The French Voyeur’s Broiled Mackerel

spy camera concealed in a hat

The narrator of Henri Barbusse’s 1908 novel The Inferno (L’Enfer) spends his days and nights peering through a chink in his boarding room wall, which he discovered shortly after taking possession of the room. He cannot help himself, he says, for as a man unmarried, rather short, with no children (and, he adds, who “shall have none”), as a man with whom “a line will end which has lasted since the beginning of humanity,” he felt himself “submerged in the positive nothingness of every day.”

He beguiles this positive nothingness by watching lovers couple, couples quarrel and old men die in the next room. He overhears confessions that make him question the existence of God. Slowly his knowledge of other lives becomes a burden. “I saw now how I should be punished for having entered into the living secrets of man.,” he reports. “I was destined to undergo the infinite misery I read in others…. Infinity is not what we think. We associate it with heroes of legend and romance, and we invest fiery, exceptional characters, like a Hamlet, with infinity as with a theatrical costume. But infinity reside quietly in that man who is just passing by on the street…. So, step by step, I followed the track of the infinite.”

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Swedish Codfish

poultry and game

“We fly to Jemteland, where the rocky mountains are high and blue; where the Foss roars and rushes; where the torches are lighted as budstikke, to announce that the ferryman is expected. Up to the deep, cold, running waters, where the midsummer sun does not set; where the rosy hue of eve is that of morn.”

“That is the birds’ song,” writes Hans Christian Andersen in his 1871 travel memoir Pictures of Travel in Sweden, “Shall we lay it to heart? Shall we accompany them — at least a part of the way?” He did follow those birds, and his travels led him through the “glorious land” of Sweden, “home of the limpid elves, where the wild swans sing in the gleam of the Northern Lights.”

Andersen’s meanderings through the land of endless forests eventually brought him to Kinnakulla, Sweden’s hanging gardens. “The travellers go from the forest road up to the top of Kinnakulla,” he writes, “where a stone is raised as the goal of their wanderings.” From this vantage point, where black clouds of crows and ravens scream across a pale blue sky, Anderson writes that he can survey “Wener, to Lockö’s old palace, to the town of Lindkjöping.”

Perhaps Andersen visited an inn in the town of Lindkjöping–unfortunately he does not say if he did or not–and enjoyed a humble meal of stewed codfish, like this one from the 1897 Fullständigaste Svensk-Ameritansk kokbok: Swedish-English Cookbook.

Stewed Codfish

Pound the fish and soak 36 hours; take up, remove the bones and pick it to pieces, boil until tender. Melt in a pan a piece of butter together with a handful flour and add milk enough to make a somewhat thick sauce. Boil it and put the fish into it. Potatoes or cut carrots might be added. Season with pepper and salt.


Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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A Fried Fish Shop in London

ocean steamer

“At last, after so many years, I am about to realize the dream of my life–a visit to lands beyond the sea,” James Hale Bates, the American originator of the mercantile registry business, wrote on May 1, 1889. He recorded his adventures on the high seas in Notes of Foreign Travels, which he published privately in 1891. “This cool, bright morning, at half-past six, finds me with wife, daughter Betty and niece Mary on board the huge steamer ‘City of New York,'” it begins, “which at the above hour slowly swings from her mooring into the Hudson at Pier 43, and carefully feels her way down the river and harbor, through the Narrows, into the broad Atlantic.”

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