Of Anchovies and Other Lost Arts

Continuing its reputation for eccentricity, today’s column is prompted by “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper.

This is a classic book, which means that few students read it for pleasure unless they are budding sadomasochists. It would be nice to think that students going back to school will be put to this special torture, but, alas, this being the modern era, they’ll probably get to see the movie instead if the subject comes up at all.

The author famously did go on a bit, so let us fast-forward to the end, so we can get this column up and running. You will dimly recall that the Indian patriarch, after all the tragedy, declares that “before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.”

I know how he felt. While I have not seen the last warriors of any wise race, I have seen many wise practices and customs disappear in the light of my days. Perhaps these are losses more trivial than James Fenimore Cooper described, but I think many venerable people in a similar state of physical decay as myself will recognize the shared loss I am about to describe.

Of course, I am not quite a patriarch _ I’m only 57 _ but I look the part because I’ve had a lot of worry, so I feel equipped to chronicle a series of last things that, taken together, prove my theory that all progress isn’t, in fact, progress. It is just another word for “new” and “irritating.”

So let me just say that before the night has come, I have lived to see the last pizza with anchovies consumed. I know this because I was the one who ordered it.

Once upon a time, anchovies were a common garnish of pizza, and, indeed, traditional restaurants still have them on hand in case an old-fashioned connoisseur of small salty fish — i.e., me — should wander in. Whenever I do so, the proprietors look surprised by my order and I get the feeling that back in the kitchen they are whispering, “He is the last consumer of a wise race.”

Of course, there must be other anchovy lovers out there, but the point of this column’s lament is that some of us just feel like the last. Even James Fenimore Cooper was being more poetic than literal. After all, the Mohicans still exist.

The general truth is that the anchovy, once much prized, is not what it was. Modern tastes have turned against it. Call this progress if you will, but I call it sad.

The inevitable result will be that anchovies _ no longer preyed upon by pizza proprietors and their seagoing agents _ will multiply until the seas are teeming with them and they will swim up your shorts when you go into the water. It will serve you right, too, for abandoning the old ways in favor of pepperoni and mushrooms.

I had a similar feeling recently when I tried to wash down some anchovies with a milkshake chaser. I walked into the milkshake shop and confidently asked for a malted vanilla milkshake. “What’s malted?” the kid behind the counter said.

This question stopped me dead. How could anyone not know that, especially someone making milkshakes? In despair, I realized that before the night had come, I had tasted the last of that great wise concoction known as the malted milkshake, which has been the friend of vanilla for decades. “Malt,” I stammered, “you know, it is used to brew beer.” His eyes brightened. But I still did not get the desired milkshake.

Not every passing thing is about food. You only have to go out onto the highway in your car to see the evidence of a vestigial practice. Kiddies, you are not going to believe this, but you know those turn signals in your parents’ car? In the old days, motorists actually used them.

Today, of course, we are a nation of mind readers, and turn-signal use is pretty much restricted to the drivers of big rigs, who still have traditional values because they listen to so much country music.

The next time you see someone using turn signals, think well of that person. He or she is the last of a wise race of road worriers.

As for me, I am the last person in the world not to have a tattoo. I feel that tattoos are so common now that if ever I am sought by the police, the officers will send out a bulletin that says Identifying Features: Subject has no tattoo.

With this, they should be able to find me in any crowd. If not, I’ll be the guy down at the pizza shop ordering the anchovies or else the guy trying in vain to get that malted. If they don’t intercept me there, I’ll be in my car using my turn signals. It is a terrible thing to be the last wiseguy as the evening approaches.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)