This week’s terrible literary food pun

It starts with the piece by Calvin Baker on the life of poet Derek Walcott in the recent NYT Magazine “The Lives They Lived” issue (12/28 on-line, 12/31 in print), with this photo of the Nobel laureate:

(#1) Walcott in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, in 1993; photo credit: David Hurn/Magnum Photos

The village of Hay, on the river Wye, on the border between England and Wales, is famously picturesque, and I’ll get to that. But I was then struck by a recollection that there was in fact a village in England called Ham (also picturesque, and I’ll get to that too), which is not on the river Wye (though it’s close to the river Avon, as in Stratford-on-Avon, cue Shakespeare, so you could reasonably think of it as Ham-on-Avon) — but if it were, it would be (insert massive groan here) Ham-on-Wye. Well, it gets worse.

The Lives They Lived. An annual feature of the NYT Magazine, offering perceptive reflections on the lives of a number of people who died during the year — some famous, some obscure, but all remarkable in some way or another:

Janet Elder (a deputy managing editor at the NYT), Mary Tyler Moore, Royal Robbins, Dick Gregory, Jane Juska (“She transcended a strict upbringing and embraced her eroticism in her 60s”), Scharlette Holdman, Adam West, Maryam Mirzakhani, Barkley Hendricks (“He rejected the label of black political painter”), Irina Ratushinskaya (“How to be free in the gulag”), Enrico L. Quarantelli (“He proved that disasters bring out the best in us”), DeMarlon Thomas, Shirley Childress Johnson (the ASL interpreter in Sweet Honey in the Rock), John Sarno, S. Allen Counter (“He walked in the footsteps of a black explorer who was forgotten by time”), Delia Graff Fara (“She philosophized about vagueness — and lived with it”), Herbert R. Axelrod (“A hustler who built a fortune on a fish tale”), Erin Moran, Maggie Roche, Ren Hang (“His photographs scandalized his country” — China), Cheo (“The mainland disappointed him. Puerto Rico was his home.”), Derek Walcott (“When the poet claimed his place on a world stage, he took a tiny island [St. Lucia] with him”), and Glen Campbell; plus objects beloved by the rapper Prodigy, Lillian Ross, Kate Millett, Trisha Brown, Jimmy Breslin, Harry Dean Stanton, and John Ashbery; and the giant sequoia the Pioneer Cabin Tree

Johnny Hallyday, Jerry Fodor, Fay Zwicky, my cousin Don Coleman, Don Rickles, and Theo Zwicky, all of whom died in 2017, I’ve written about on this blog; death notices for copy editor Bill Walsh and engineer Rene Doublier are in the pipeline; philosopher William Gass and actor Jim Nabors I’ve been contemplating; and Rose Marie died too late to make it into the Lives They Lived issue, but I intend to write an appreciation of her here.

But back to Hay-on-Wye, Ham-almost-on-Avon, the Severn estuary, ham on rye sandwiches, kosher food, and of course Charles Bukowski.

Hay-on-Wye. From Wikipedia on the town:

(#2) In the town of Hay

Hay-on-Wye (Welsh: Y Gelli Gandryll or just Y Gelli), often abbreviated to just “Hay”, is a small market town and community in the historic county of Brecknockshire in Wales, currently administered as part of the unitary authority of Powys. With over twenty bookshops, it is often described as “the town of books”, and is both the National Book Town of Wales and the site of the annual Hay Literary Festival.

… The town lies on the south-east bank of the River Wye and is within the north-easternmost tip of the Brecon Beacons National Park, just north of the Black Mountains. The town is just on the Welsh side of the border with Herefordshire, England, here defined by the Dulas Brook. Where the brook joins the River Wye just north of the town, the border continues northwards along the river. The Wye was the boundary between the former counties and districts of Radnorshire and Brecknockshire.

And on the river:

(#3) The river Wye at Hay-on-Wye

The River Wye (Welsh: Afon Gwy) is the fifth-longest river in the UK, stretching some 215 kilometres (134 miles) from its source on Plynlimon in mid Wales to the Severn estuary. For much of its length the river forms part of the border between England and Wales. … The Wye is important for nature conservation and recreation.

The Salutation at Ham. A pub in Gloucestershire:

(#4) The Sally – a genuine rural free-house [one not tied to a specific brewery] in the village of Ham, close to the Severn Estuary [and the river Avon, in particular]

The Severn Estuary. A map centered on Hay, but taking in Ham in Gloucestershire (not labeled on the map) as well:


On the estuary, from Wikipedia:

The Severn Estuary (Welsh: Môr Hafren) is the estuary of the River Severn, the longest river in Great Britain. It is at the mouth of four major rivers, being the Severn, Wye, Usk and Avon, and other smaller rivers.

The ham on rye sandwich. An American specialty, almost always involving cheese (classically, Swiss cheese, so technically a ham and Swiss on rye), plus mayonnaise, on slices of rye bread; pickle slices, lettuce, and tomato slices are often parts of the package:

(#5) Ham on rye, with lettuce and tomato

(#6) Grilled version of ham on rye, with pickle

Many sites stipulate that the rye bread should be Jewish rye, which is odd, because the ham makes the sandwich flatly non-kosher, and the cheese doubly so (though the mayo is ok). So the Genius Kitchen site provides a recipe for a “Ham on Rye Deli-Style Sandwich” that calls for these specific ingredients:

deli smoked ham, American cheese [so it’s really truly American], Jewish rye bread, Kraft mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato slice (optional), deli sliced smoked turkey (optional)

So now I’m imagining the quaint village of Ham-on-Wye, with its quaint pub the Pig and Whistle (a free house, of course), and its sister city in Yorkshire, Ham-on-Rye, locally and proudly known as the Pork Butcher to the North. From Wikipedia:

The River Rye is a river in the English county of North Yorkshire. It rises just south of the Cleveland Hills, east of Osmotherley, and flows through Hawnby, Rievaulx, Helmsley, Nunnington, West and East Ness, Butterwick, Brawby, and Ryton, before joining the River Derwent … near Malton.

Back on the river Wye, there’s the market town of Ham-and-Swiss, famous for its Helvetian cheese factory; and its bustling gay suburb Ham-and-Swish, home of the Spitroasted Hams F.C. in the Premier League, traditional rivals of the Tottenham Hotspurs. No place has football fans like the Ham-and-Swish-on-Wye fans.

But enough of the meaty (and often cheesy) fluvial UK. Meanwhile, back in America we have

Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye. From Wikipedia:

(#7) Covers for the Bukowski novel

Ham on Rye is a 1982 semi-autobiographical novel by American author and poet Charles Bukowski [1920-1994]. Written in the first person, the novel follows Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s thinly veiled alter ego, during his early years. Written in Bukowski’s characteristically straightforward prose, the novel tells of his coming-of-age in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.

The title may be a play on J. D. Salinger’s 1951 book The Catcher in the Rye, which is one of the most notable coming-of-age novels about American males. Both Bukowski and Salinger were first published professionally in the 1940s in the literary magazine Story, edited by Whit Burnett. However, Bukowski’s admiration of John Fante also suggests that a phrase in Fante’s Ask the Dust, “liverwurst on rye,” may have inspired the title “Ham on Rye.” A third possibility is that the title is a dig at the New York literary critics who generally disdained Bukowski’s work, dismissing him as the equivalent of a ham actor with an overwrought, amateurish style. Thus, Bukowski may be appropriating the insult and boldly declaring himself a ham writer fueled by rye whiskey [Bukowski was famous for his drinking]. Still another possible interpretation is that Hank perceived himself as being sandwiched, or trapped, between his highly dysfunctional parents during his formative years.

One Response to “This week’s terrible literary food pun”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    And let’s not forget that when Lewis Carroll’s White King ran out of ham sandwiches, he switched to hay as a not-entirely-adequate substitute.

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