferences in things to drink? what is that digression into gunfighting doing in the text? and so on).

So, in addition to the pleasures of Herter’s fabulism, we get the pleasures of his texts’ somewhat loopy incoherence. What keeps his writing from being just annoying is the fact that the essays are fairly short and the knowledge that he’s going to get to the point — the actual recipe — at the end.


5 Responses to “Old recipes IV: George Leonard Herter”

  1. jurafsky Says:


  2. Robert Says:

    The works of George Leonard Herter are a favorite in our household.

  3. John W Gintell Says:

    I’ve always been a great fan of Bull Cook ….

  4. Ned Deily Says:

    Amazon is offering a couple of used copies of GLH’s “How to make the finest wines at home…in old glass or plastic bottles and jugs for as little as 10c a gallon!”, a favorite of my family.

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