Took Two Axes to Cook the Coot

THE old-time builders of small wooden boats liked to sell them by the pound. Rufus Crosby, who made hundreds of the double-ender Rangeley Boats, worked with pumpkin pine and white cedar, and with a coat of paint right out of his shop one would run around $75. Not a hefty craft, his Rangeley Boat could be pulled up onto a float or beached with no great effort. At salt water, a skiff suitable for 'tending mooring would weigh about the same, and the customer gladly paid the dollar a pound. The other day Debbie Bower, the only female in our Friendship lobster fleet, said she was thinking about a new skiff, as the old one she's using has become too heavy for her to pull up on the float after she's done the day's haul. She put her finger on the big fault with a new small boat that weighs 75 pounds.

Years ago, as an investigative journalist before his time, I fell to wondering if there might be a story in the coot. Coot is the coastal Mainer's name for the American Scoter, a sea bird of noble reputation and curious habits. Maine coastal people since the days of the first settlers have eaten coots as staple diet, whereas to everybody else the coot is fishy of taste, chewey, and unpalatable, if not inedible.

The folks along tidewater, however, like them, and in the days before handy markets they'd salt down enough to last the winter, keeping a supply in a cask ``down sulla.'' The ancient Maine recipe for stewed coot calls for freshening one in a pail for two days, then soaking him in a tenderizing solution of baking soda for three days, and putting him to boil in a pot along with an ax. When you can stick a fork in the ax, the coot is done.

This is strictly arty folklore. When properly prepared by a down-east housewife who knows her trade, the coot makes a good supper, and residual meat made into sandwiches has pleased and nourished our generations of lobster fishermen far out to sea. It was my purpose to inform myself about coot and present my findings to our readers in pleasing language.

I thus went coot shooting with Buster Bennett. With the more sporty ducks, one goes ``hunting.'' But the coot is not wary and shy, as are the mallards. You do not hide in a blind and blow on a quacker. Instead, you row out beyond the breakers and anchor in full view of everything.

When a coot flies by you stand up and call to him, waving your arms. A mallard wouldn't come within 10 miles of such brazen exposure, but a coot will fly around and around your boat to see who you are.

No coot has ever been known to fly overland. If he's in a cove, here, and he wants to get to the next cove, 50 yards across the peninsula, he'll fly five miles out to sea and five miles back. So Buster said he'd take me down off Jacquish Ledges and explain the esoterics of the coot shoot.

Buster borrowed his Uncle Pert's skiff, because it was a mite longer than his and would be more comfortable for two. He rowed slowly down the harbor and around the rocks. I noticed that when he pulled on the oars the sluggishness of the skiff brought him right up off the thwart and onto his feet. When he reversed the oars to get ready for the next stroke, the skiff would settle into the water - no coasting.

When we got out off the point, where coot would fly, Buster told me to heave the killick, and then he slumped and caught his breath. Buster remarked that Uncle Pert's skiff was 75 years old and still perfectly seaworthy, but it did row hard. ``How many coats of paint are you rowing, along with the skiff?'' I asked.

Buster has caught his breath by now, and he said, ``Seventy-six. She got painted new, and Uncle Pert hasn't missed a spring painting since.''

As we sit there on that beautiful morning, we thought about this. The stir of air was sow-theast, but not fresh. The sea was calm. Coot came to see us.

Uncle Pert put a quart of green paint on the outside of his skiff every April, and a pint of cream-color inside. So 76 x 1 equals 114. A pint's a pound the world around, and 114 quarts equals 228 pints equals 228 pounds. Add 75 pounds the skiff weighed when built.

That's why Debbie Bower is thinking of a new skiff, and why I didn't offer to row that time I was coot shooting with Buster. I learned that the easy availability of coot overcomes objections to his flavor, and I never went coot shooting again. Buster salted the rest down, and the one I took home to try was fishy, tough, and it took two axes to cook him.

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