A few days ago, I posted some pictures of a young cardinal, and mentioned that even though the chick had left the nest, its parents would continue their GrubHub deliveries.
That prompted me to look up “grub.” Because reading the big dictionary, that’s the kind of excitement you can have, after months of quarantine.
I’d always thought that grub, in the sense of food, was cowboy slang – kind of surprising to find out, the OED lists its first use as 1659!
I took that as a Sign.
Thinking about 1659 + grub +cowboys . . .
I should write about Old New York, back when it was The Frontier.
Once upon a time, New York (then called New Netherlands) was the Wild West — a rip-roaring settlement, clearly no country for old men. Like a colonial version of Dodge City – – cattle grazing, land barons, company stores, unprovoked attacks on Native Americans, gullible hayseeds from Weehawken, etc.
“Hayseeds” have been sticking around since 1577, but “hicks,” “yokels,” and “rubes” wouldn’t shamble along until much later, to provide comic relief, and to hire on as Barney Fife deputies (the ones whose only line is “They went thataway.”) “Comic relief” wasn’t invented until 1783, and people pretty much just scowled all through the colonial era.
In those bucolic days of yore, Manhattan was a lush, verdant island, a little slice of Edam.
And I thought, they must’ve had cowboys.
But I was wrong.
It turns out to be an example, of just how badly History is organized.
Because according to the big book, there weren’t any “cowboys” to eat the grub in 1659. That word didn’t ride over the horizon until 1725.
Before that, those folks were saddled with a lame, generic job description, just lumped together with “herders” (1625, from a Dutch word), and shepherds tending their flocks, sometimes by night (without getting paid time and a half).
So, if there weren’t any cowboys, just who was eating this antique grub? And prior to 1725, did the cows just wander around, unsupervised and untutored, in the streets?
I checked, often they did.
“Milkmaids” (invented in 1552) had a surprisingly strong union, and refused to do any “herding, wrangling, or bovine guidance of any kind.”
Cattle & swine roamed freely for centuries, rooting around in gutters, eating the nasturtiums out of folks’ flower beds, leaving hoof marks on the Bowling Green, and making the tavern floors quite a mess.
With no cowboys to keep order, it was just the Dark Ages, practically, and you really had to watch where you stepped.
Even when History finally had cowboys, and could’ve gotten things organized, it wasn’t that great. Turns out, the harmonica, which to me, is another essential part of the oater scene, wasn’t invented until 1821, so for almost a century, these old-time cowboys had to lug guitars around, and maybe harpsichords.
And History didn’t think of “chuckwagons” for another forty-five years, so they had to brown-bag it until 1866.
Without chuck wagons, there’s no chance of carrying eggs for a Western Omelette, or ranch dressing for your salad. “Sandwiches” had been created in 1762, but after hours in a saddlebag, no way they’re going to be in good shape. Kind of a personal night mare.
If it was me, I’d ride down the interstate until I found a “diner,” but that’s even more recent (1935). You see what I mean about disorganized history? Nothing happens in the right order.
Anyway, despite these obstacles, New Amsterdam had cattle grazing, out there in Big Sky Country (Manhattan), by 1625.
Amazon wasn’t around yet, but the West India Co. offered Free Cow Shipping, if you purchased land in the new colony (seriously).
There were even (honestly) honest-to-heck prairies in those days, in the Hempstead Plains region of Long Island.
And “desperadoes” (1647) roamed – this is a real reward notice from those days: “And whereas complaints are made that the Gardens of many persons have been robbed and their Poultry taken away, if there be any one who can give information of the Thieves…he shall be paid five & twenty guilders…” Yes, there were no trains or banks to rob, but chickens lived in fear.
New Amsterdam was a company town, just like Durango, Colorado – full of fur traders & colorful eccentrics, a Wild Bunch, on the frontier. Only half this bunch was Dutch (there were Danes, Swedes, Germans, Walloons, Sephardim, Huegenots, Holsteins, etc.), and it was a tolerant place, by the standards of the time — a wrangling, polyglot-trouble-spot of the good, the bad, the ugly.
And there were all those cows – then and now, The Big Apple was all about the bull market and branding.
So by 1659, when people started eating “grub,” New York had all the makings of a good western – prairies, cows, sheriffs (called “schouten” in those days, as in “Fill your hands, and come out schouten!”), soldiers fighting Native Americans, a stockade, and windmills.
As far as I’m concerned, you have to have a clacking, creaking windmill for the right atmosphere, whether you’re filming Hans Brinker or Rio Bravo.
The stockade, along what’s now Wall St, was actually to keep out English & Yankees, not Indians, but again, a great backdrop for a western. The beer was weak in those days, but a “vaquero” (1519) could have a medicinal shot of Holland Gin, good for arrow wounds, lumbago & sciatica, which you’re gonna get after a long day in the saddle.
But tragically, in its disjointed way, poorly steered, History still lacked chuck wagons, diners, harmonicas, really portable harpsichords, steam locomotives, six-shooters, and cowboys.
Sorry to say a discouraging word, pardner, but it’s kinda sad, thinking of those early Dutch herders, home on the range, making sure the windmills didn’t spook the herd, and yet not considered to be cowboys. Maybe some of them, who didn’t have horses, would just take the Broadway stage to work. Glumly setting around the fire, eating their “grub” – probably pickled herrings, maybe a bowl of succotash – washed down by a tankard of warm heiferweizen.
And those colonial range riders, darned if they didn’t feel kinda unappreciated somehow, kinda…undefined, you might say, because they weren’t just herders, they were cowboys…but the word just hadn’t sprang into existence yet. Dang it.
History is just a mess.
Big hats, big boots, horses, cows, prairies, an addictive tobacco habit, windmills, lack of concern for personal hygiene…they were all set for to be cowboys, just didn’t have the right word for it.
But on a happier note, in the morning, there’d be cardinals singing in the trees, beautiful birds which they didn’t have back in Holland – the cardinal chick was what started this whole discussion, remember? And about exactly the same time in history that people started eating “grub,” the Dutch also started coffee plantations, in Ceylon, India, and then Indonesia, so the 17th c. cow-herders could at least have a cup of Java with their donuts.
They’d sing an ol’ cowboy lament from the Lovin’ Spoonful, accompanied only by guitar, since there were no harmonicas yet:
Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck gettin’ dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a cowboy in the city
Yep, most a these here pictures are from The Nat’l Gallery of Art,
The Met & the U.S. Library of Congress.
I don’t hold with readin’ much, myself.
It’s jest a sight easier to make stuff up.