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."\n
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.\n
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."\n
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?
Photograph: Maryland Stuart/American Academy of Arts & Letters viaThe New Yorker.