Slicing 'the Bastille'

Nineteen years ago, when Bill and I began our annual Grandfathers' Retreats into the Maine wilderness -- cultural expeditions to research the gustatory aspects of ichthyology -- the Scott Brook lumber camp was in full swing and we passed that way to reach our laboratories and test kitchens at Caucomogomoc Lake. Nineteen years ago pulpwood was a chain saw operation, and well over a hundred men toiled at Scott Brook, nearly all of them French-speaking Canadians from Beauce and Dorchester counties in Quebec. Maine is much too far own-state to compete. On our first trip through, Bill and I paused for lunch, and as the choppers carry dinner buckets and eat their noonings in the woods, we had the cookshack much to ourselves and were able to visit with the cook and his assistants.

We complimented the cook on his bread, causing him to give us a loaf when we left, and this became an annual thing until last year, as I plan to explain. The loaf was about twice the size of the double-jumbo sold in stores, and the cook baked fifty such loaves every second day. These kept pace with table demands and the sandwiches for lunches, and also ensured freshness.

Freshness is part of this story. Flour was no longer coming in barrels, but at Scott Brook there was still a flour barrel slung on casters under the cookshack counter, and the cook would dump a hundredweight sack of flour into it as needed. When he was ready to bake bread, he would mix all his wet ingredients in a huge steel bowl, pull the barrel from under the counter, and dump the bowl into the barrel. Then with sleeves rolled up he would plunge his hands and arms into the barrel and work things around until the moisture had absorbed all the dry flour it could take. Perhaps a better way is to say that he puddled until things felt right. Then the wad of dough was lifted to the board on the counter, the barrel was kicked back under, and Cook began to knead. In those days he had no mechanical mixer. After he had exhausted himself lambasting the dough, it was cut for loaves, set in pans to rise, and baked in a plethora of olfactory magnificence that caused jowls to seep at three miles. A slice of that hot bread with a smear of molasses - or, better still, a soaking with sirop d'erablem -- is worth ten times the trip.

But, and a big but. . . . This bread, a traditional Maine lumber camp recipe, is by no means a keeper. Since a cook's fifty loaves are gone by the second noon , this is no problem. But when Bill and I got to our camp, arranged our supplies and gear, and took care of our steak suppers with strawberry shortcakes, the loaf of bread the cook had given us was already beginning its decline. After two days it would be set up like a cement hitching post, as we found two days later when we dulled our knife on it. Bill stood there thumping it and he said, ''You know -- this is right at the point where it'll make the best French toast you ever stuck a tooth in!''

Now you know. Thus began our annual observance of Bastille Day deep in the Maine woods, surrounded by valid Frenchmen who, if they've heard of it, would not be likely to regard Bastille Day as special. Bill frothed sufficient eggs, put the cow to it, and we had some vanilla. We sawed the loaf into slices, soaked each slice, and applied the fire with the balm of bacon fat. We whistled La Marseillaise,m and I stepped to the township which surrounds us there and blew off my ten-gauge saluting cannon, greatly surprising a canoe party of Boy Scouts over on the island.

We have faithfully observed Bastille Day in this fashion each July until last year. Pulpwood is no longer a manual operation. They call it ''mechanical harvest.'' Working in a heated or air-conditioned cab, a man in shirt and necktie snips trees as a florist cuts a rose. Last July the cook at Scott Brook was something of a lonely man - his crew was reduced. When we mentioned bread he waggled his head, opened the cold-box door, and pointed at maybe two cords of store bread, brought from a Portland bake-mill by truck. He no longer kneads. Store bread will never make Bill and me a decent Bastille.

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