One of my favorite bits of writing that might fall into the category of “food writing” is not written by a famous chef or food critic or commentator, or travel writer or restaurant entrepreneur, but by the treasured poet Walt Whitman. During the Civil War, Whitman served as an Army nurse in several hospitals including a military hospital in Washington, D.C. During this time, he wrote many letters home. In one particular letter written to his mother in the summer of 1864, he describes the rare treat of ice cream he bought in an effort to bring a bit of relief to the wounded and dying he served.
….”Oh, I must tell you, I gave in Carver hospital a great treat of ice cream, a couple of days ago-went round myself through about 15 large wards- (I bought some ten gallons, very nice). You would have cried and been amused too. Many of the men had to be fed; several of them I saw cannot probably live, yet they quite enjoyed it. I gave everybody some-quite a number of Western country boys had never tasted ice cream before. They relish such things as oranges, lemons, etc.”….
From reading these letters, I have learned he wrote over 55 letters to only four family members while living in two different locations, Brooklyn and then finally, in Washington D.C. I want to say his letters were, quite frankly, unpoetic, and were simply snapshots of his daily life and state of mind. He asked questions of his family, signaling a desire to be involved in his their daily life. He relayed his opinions of the War of the Rebellion and his overall diminishing health. He was, simply put, unmythical. Ordinary. He was a brother, a son, a confidant. He observed an aging and creased Lincoln first hand. And Grant, who he saw from a window above his street, and described him in a somewhat star-struck manner. He told of the many wounded and forlorn generals he met in and out of the hospital. But those that always seemed to capture his attention and affection were the common soldiers. After Whitman’s death and over time, the letters he sent home were passed from family member to family member. Deemed insignificant, portions were lost and discarded.
I imagine his 200 lbs. gruff and red-necked frame ministering and attending to the wounded and dying in Carver Hospital. He did so without pay. He did so without acknowledgement or accolades. He toured the hospital wards, offering paper and envelopes from his coat pocket for the young men to write letters to their loved ones. He mopped aisles soaked with blood and ghost limbs, not with water and soap, but with oranges, lemons, toothpicks and combs. How odd a dying young man from Ohio to request a comb? Or to peel and inhale the scent of a freshly peeled orange rising above the sweet odor of burnt, dying flesh lying on cots in the hospital ward. Or offer a toothpick to a man that didn’t have any good reason on Earth to smile.
Still, I wonder if I were one of those soldiers, when the cold spoon cradling the frozen cream and sugar touched my mouth, would I care that the very same hand feeding me would also write the finest poems our country would know? What summoned Whitman to buy 10 gallons of ice cream? Too early for blackberry, but peach, perhaps? A comfort in a time of great need, more than a distraction, but a prayer, a lifting in a moment of the deepest harshness humanity must have known at that point in time. The ice cream became an expression of what all art is and what food itself can be and then back again: music, laughter, a brush dipped in paint, a movement to music, the spoken word left in refrain…food shared is all the glorious joy of life!
Then, I think of him, taking meals alone, in his rented room at the end of hall in a boarding house in Washington D.C. Did he consider his service an assignment and honor, while he relentlessly dedicated himself to the care of his young soldiers teetering on the fringe of life to death, death to life, during the day, and in the evening, worked like a blacksmith with words for his craft? How shall we know you, Mr. Whitman? Poet or servant, I cannot distinguish the two. So I turn my face from your words. I wail to the wall, my tears falling into the hands that have caught every tear I have shed, for wars I cannot stop and diseases I cannot cure, and ask “Why?” The deep sadness settles in my spirit and this question alone places enough tension in my sails to voyage forth to taste a new day.
The Wound Dresser
by Walt Whitman
“Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that
would save you.”