Bill fries while I sing `La Marseillaise'
ONE of the quiz shows asked for breakfast foods taking syrup, and said no to French toast. This cost a contestant $6,000, and it would have done me in, too, because French toast certainly requires a hearty drench from the sweet'nin' cruet. According to the dictionary, French toast is bread covered with an egg and milk mixture and saut'eed. We might wonder why an English dictionary says saut'eed when it means fried, and perhaps ask why the vanilla is left out. Should I specify that the syrup must be of the maple -- none other will do? As the time for our annual Grandfathers' Retreat approached this year, Bill and I were disturbed to find that our Bastille Day program would be forgone. This year Bastille Day comes on a Sunday, and Sundays are our travel days -- with the week deep in the Maine woods between. On Bastille Day, heretofore, Bill and I have observed the occasion with a breakfast of French toast and appropriate exercises -- he fries while I sing ``La Marseillaise.'' (As of this writing, we haven't gone yet, and we may decide to shift Bastille Day over to the Wednesday or Thursday to suit our purposes.) It was on one of our earlier visitations that we learned ``French toast'' has a particular meaning up in our wilderness.
The origin of an expression is always interesting. On an early visit, Bill and I paused at Scott Brook lumber camp and the cook gave us a loaf of his fresh-baked white bread. Two or three times a week he would bake 50-odd loaves for the hundred and more men he was feeding. This was ``mitten-bread,'' so-called because once there was a woods cook who didn't like the feel of new bread dough when he came to knead it, so he kneaded it with his mittens on. Fresh from the oven, mitten-bread is delectable, but it loses its character at sunset and a day later is just rigid enough to make the finest French toast. On a second visit, a year later, we told the cook his day-old bread was perfect for French toast, and he laughed harder than the matter warranted. We asked, and found out that ``French toast'' is also a kind of a lumber-camp joke.
Ever since the first ax struck into the Maine timberlands, the heft of the chopping has been done by French-speaking Canadians who come down from Quebec. Scott Brook camp, at that time, used more than a hundred men who, after a week's work, went back to Quebec for what is called, in French, le weekend. Scott Brook camp, like all similar Maine woods camps, was commodious and comfortable, and no place in the world set a better table. The men were well paid, had fringes and benefits, and by Canadian standards of the day were in clover. At Scott Brook camp only French was spoken and understood, a fact that contributed dismay or amusement, whichever way you looked at it, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations appeared on the scene with the idea of forming a wood-choppers' union.
It was not a situation easily embraced. The language problem was one thing; geography was another. The CIO had no access to the camps, not wholly because it was the CIO, but because the region was, and is, chained off for everybody. Bill and I, privileged, needed precious keys to pass the gates, and still do. So the CIO organizers had to work from the Canadian side, at a distance. And once the men went home for the weekends, they dispersed and were hard to find, even if you spoke French. The CIO was eager to do what it might for the poor workmen, and a solution seemed to be a meeting over the line on the Quebec side. It was set, advertised, and a fair number of choppers attended.
At one point sheets of paper were passed, and each chopper was asked to list his ``grievances.'' Everybody had grievances in the CIO definitions. So the choppers looked about, and thought and thought, and it seemed that none of them had any grievances. Then one chap nodded his head -- he had a grievance! He wrote, ``I don't get enough French toast.'' Since any chopper at Scott Brook could have all the French toast he desired simply by asking for it, French toast has thus come to be a Maine woods term for somebody who complains when he has nothing to complain about.