I have some words about cooks

Anything about food and other stuff to eat is of high interest to us happy, hale, and hearty has-beens. There may be times we sit down to a bountiful repast and instead of inquiring, "What's for supper?" we look and say, "What is it?"

I have some words about cooks I have known in my younger times, and offer them for what they are worth at so much apiece and take the lot.

My Grandfather Thomas, the soldier, was an excellent cook. A farm boy, he was taught the basics by a farm mother. At 18, he enlisted in the Union Army and was further enlightened by necessity. His 16th Maine Regiment of volunteers was one of five (the others being from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania) that became the hapless "Blanket Brigade."

Somehow the five regiments got lost. Not like being lost in the woods, but lost in Army records. No supply wagons came and none were dispatched. The war went on about them, but they were officially forgotten. In time, their uniforms rotted and fell off them, and for warmth and modesty they wrapped blankets about themselves, hence the "blanket brigades."

It was a wretched situation, and for food the men resorted to scavenging. My Grampy Tom was considered the best scavenger in the Union Army. He told me about his beef stew. He said some cavalry officers had "liberated" a rebel cow, but being city boys had no idea how to go about dressing it. He offered to do this for them if they'd give him the head.

So he told me, "I contrived to bring away the head so most of the forequarters came with it." I've much admired the way my grandfather contrived to use the word "contrived." In a metal washtub "borrowed" from a handy plantation, he made a beef stew over a campfire, and his Company I dined. I frequently went to the woodlot with my grampy and what he could do for our campfire lunches was memorable indeed; e.g., he used a pail as a reflector oven and baked biscuits.

Another great cook I knew was Bill Pelletier at Chesuncook Dam Boomhouse. He would mix the wet ingredients for bread in a bowl, and then dump them into a barrel of flour. Then with his hands he'd work the flour until the liquid had taken up all it could, and then he'd cast the great lump on the breadboard for kneading.

Bill didn't like the feel of raw bread dough, so he always wore his mittens. I asked Bill one time for his bread recipe if I wanted to bake one loaf. Bread usually comes in batches, but I wanted to bake a single loaf for a campfire outing, using my small reflector oven. Bill's English was scarce. But he conveyed his recipe off the cuff, and told me to dissolve the yeast in "St. Luke" water.

Memorable and "light's a feath-uh" were Uncle Ritt's breakfast biscuits. Every morning he'd rise at 4 to mix a pan of cream-tartar biscuits to have them hot for breakfast. The pan would last him through dinner and supper. Next morning, he'd bake another pan. So one morning the pump stuck, the oven wouldn't "come up," and what with this and that he was running late. Uncle Ritt looked up at the clock and said, "Gracious sake! Four-thirty already? Where has the forenoon gone?"

I've praised Jackie Hawes here before as the world's best biscuit baker. The way she offers her recipe tips you off somewhat. She says, "I take a cup...." When you ask what kind of cup, she says, "Makes no diff'ence." So you ask, "How much flour?" and Jackie says, "Enough." (Now we're really cookin'!)

Lawson Aldrich, who had the Chekako Restaurant beside the Damariscotta River, was a great cook and never allowed ketchup in his dining room. If you asked for ketchup, you were ignored unless you made a fuss, and then you were told there wasn't any. Lawson's food was not to be spoiled that way!

He also had a crusty old baked-bean pot he put full but naked on the buffet table along with his Cordon Bleu specialties for the quality trade - a bit of vulgarity amid splendor and elegance. To any comment about this, Lawson would say, "I've yet to take a baked bean back to my kitchen."

The best of my cooks was far and away Monsieur Chevalier of Scott Brook Lumber Camp. That was not his name, but I called him that because he was the hostler. Then he'd laugh. Great Northern Paper Company had mechanized most operations, but still used horses for some work, and M. Chevalier had six to care for. He couldn't leave them to go home to Canada over the weekend, as did the others, so he stayed and became cook for Clerk Del Bates, who couldn't leave because he was watchman.

M. Chevalier considered himself a Larousse gourmet cook, and I agree heartily. He would put on a chef's bonnet that was starched sled-stake high, raid the camp commissary that fed 150 men all week, and serve Clerk Bates enormous banquets of cakes and dainties never known otherwise this side of Mt. Olympus.

On the Sunday mornings when Bill and I broke camp after each angling retreat, we'd take breakfast with Clerk Bates on our way out of the woods. That is why we never stopped on the way home for lunch until the year the last horse was phased out.

I believe I speak about cooks with adequate knowledge, including close association for 70 years (and counting) with the best one of all.

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