J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sunday Dinner with the Adamses

The last episode of the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams depicted the former President in retirement, dealing with old age. It showed the death of his wife Abigail in 1818, his attempts to explain and justify his political career, and, of course, his long-distance reconciliation with Thomas Jefferson.

That put me in mind of this recollection of the Adamses from about 1809, written by Josiah Quincy (1802-1882)—the fourth prominent man and second Boston mayor of that name. He was the grandson of the Josiah Quincy, Jr., who helped John Adams defend the soldiers after the Boston Massacre.

When I was about six years old, I was put to school to the Reverend Peter Whitney; and, spending the winter in his family, was often asked to dine on Sunday with Mr. and Mrs. Adams.

This was at first somewhat of an ordeal for a boy; but the genuine kindness of the President, who had not the smallest chip of an iceberg in his composition, soon made me perfectly at ease in his society. With Mrs. Adams there was a shade more formality. A consciousness of age and dignity, which was often somewhat oppressive, and was customary with old people of that day in the presence of the young. Something of this Mrs. Adams certainly had, though it wore off or came to be disregarded by me, for in the end I was strongly attached to her. She always dressed handsomely, and her rich silks and laces seemed appropriate to a lady of her dignified position in the town.

I well remember the modest dinners at the President’s, to which I brought a schoolboy’s appetite. The pudding, generally composed of boiled corn meal, always constituted the first course. This was the custom of the time,—it being thought desirable to take the edge off one’s hunger before reaching the joint. Indeed, it was considered wise to stimulate the young to fill themselves with pudding, by the assurance that the boy who managed to eat the most of it should be helped most abundantly to the meat, which was to follow. It need not be said that neither the winner nor his competitors found much room for meat at the close of their contest; and so the domestic economy of the arrangement was very apparent.

Miss [Louisa] Smith, a niece of Mrs. Adams, was an inmate of the President’s family, and one of these ladies always carved. Mr. Adams made his contribution to the service of the table in the form of that good-humored, easy banter, which makes a dinner of herbs more digestible than is a stalled ox without it. . . . I can distinctly picture to myself a certain iron spoon which the old gentleman once fished up from the depths of a pudding in which it had been unwittingly cooked.
The “stalled ox” phrase is an adaptation to Proverbs 15:17, where it’s sometimes translated as “fatted calf.” (See what I learn from making sure that wasn’t just a typo!)

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