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Hugh Rawson

Hugh Rawson

Posted: December 23, 2010 04:30 PM

More Fowl Talk for the Holidays

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-- Is it dark meat or white meat you will be helped
to? - said the landlady, addressing the Master.
-- Dark meat for me, always -- he insisted.


This exchange is from The Poet at The Breakfast-Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., published in 1872, but it could have been written yesterday. The terms white meat and dark meat are used so commonly today that most people forget that they started out as euphemisms, popularized by our Victorian ancestors, who shied away from uttering the dreaded words breast, leg, and thigh. Especially when women were present.

Curiously, Americans were ahead of their supposedly more effete British cousins in this department. Thus, a British visitor to the United States, Thomas C. Grattan, felt it necessary to translate the genteelism for readers of his Civilized America (1872): "And some of them would scarcely hesitate to ask for the breast of a chicken, though almost all call it 'white meat,' in contradistinction to the 'dark meat,' as all ladies and gentlemen designate the legs of poultry."

Capt. Frederick Marryat, who had a distinguished career in the British navy before turning to editing and writing, where he was equally successful, caught the flavor of the period in his 1834 novel, Peter Simple, when his bumbling protagonist, Midshipman Simple, asked a lady on the island of Barbados if she wanted "a piece of the breast" of a turkey: "She looked at me very indignantly and said, 'Curse your impudence, sar, I wonder where you larn your manners. Sar, I take a lily turkey bosom, if you please. Talk of breast to a lady, sar! -- really quite horrid.'"

The avoidance of breast extended far beyond the table, with bosom replacing breast in a great many contexts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Women began wearing bosom knots instead of breast knots, bosom pins instead of breast pins, and false bosoms, which served the same deceptive function as falsies of a later era. Even supposedly earthy farmers spoke of the bosom (as opposed to the breast) of a plow, and it seems likely that the widespread aversion to breast is why William Congreve's line, "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast" is commonly misquoted as "charms to soothe a savage beast." About the only time breast could be used in mixed company was when the choice was between it and something "worse." Thus, when Noah Webster amended the Bible in 1833, euphemizing almost all the sexy words, he changed "They shall lament for the teats" (Isaiah 32:12) to "They shall lament for the breasts."

You might think that such an acute observer of manners as Capt. Marryat would not make much the same mistake in real life as Midshipmen Simple, but he did, as he confessed in his Diary in America (1839). Reporting on a visit to Niagara Falls with a young lady: "She had been standing on a piece of rock, the better to view the scene, when she slipped down, and was evidently hurt by the fall... As she limped a little in walking home, I said, 'Did you hurt your leg much?' She turned from me, evidently much shocked, or much offended... I begged to know what was the reason for her displeasure. After some hesitation, she said that as she knew me well, she would tell me that the word leg was never mentioned before ladies."

The Captain apologized for his "want of refinement," explaining that he was "accustomed only to English society." Bravely, he went on to ask how he could avoid "shocking the company" if he ever had to mention "such articles." She informed him that the word limb should be used, though she herself was "not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte."

Some of Marryat's readers might have suspected him of pulling their limbs, but if so, it was only slightly. Some nineteenth-century women were not even born with knees. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow noted in Kavanagh (1849), "Young ladies are not allowed to cross their benders in school." Oliver Wendell Holmes, the aforementioned poet, doctor, and all-round man of letters, recorded yet another such round-about in his 1861 novel, Elsie Venner: A Romance of Destiny: "A bit of the wing, Roxy, or the -- under limb?"

Benders and under limbs seem to have gone by the boards, along with other by-words of the period, such as trotter (as in the trotter of a chicken) and joint (for specificity at the dining table, one might ask for the first joint or second joint). The last was still being used in the U.S. in the 1930s. For example, one of the stories in Bertram and His Fabulous Animals (1937), a popular children's book by Paul T. Gilbert, concludes: "They had chicken instead of fish for supper that night, and Bertram had the wishbone and the gizzard and the second joint and two helpings of white meat. And Baby Sam had a drumstick without any meat on it, to suck."

Drumstick, of course, shows no signs of fading away as a common substitute for leg. The oldest drumstick in The Oxford English Dictionary that is for eating rather than for banging on a drum comes from 1764: "She always helps me herself to the tough drumsticks of turkies" (Samuel Foote, The Mayor of Garrett). By the end of that century, drumstick had worked its way into cookbooks. According to The Accomplished Housekeeper, and Universal Cook (1797), by T. Williams "and the principal cooks at the London and Crown and Anchor Taverns," the "most esteemed" parts of a goose included "the thighbone, or drumstick, as it is called." And by the end of the nineteenth century, drumstick was fully accepted by everyone as a comestible term, appearing, for example, as part of a panoply of dinner-table euphemisms in The Laws of Disorder, by Thomas Starr King: "There are so many that love white meat, so many that can eat nothing but dark meat, two that prefer a wing, two that lie in wait for the drumsticks..." (an oration, in Dickinson's Theological Quarterly, April, 1881).

Progress has since been made in some ways. Chickens now have legs, and so do women. Today it is even possible to get away with plain talk about what comes above the bender -- at the dinner table as well as elsewhere. Thus, guests at the Standard Hotel in New York City, who forget, unintentionally or not, to pull the drapes on their floor-to-ceiling windows, have led strollers on the High Line, the park on the old elevated rail line adjacent to it, to call the park by another name: the Thigh Line.