The gruff waiters and rowdy patrons found in cheap restaurants of the 19th century provided rich inspiration to story tellers. No story was more popular than the “Lone Fish Ball” which was published in newspapers before being turned into a favorite college song around 1854 (attributed to a Harvard professor of Latin), translated into Italian, and even performed in Tableaux Vivants.
The latter form of entertainment, where actors silently act out scenes, was a singularly odd one since the story is all about words uttered by a waiter and their mortifying effect upon a hapless patron.
In the 1840s, the decade in which the event allegedly took place, it was the custom of waiters in cheap eating houses to shout orders to cooks while standing at the tables. New patrons unfamiliar with this practice were invariably embarrassed when their orders were revealed to a roomful of none-too-polite patrons.
According to the tale, a young man who is short of money enters a cheap restaurant (sometimes identified as Daniel Sweeny’s Old Established Eating House in New York City) and realizes he has only enough money (6 cents) for a half order of fish balls – i.e., one fish ball – and a cup of tea. He timidly whispers his order to the waiter, hoping his oafish neighbors won’t overhear it, whereupon the waiter bellows it forth, emphasizing the word ONE. The oafs snicker.
He receives his order and again whispers to the waiter, “A piece of bread, sir, if you please.” Then, as the song goes:
The waiter roars it through the hall,
We don’t give bread with one fish-ball.
Now the entire house breaks out in laughter and the humiliated patron slips out.
© Jan Whitaker, 2010