previous next

A Fishy story.

Rev. Hosea Ballou, 2d, who resigned his pastorate of the Medford Universalist Church to become the first president of Tufts College, was accustomed to write to his ministerial brethren and members of the Faculty in a somewhat humorous vein. Sometimes these missives would be in several different languages, though it is said none such ever got in print.

Sometimes the learned doctor would drop into poetry, and one of his productions comes down to us from one who says, ‘I am indebted to Professor Tweed for one he received on a winter morning, when the snow had blocked the roads round Walnut hill,1 and the New England staple, salt fish, was in request—a dinner of which, by the way, John Hancock used to invite his friends to [p. 89] eat on Saturdays.’ Under stress of weather the good doctor penned the lines his wife styled ‘silly.’ There seemed to have been the ‘irony of fate’ that President Ballou should have, after such criticism, sent them to the door of the professor of English literature, adding (to his wife), ‘That's the reason I send them.’

Medford people of today who purchase cured fish, cut, boneless, and in dainty package, may not appreciate like their elders, the grim humor of the verses. The grocery store then sold the whole ‘salt fish,’ which was usually hung up by the tail in shed or cellar, to be cut from as occasion required, or surreptitiously stripped from by hungry boys, and never tasting quite as good as when thus eaten.

Staple food on Walnut Hill!
Victual-fund for drafts at will!
Ready in all exigents,
Minute-man of esculents!
Substitute for every dish,
Hail, all hail to thee, Salt Fish!

When the rain comes pouring down,
And no market-carts from town;
Nought abroad but roaring gale,
Streaming hills, and flooded vale,—
“What for dinner do you wish?”
Asks the wife. The same,—Salt Fish.

When the winter's smothering blow
Drifts the roads fence-high with snow,
Shrouding Nature all in white,
As for her funereal rite,—
If a dinner-thought intrude
On our awful solitude,
Can we feel blue devilish?
Blest resource! there's some Salt Fish.

Rain nor snow nor cold nor heat
May disturb our high retreat:
All within is cheery still
In our homes on Walnut Hill.
Does a friend or guest drop in
Just about the hour to dine?

[p. 90] Though the larder's void, what matters?
Out with cups and knives and platters;
Help him, till no more he wish,
From thy bounty, O Salt Fish!

Thou of eatables the chief,—
Whether called Atlantic beef,
Mutton caught at Newfoundland,
Poultry from the ocean-strand,
Venison from the shoaly banks,—
Still for thee we render thanks,
O thou universal dish!
Hail, all hail, to thee, Salt Fish!

Blessings on thy face antique,
Mummy ichthyologic,
Drawn from caves beneath the tides
Older than the Pyramids!
What a wondrous power thou hast,
That can make us feast and fast,
Blending lean and hungry Lent
With Carnival incontinent,
Making all days Fridayish,
Thaumaturgical Salt Fish.

One appellation Dr. Ballou failed to name—the time-honored ‘Cape Cod Turkey.’

Of the verses, a critic said (per contra to Mrs. B.),‘Had they been written by Leigh Hunt, for humor, versification and fancy, they would have been considered as one of his best effusions.’ A contributor says: ‘Fifty years ago it was no uncommon sight to see a young man going through Medford square with a salt fish in one hand and a can of oil in the other. We did not necessarily put him down as one who tilled the soil, or thought him a laboring man, for we knew he dug in Greek roots and was taking his way toward College hill.’

O tenmpora! O mores! Fancy such a sight today! Boneless cod and electric light are the present order, but salt fish was a New England staple then.

1 The hill was known as Walnut Tree Hill prior to the location of the college thereon.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
New England (United States) (2)
Walnut Tree Hill (Massachusetts, United States) (1)
Newfoundland (Canada) (1)
College Hill (Massachusetts, United States) (1)
hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Fish (6)
Hosea Ballou (3)
Benjamin Franklin Tweed (1)
Leigh Hunt (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
6th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: