Erudition and Eating At Their Best in Beantown
Every American child should have his daily converse with Poor Richard, but doesn't. My elders, in their constant effort to inculcate useful precepts in my barren noggin, were forever falling back on Poor Richard, and I was well on my way to manhood before I came to know that this able mentor was Benjamin Franklin. By that time, I had realized the greatness of Old Ben as compared to many a lesser man more highly esteemed.
There came a day when I realized that while I had been fetched up on Poor Richard, and about every book I opened and every person I met was going about quoting him, I had never seen "Poor Richard's Almanac." At that time, our resident Carnegie librarian was Miss Annette Aldrich, daughter of a blue-water sea captain. She had learned to read on long voyages "out East," using a stack of secondhand daily newspapers brought aboard the clipper Rosabel Coombs before weighing anchor in New York Harbor.
Miss Aldrich brought out an anthology of aphorisms well larded by Poor Richard.
"I don't mean that," I told her. "I'd like to see what the almanac looks like. How big was it? What shape? Did it have pictures? What was the price?"
To those of us who know the old cow paths of Boston, there is on the hill (is there another hill?) a venerable institution called Boston Athenaeum, established in 1805 to serve the literary and cultural desires of the city's finer folks. And youthful reader as I was then, I had known about it for some time. Miss Aldrich suggested I might consult the library of the Athenaeum as a place to start.
A native Bostonian full as much as B. Franklin ever was, I was now living in Maine, and it would be many years yet before I was rambling in Boston and came up Court Street from Washington to come in visiting distance of the Athenaeum library, into which I stepped for the first time and encountered the treasured-up erudition that hovers. The sweetly cultured Bostonian lady asked if perchance she might assist me. I told her my desire. "I know what he said," I told her, "but I'd like to find out just how he said it."
"Certainly," she said.
I was told to use a small elevator that climbed yonder wall and went through a hole in the ceiling, and that Mr. Templeton would be waiting for me. He was, and he comforted me to allay the extreme fear engendered by the elevator. Then he led me to a chair at a long library table.
"The almanac is in the vault," he confided in a librarian's whisper. He brought it in a folder, and I had to sign a receipt. Then Mr. Templeton stood behind me while I inspected a copy of "Poor Richard's Almanac." Noticing the copy was not an original, I said to Mr. Templeton, "This is a reproduction."
"Yes," he said. "Demand was so brisk that some of the reproductions are really older than the originals. I can bring you an original if you wish."
I've thought about that many times in the many years that have passed, and always shudder at the thought of reproductions that are older than the real ones.
Boston had until recent times another venerable haven of culture hardly to be mentioned in the same essay with the Athenaeum. It was a German-American restaurant founded three generations hence by a Rheinlander named Jacob Wirth. There you could get hogs knuckles with kraut, and the Fatherland sausages, and the sauerbraten every Wednesday. And as time passed, the restaurant increased in favor with Bostonians and became a solid, if detached, part of the venerables of Harvard College, America's first. Common as grass was the student with his green cloth bag of books sitting with his open book of Themistocles, preparing for tomorrow's class and having his Rouladen.
I had the famous smoked Dutch sausages there one evening, and found Frank Hatch at the next table with his grandson. Frank raised funds for the Boston Symphony, and as a pianist he composed songs for Hasty Pudding shows. He was a big tavern clubber, and as his "Carsteen" (Maine) rivaled Cambridge in his affection, he greeted me warmly. He wanted his grandson, he said, to begin early with all Harvard traditions. Jacob Wirth, for instance.
When the Jacob Wirth tradition was very old, its loyal Harvard sons prepared a book of essays, each a page or so long, with a biography of the founder and a history of the company, extolling both and sparing no hyperbole. The book is indeed extant, and for a long time after the anniversary the waiters would give a copy to new customers who wandered in. All the old customers had one. Possibly on no other occasion was such high quality erudition and scholarship lavished on a lunch room, and Jacob Wirth and his renowned gemtlichkeit exude deliciously from the laudatory pages. The booklet reeks of the brown gravy smell. And one of the chapters eulogizing Jake Wirth is in Latin, written by the Harvard alumnus who at the time was the curator of the Boston Athenaeum.
It chanced that Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Finfley of Athens, Ohio, came to Boston to see the sights and inhale culture, and as they came out of the Jacob Wirth restaurant replete, Fritz Heuser, the senior waiter, wished them good night and handed them the laudatory book as a souvenir. In the taxi, going to the Vendome Hotel, Mrs. Finfley opened the book to see what it was, and she told her husband, "You might know this is Boston; one of the pieces is written in Latin!"