Smell This.

Benjamin Franklin famously said “Fish and visitors stink after three days”, and it seems like solid advice when staying with someone, at least depending on the size of their house. There used to be some reasonably sized houses in our neighborhood that were torn down and replaced with sprawling edifices with seven-car garages and indoor golf courses–houses so big you could drop in and stay for three years and the owners would never know you were there, much less smell you.

Anyway I get the visitors part but why fish? More importantly who keeps fish for three days? You don’t put a fish in a cool part of the basement to mellow like you would a ham or a bottle of wine or Uncle Charlie, not even for just three days. I’m pretty sure a fish would start to stink in the first twenty-four hours, if not sooner. Most fish smell as soon as they get pulled out of the water, although there’s some difference between fresh and salt water. And even then there are not so subtle distinctions. What I’m saying is if you pull a catfish out of a backyard pond you might not want to put your nose too close to it, although not just because of the smell but because they can bite.

What was Franklin thinking, anyway? The late Eighteenth Century was a notoriously bad time for food preservation, even though most people might not have realized it at the time. Yes, he could get electricity by putting a key on a kite string, but this method could rarely power a refrigerator for more than ten or fifteen minutes, hardly long enough to keep any fish fresh for three days.

I think we can also say with some certainty that, although Franklin was a successful printer and inventor, he never really did work in an office, at least not with other people because if he had his famous aphorism would have been, “After three days visitors are like fish after three minutes in the microwave–they stink up the whole place, seriously, Kevin, do you think you could bring something else for lunch?” While it lacks the pithiness of the original I think we can all agree it’s an improvement, especially those of us who’ve worked with Kevin, but that’s another story.

Granted the time of year can make a difference. In the summer, even in New England, keeping any kind of fish around for three days would be lunacy, but in the winter most kinds of fish, if you could get them, could be preserved on ice or even packed in snow, and this would be a good way of keeping them as long as the weather stayed cold, but it probably wouldn’t work so well with visitors.

Except Uncle Charlie because, you know, he smelled like that when he arrived.

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  1. mydangblog

    I don’t like the smell of fish and the smell of shellfish will send me into anaphylaxis, so Uncle Charlie better not be a shrimp!

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      If you’ve seen Uncle Charlie you know he’s anything but shrimpy, but keeping an epi-pen handy around him wouldn’t be a bad idea.


    How can you write about stinky things and come out smelling like a rose, Chris?

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I think it’s because I take my inspiration from another 18th century author, Jonathan Swift, who wrote about “Such gaudy tulips raised from dung”.


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