Culinary sleuths are trying to track down Poe's last meal

Flag House has fun with guessing what was poet's final fare

October 24, 2003|By Meredith James | Meredith James,SUN STAFF

Lord, help my poor soul!" are rumored to be Edgar Allan Poe's last words. It's not clear if he was commenting on the quality of his last meal.

The mysterious, macabre Boston-born writer, who died in Baltimore 154 years ago this month, left much of his life to speculation, including the contents of his final meal. With Halloween just around the corner, Baltimore's Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum is taking another stab at that question, sponsoring "Poe's Last Meal," an annual interactive sampling of what the author might have consumed mere nights before his death.

While Poe's connection to Baltimore is apparent - not only did he work and die here, the city's NFL team is named for his epic poem - his ties to the Flag House are more obscure.

"The connection isn't very good," laughs Abbi Wicklein-Bayne of the Flag House.

Poe was just 5 years old and living in Richmond, Va., when the Fort McHenry bombardment that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner took place. But while details are scant, it is fairly well agreed upon that Poe ate his last meal on Oct. 3, 1849, at Ryan's Tavern, about two blocks from the present-day Flag House. He was found in the gutter the next morning and taken to Washington Medical College, where he died three days later.

For the past few years, the Flag House has put a cheerful spin on the dark connection. This fall, it asked Sue Latini, a food historian and author of At the Hearth: 30 American Recipes, to create dishes that conceivably could have been Poe's final fare.

"I decided it would be fun," Latini says, "and I like to think that Poe had walked by the Flag House."

Once an employee at Baltimore's now-closed 1840 House, Latini gathers information on the period and cooks on a fireplace, as was common at the time. Using authentic 19th-century recipes, Latini's creations this weekend will include "Nevermore Chowder" and "Pit and the Pendulum Pie."

"I always think of days in October being cold," Latini said. "I'm going to make something hearty."

Wicklein-Bayne explains that there are no real records of what Poe ate as his final meal, but that Latini's dishes (fish chowder and vinegar pie) were typical tavern cuisine of the period.

"Vinegar pie could be made all year round because it doesn't depend on an ingredient, like lemons, that is only available at certain times," she said.

Poe himself also will be making an appearance, in the form of re-enactor Ross Wiest. Wiest, who has been a Civil War re-enactor since 1987 and a historical impersonator since 1993, will be making his first appearance as the morbid poet.

Wiest, also a historian, compares the level of emotion he finds in Poe to that of John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin, who he has also portrayed.

"I'm looking at the possibility of portraying him further," he says. "I've always been interested in Poe. The thought of Poe walking the same streets ... intrigues you."

At the Flag House, Wiest's Poe will greet people in a room that was once used for boarders and probably resembles Poe's quarters during his last stay in Baltimore.

Latini, meanwhile, will be stationed in the kitchen at the hearth, but warns: "If [Wiest] starts reciting poetry, I think I'm going to have to leave the kitchen."

One-hundred-and fifty-four years after his death, Poe remains a popular figure, and his last-meal celebration has drawn diverse crowds in the past. From Latini's experience, the event attracts history buffs, literary types and people interested in an authentic, hearth-cooked meal.

"I think it's going to be a really good day," she says. "I'm really excited."

Poe's Last Meal is tomorrow from noon to 4 p.m. at the Flag House, 844 E. Pratt St. The event is included in admission to the museum, which is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children. For more information, call 410-837-1793 or visit www.flaghouse.org.

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