Food For Thinkers: Old Mr. Flood and a Boston Breakfast of Cod's Cheeks, Tongue, and Flotation Bladder Joseph Mitchell's Old Mr. Flood is Food Writing at its Best

Joseph Mitchell's Old Mr. Flood is Peter Smith's pick for the best piece of food writing ever. Why?

A tough Scotch-Irishman I know, Mr. Hugh G. Flood, a retired house-wrecking contractor, aged ninety-three, often tells people that he is dead set and determined to live until the afternoon of July 27, 1965, when he will be a hundred and fifteen years old. "I don't ask much here below," he says. "I just want to hit a hundred and fifteen. That'll hold me."


If you don't know him already, Mr. Flood lives on the top floor of the Hartford House, in a corner room overlooking Peck Slip and the old Fulton Fish Market. He's the only seafoodetarian I've ever heard about. He eats fish, eels, crabs, winkles, skates, black clams, octopus, lobster, marinated herrings, nine different species of freshwater mussels, oysters (with lemon, never with cocktail sauce), and the ancient Boston breakfast of cod cheeks, tongue, and sounds. (Cod sounds, for those unfamiliar with the Gadus morhua, are the gelatinous white flotation bladders that run along the spine and resemble a deflated balloon. It's offal of the sea, eaten, I'm guessing, by more cats than old men.)

His appetite is so good that immediately after lunch he begins speculating about what he will have for dinner.


Old Mr. Flood (1948) is the creation of Joseph Mitchell, a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker who practically invented the magazine's now-standard long-form profiles and began chronicling Mr. Flood, the honorary Mayor of the Fish Market, in 1944.

To me, it's still one of the best pieces of food writing (and frankly, better than "All You Can Hold For Five Bucks," which David Remnick included in The New Yorker's food writing anthology Secret Ingredients). Yes, I’m aware that Mr. Flood is a composite character, comprised of many old men compressed into one old man, but I think these fictions—Mitchell's urban tall-tales—better serve the truth. The book is packed with vivid, impressionistic details about a vanishing waterfront culture, without being historical, and it's narrated with long, long quotes from drunks, mussel men, and self-professed lunatics. Old Mr. Flood resurrects a place obscured by time and obscured by the kind of food writing that unduly focuses on fame and fortune.

Mr. Flood's haunts have long since gone the way of ice boxes, telegraphs, and edible oysters dredged up from the New York Harbor. And still, long before uni made its way back into the glitziest sushi joints in downtown Manhattan, Mr. Flood ate the briny, bright orange eggs for his 95th birthday and raved to his friends about how urchin roe was far superior to the finest beluga caviar. He may be old but that doesn't mean he's a dated character. After all, here's a man obsessed with food and what it means for a better, longer life. Sound familiar?

Mr. Flood is nobody and he's indelible. And that's only part of the reason I think he's an inspiration.

I grew up 100 miles north of New York, near the Hudson River, after General Electric began leaking polychlorinated biphenyls, so it goes without saying that I didn’t eat what was left of the great tidal river's shad or herring runs. I never ate much fish until I found myself in Portland, Maine, after college. My first job was standing behind a fish counter, filled with mysterious cuts from mysterious creatures. At the time, I couldn't tell you the difference between a fluke and a flounder, but the fish market job was the beginning of what I'll call my Flood Stage; I started eating oysters, bluefish, crab, uni, and Northern shrimp. And that's when I read Old Mr. Flood again.

"I've made quite a study of fish cooks," Mr. Flood says. "... [The best cooks] have to be old; it takes a lifetime to learn how to do something simply. Even the stove has to be old. If the cook is an awful drunk, so much the better. I don't think a teetotaler could cook a fish. If he was a mean teetotaler, he might."


Mr. Flood walks around the market with his cigar and his rubber boots. He's looking for fish and stories and he's after something unknowable—whether that's understanding life from under the sea or life after death, I'm not sure. He talks about everyday joys and sadnesses with a rare kind of authenticity, like most of Mitchell's eccentric characters and like Mitchell himself. It’s not sentimental. The book feels like trying on someone else's world instead of catching a mere glimpse of life in a flash photograph. Old Mr. Flood is an enduring reminder of the value in exploring the unseen, the underseen, or the purposely obfuscated.

In some ways, it's why I'll head down to the dive bar on nights when it's blowing and the draggers are grounded and the only way to find your land legs in Portland seems to involve whisky.

So if you haven't read the book, please turn off your electronic devices, quiet your crying baby, and get a dozen oysters. Find yourself a gut blade, pour a Scotch, and read Old Mr. Flood. You won't regret it.

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.

Photograph: Maryland Stuart/American Academy of Arts & Letters via The New Yorker.

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

Keep Reading Show less
via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

Keep Reading Show less
via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet