Breakfast, Lumber-Camp Style

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YEARS ago, for a frivolous excursion, I took my Yankee Executive Scullery Maid southerly, and things went well until we got to Williamsburg, where much wampum had restored things that began in 1633. By that time my clambake veteran had evaluated southern cooking, and as we came into the cook shack that morning I heard the liveried ostiary greet her with, ``You're just in time for the Plantation Breakfast.'' My wife said, ``Thank you but if you'd just as lief, we'd prefer something to eat.''

This generated a fierce animosity that continues unabated well into the foreseeable future. Since she is shortly going down to one of the Carolinas to a grandson's wedding, I have been giving her some charm lessons in how to avoid further friction between the states. Pursuant to this, I've been wondering why we folks in Maine haven't exploited the tourists with the matutinal offer of an authentic, old-style, down-Maine lumber-camp breakfast. We can consider the matter in three periods.

First, during the early days, a crew would go into the woods before snowfall and stay until ice-out. Lumbering was done on snow, and access roads were not plowed. The log-constructed cook shack was attached to the bunkhouse, and the hundred and more men would be wakened at 4 a.m. when the cookee whanged on a suspended circular saw blade with a sledge hammer and recited a standard jingle about waking up to hear the birdies sing. Birdies at 45 degrees. Breakfast was served two and one-half seconds later. It consisted of logging berries (baked beans) and sal'ratus biscuits, followed by various desserts that imparted quick energy for forest labors. The big item was the sugar pie.

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In the second period, game was added. Every lumber camp provided a ``meat man'' who kept moose, deer, bear, caribou, and even fish, ready for the cooks. But by the third period the roads were kept open, the harvest didn't depend on snow, and the state had outlawed game on the camp table. Now the commissary clerk could get anything from civilization overnight, and choppers got as good fare as was found in the finest hotels in the land. `Twas said, ``If you don't get it, it's because you didn't ask.'' In the early periods, breakfast was followed by a second breakfast at 9 o'clock. This was served in the woods - the cookee brought a pail of beans, a pail of biscuits, and sugar pies. Lunch came at noon, and supper was after dark back at camp. In those days men worked from kin to caint - from can see to can't see.

Wayfaring strangers, if any, were always fed if they came into camp at mealtime. The camp clerk would collect 25 cents for breakfast and 45 cents for dinner. The time came when the timberland owners jointly started a school for training woods cooks, and upon being graduated, a scholar got a diploma in all phases, including ``Banquet & Display.''

Some of the well-established lore about Maine lumber-camp fare can be dismissed as whimsy, thought up to amuse the people from away. It has been told, for example, that at the Big Sag Operation of 1846, Paul Bunyan had big frying pans made for griddle cakes. The cookees tied hams on their feet and skated around in the pans to grease them. These pans were for the plogues (du pays), sometimes called ployes, depending if you are a Michaud or a Therrien. Huge, they are cooked on but one side and the plogues take maple syrup and the ployes take strawberry jam. Neither is it true (although widely believed because of constant repetition) that in Paul Bunyan's cook shack the cooks pushed wheelbarrows of mashed potatoes down the middle of the long tables and served men with shovels.

Before Maine Lumber-camp breakfasts are offered in our resorts, it would probably be well to dispel some of these myths. At first, Maine should probably offer a modest menu of only a few of the customary dishes. A bowl of oatmeal porridge, to start, with brown sugar or molasses, and a couple of slices of salt-risin' yeast bread toasted on top of the 12-cover Mogul-Range. Then the steaks or chops, with hot potato salad, turnip, squash, pickled beets, four fried eggs, corn bread, hot biscuits, pancakes with bacon or sausage, tinned peaches or pears, and then the doughnuts, cookies, cakes, gingerbread, and the usual sugar pies.

I think if our tourist experts can put such a Maine lumber-camp breakfast out for around $2, it would prove to be popular and might make us a lot of friends.

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