Wednesday, June 30, 2010

No Mustard with Them Taters

It is rare, in my research, to encounter primary narratives that evoke a visceral reaction, and such occasions are all the more memorable for it. I still recall the discomfort I felt twelve years ago when I read a letter by Northwest Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair, explaining that he could not attend an Indian council because he had fallen hard on the pommel of his saddle and "ruptured [his] private parts most dreadfully." I had a similarly immediate, though more muted, response to an entry I read a few months ago in British fur trader George Nelson's memoirs. While traveling to an Indian hunting camp on the Kettle River, in northern Minnesota, Nelson and his partners joined an Ojibwa party for a meal. One of the Ojibwas was a woman whose young child was suffering from loose bowels. "The little black devil was running about the lodge squettering out yellow stuff like mustard; she [the mother] scolded & laying the brat on her lap opened the cheeks & with the back of her knife scraped off the stuff." She then released the child, washed her hands in the cooking kettle, wiped off the knife, and resumed cutting meat with it. After that Nelson found he didn't have much of an appetite. (My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802-1804, ed. Laura Peers and Theresa Schenck [Saint Paul, 2002], 65-66.)

Nelson later recorded this anecdote to illustrate, I think, the "savage" Indians' tolerance for filth and disease. In reflecting on it, I have come to the conclusion that the Ojibwa mother in Nelson's story was instead expressing a rather common maternal belief - that her child's exudations couldn't really harm anyone, since they hadn't harmed her - coupled with sufficient exhaustion to wear down any scruples she might have had about her guests' dining experience. The tired and overworked cooks in George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, one might well note, prepared food in even more squalid conditions than Nelson's hosts, and received greater compensation for it.

Also, "squettering" is an awesome word.

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