Land of Plenty of Nothing

by James Howard Kunstler | February 1990

To the Native American Algonquins and Iroquois, this rugged region was slim pickings and hence it came down through history that the tribes who sojourned here were the “barkeaters.” Usually it stops there, but it can now be told that they most likely supped upon the cambium layer, or inner bark, of the yellow birch, a pithy orange substance which they pounded into a flour, patted into flat cakes and roasted in the hot ashes of an open fire. They may well have slathered on some balsam pitch, an acquired taste, no doubt, but packed with nutritional goodness, if redolent of turpentine.

Every culture has its “crisis foods” and the pickings here may have seemed slim only when compared to the bonanza of provender found in the Mohawk Valley to the south. Indeed, it is hard to comprehend today how naturally rich a land was pre-Columbian America. Chestnut trees dominated the eastern hardwood forests—they are now all but extinct due to an imported blight—and along with the oaks, hickories, butternuts and walnuts, produced such a stupendous bounty of wild nourishment that the whole country was a sort of colossal feedlot. Flocks of passenger pigeons, also extinct today, blackened the skies like locusts. The “three sisters,” corn, squash and beans, all native to this hemisphere, rounded out the human diet.

The newly arrived Europeans, with their set ideas about what was fit to eat, suffered more than the native tribes. Their diet was limited to a few staple items for much of the year, the main one being cornmeal, since the disease known as wheat rust had struck New England in the 1700s and thwarted attempts to cultivate that old-world mainstay. Cornmeal came to the Adirondack breakfast table boiled in milk as a porridge called suppawn. A similar dish called samp came studded with fatty chunks of salt pork and whatever root vegetables were at hand: turnips, carrots, parsnips. For Indian pudding, they baked suppawn a long time at low heat with molasses stirred in and more milk poured on top.

Hoptoad was almost identical to the modern polenta of Italy: cornmeal mush cooled in a pan, cut into squares and fried in fat. Quaint-sounding johnnycake (from “journey-cake”) meant a crude unleavened bread, nothing like the sweet, crumbly cornbreads of today. Durability, not taste, was its chief selling point. You could carry it around in your pocket for five days without any noticeable change in texture or flavor.

Before refrigeration most meat was preserved by salting, smoking or pickling. Pigs were best suited to small family farms, and settlers used everything except the squeal. They traditionally slaughtered in the fall. In the North Country, a sort of natural refrigeration operates from November through April, and meat customarily hung in the attic through the winter.

The potato took a tortuous route from Peru. There are reports of its cultivation in New Hampshire in 1719. By the 1800s, New York’s Franklin County produced big crops, and potatoes increasingly formed the foundation, along with beans, of Adirondack cookery.

“My father claimed that at times of the year some families would have three meals a day of fried salt pork, boiled potatoes and milk gravy,” said Varrick Chittenden, a folklorist and faculty member at SUNY–Canton, who grew up in St. Lawrence County, where his family operated a store from 1821 until 1973. Chittenden speaks here of a grim North Country tradition known as “the six weeks want,” coinciding with mud season, “when people ran out of the things they’d worked all summer to produce.”

At this time of the year even a jowl and turnip salad might look succulent. The Schroon Lake Historical Society records a recipe for snail broth. It calls for twenty common snails plus “the hinder legs of thirty frogs,” along with one leek, a dozen turnips, a double handful of barley and, most peculiarly, twenty grains of saffron, which could not have been cheap even then. Pork cake, not what it sounds like, was essentially a suet pudding of dried fruit, like Indian pemmican, only cooked. Farmers jugged an average of fifty gallons of maple syrup a year, but if they sold it for cash or ran out before the next sugaring season, they commonly concocted a mock maple syrup out of potato water and brown sugar.

Even at less extreme times of the year the Adirondack menu could be rather limited. Boiled dinners were popular because they could be made with pickled meats and slow-simmered in a pot without constant attention. Moreover, there was a fuel-saving advantage in cooking on top of the stove used to heat the home. Stewed meats kept better and could be reheated in the same kettle meal after meal. They could even serve as a cooking medium for other dishes. Here, an interesting recipe for a dessert presents itself:

Bag Pudding
Take a small cloth sack, such as the type salt [used to be] sold in and fill it with a dough made of cornmeal, wheat flour, milk, with sugar to taste, and raisins. Drop into the simmering pot liquor of a boiled dinner for one half hour.

The advantage here clearly was convenience: a dessert that required little time and nothing in extra utensils; the drawback, a dessert that smelled like corned beef and cabbage.

The noble bean formed another cornerstone of Adirondack cooking. True succotash, which originated in puritan New England, was a far cry from the insipid cafeteria side dish of creamed nibblets that it has since evolved into. Rather, it was a sturdy main course that included salt pork or some other meat or game stewed in or baked like the cassoulet of France. Except for a few weeks in summer, the corn was apt to be dried hominy, whole hulled kernels requiring slow cooking like the beans.

A dish called jagesee was a popular meat substitute. A lima-bean-and-rice porridge flavored with salt pork and onions, it could be frozen, sawn into chunks and carried off into the woods to be heated in a skillet for lunch. Like the pease porridge of old England, it was considered to reach optimum flavor after nine days’ aging.

The French Canadians who “came over from home” to work the logging camps in the 1880s and 1890s were tagged “pea-jammers” in tribute to the hearty soup they brought from the St. Lawrence country. At holiday time in the Adirondacks, French Canadian wives served a double-crust meat pie, generally of pure pork, when the family returned from Christmas Eve mass. It was called tourtière pronounced toot-yay, except, mysteriously, in Tupper Lake, where it has always been pronounced tork-yare, as though there were a “q” in it. The dish survives to this day in some Tupper Lake eateries, but the holiday connection has fallen by the wayside. You are more likely to encounter a sign for “meat pie” during the tourist season. Another French Canadian delight, blood sausage, is stocked in the Tupper Lake markets. I have turned up a lumber-camp dessert dubbed Canadian Grandfathers that calls for an egg-enriched biscuit dough to be dropped by the tablespoon into boiling sugar syrup and simmered like dumplings.

The annals of logging abound with eating lore. Working men often chose one camp over another because of the cook’s reputation. Generally, a deep-woods cutting camp was built for fifty men. The standard cook house, nicknamed the “chowery,” was twenty-five by forty feet. A single cook, often a female, prepared all three meals, with the aid of a young lackey called a choreboy, whose lot in life could not have been an enviable one. The equipment was Brobdingnagian in scale—twenty»quart saucepans, skillets the size of wagon wheels, wood-fired Blodgett bake ovens that could handle twenty large loaves at a time.

The men could, and did, eat their fill, at an average of five pounds of food each day. Burning upward of five thousand calories a day in the woods, it was all they could do to keep their intake on a par with their output. The chow was on the heavy side, but so was most American cooking then. For instance, they commonly topped off an enormous breakfast of deep-fried doughnuts, oatmeal, eggs, meat and pancakes with a couple of wedges of pie.

An imaginative cook could do a lot with limited materials, and wild viands filled the gaps. Back issues of the Lumber Camp News, published out of Old Forge, contain recipes for such delicacies as partridge with cabbage (for twenty-five men), roast pheasant (“they improve in flavor if allowed to become high”), scalloped sweet potatoes with apples (“take 15 lbs sweet potatoes. . .”) and a baked Christmas pudding made largely of potatoes, carrots and sugar.

The heyday of timbering coincided with the blossoming of so-called “scientific business management” with the result that company bosses sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to chisel their workers—and what better place to cut costs than the chow line?

The minutes of a 1934 meeting of a Pulp and Paper Executives Association (from the Adirondack Museum library in Blue Mountain Lake) is both hilarious and appalling. In this meeting, an efficiency expert named J. Ed Caron reports to a group of logging-company bosses:

For a cut of 90,000,000 board feet, it takes approximately 1,200 men 4,800 meals per day, or equivalent to 100,000 meals, based on the average of 20 days work per man, the cost of which may vary 2 to 5 cents, which might mean a loss of about $3,500 assuming an average loss of 3 and a half cents per meal.

Caron had a diabolical gift for cracking figures. His interest in cuisine appeared to be largely coincidental. He calculated the cost of the average lumber-camp meal at thirteen and a half cents. “When we made this test, the cook in several cases used too much beef,” he told the assembled timber barons. “He could have reduced the cost to about seven cents per meal, and probably less if he served more vegetables. Vegetables, as you know, are very important for the health, and very economical.”

Curiously, one of the timber barons present, recorded only as Mr. Kennedy, had remarked earlier in the meeting about “fruit, fresh vegetables, and frills of that sort.”

Caron’s culinary pronouncements were never divorced from the cost angle. “Macaroni and tomatoes are flat,” he declared. “Adding cheese improves the taste and it is said that cheese contains more nourishment than meat.”

Yeah, and it doesn’t have bones either!

“Pea soup is very cheap food,” he went on, “and can be made very tasty without any pork at all, provided it is boiled long enough on a slow fire.”

Caron even had pies, cakes and cookies factored down to the nearest penny by the pound. Apple pie was the best bargain at five cents per pound; raisin the costliest at eight cents. The worst offender of all, at eighteen cents a pound, was a confection called roly-poly cake.

In times past, those native Adirondackers not employed at timbering had to wrest many a meal out of the trackless forests, and they still do, though the forests are now crisscrossed with roads. Gilbert “Gib” Jaques, 69, of Keene fondly recalled an instance from his youth.

“We were working up in camp at Johns Brook and we didn’t have any meat, or nothing to eat. This coon kept coming every night. For two or three nights we chased him all over the country. Lee Gregory killed him with a stick. We boiled him.”

“Sounds kind of plain,” I observed.

“It was,” Jaques said. Gary Hodgson, 50, a forest ranger in Lake Placid, has tried every kind of wild viand but likes bear especially. “lt can vary tremendously,” he told me. “The meat of a young bear is very fine grained, but as it gets older the texture gets coarse.” His favorite recipe involves oven-braising the meat between layers of sauerkraut and apples. When cooking bear, he cautions, every bit of fat must be removed or else it will impart a “strong” flavor to the meat. Like pigs, wild bears often harbor the trichinosis parasite and so it is advisable to cook them well done.

Mary Cummins, 78, of Blue Mountain Lake, a sportswoman and hunting-camp cook, likes to roast the ham of a young bear in a plastic oven bag with carrots, onions, celery and “plenty of garlic.” When they come her way, she will bake a whole raccoon stuffed with bread dressing. “People spleen against eating wildlife,” she said, “but they have a special taste of their own.”

The lethal weapon known as the automobile has given rise in modern times to a parallel line (some might say lower line) of wild cuisine: roadkill.

Jim Wagner, of the Mountaineer expeditionary outfitters in Keene Valley, a self-proclaimed “omnivore,” looks back wistfully on his less-prosperous days when he feasted on many a “woodland chicken” (i.e. partridge), which, he says, have the unfortunate tendency to fly out of the trees directly into the paths of onrushing cars.

“It was a matter of not wanting to see a perfectly good creature wasted,” he said. “And I enjoy my position at the top of the food chain.”

On the other side of the scale from the random harvest of the highways is the culinary tradition of the hotels, great camps and sporting clubs which have long been the haunts of the socially secure.

A person of modern tastes and habits might have trouble understanding how to order from a typical hotel menu of a hundred years ago in which dishes are arranged in mystifying order. Entrees, side dishes and even condiments all float about the page like constellations up in the sky: calf’s head vinaigrette on the same line with chocolate-cream fritters au Sabayon, just above spring duck with raspberry jelly, all of them subordinate to preserved Canton ginger. If you wanted tomato catsup at the Sagamore on Long Lake in 1880 you had to get it as a side order. But then the catsup was liable to be made on the premises, and the fried ground-beef patty on a sponge-like bun that we call a hamburger had not yet been invented.

The princelings of finance and industry faced big logistical problems in keeping their great camps supplied with city food. Each camp had an icehouse abundantly stocked with lake ice, but not much could be kept in them besides local milk and butter. Roads were abysmal and beef packed in barrels often spoiled in transit from the rail depot. Customarily, live chick- ens made the trip north with the family entourage, both for egg-laying and to be killed as required for the table. America had not yet become a snack culture; regular meals at punctual intervals were the rule, including afternoon tea at 4:30. Gingerbread was the universal treat; its main flavorings, molasses and dried spices, traveled easily.

The hotels nearer the railheads had a much easier time laying in provisions, and one 1903 menu from the Prospect House offers such exotic items as stuffed mangoes, green turtle, fresh figs, caviar and sweetbreads, as though it were a North Woods extension of Delmonico’s restaurant.

William West Durant, the originator of the rustic great camp and exemplar of the style associated with it, spared no expense in arranging a Christmas banquet for several dozen guests at Sagamore Lodge in the days when it was an enchanted log castle in a truly howling wilderness. (He went bankrupt before the turn of the century and spent the next thirty-odd years in genteel poverty, a sort of living dead man among the titans he had entertained in better days.)

ln 1884, roasted reindeer was the featured dish at the second annual banquet of the Alexander MacDonald Fish and Game Club, held at the Waverly House in St. Regis Falls. A hundred years later, I had the odd experience of attending the annual Labor Day banquet of a venerable High Peaks sporting club. Every item on the menu was white. I am convinced that the color scheme itself was not deliberate, but there was an eerie symbolic correctness about it from the ethnic angle. ln a way, it seemed to represent the sunset of an empire, each pale dish a ghost of the robust delicacies of yesteryear.

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