THE courteous young man in the meat market made conversation while wrapping my roast, and he said, ``I had a bright idea one morning. Instead of heaving my scraps into the tub for the rendering plant, I began to grind 'em, mix in some bird seeds, and sell the stuff to the Audubon for their feeding stations. Made little balls of it. Great idea - it turned a penny, promoted recycling, and improved the habitat. That sort of thing.'' He laid my roast on the scales, eyed the price indicator, and said Whew! Then he said, ``But some kind of an inspector with a clipboard and an ingrown disposition came in and said I'd have to put on labels showing the ingredients and the fat content. Rather than risk a fuss, I stopped selling the things. But I did ask him where he found all these birds that can read a label.''
I told him we have an owl at Back River that evidently knows how to read - he sits on a pine limb all night and recites Kipling. He said he found it hard to give this his full credence, and he'd like for me to bring in a tape next time so he could hear an owl recite ``Gunga Din.'' I told him right now we were getting the novels. He started to say something else but shook his head and turned to the lady on my right, saying, ``And something for you today, Ma'am?'' As I turned away, the lady made a little shiver, indicating she was over her depth about owls doing Kipling, and she said, ``Oh, gracious me! Yes - I'd like a few licken chivvers!
Thus things do flow, more or less, to brighten our days as we endure the brutal rigors of a Maine winter, and I came home wondering why the people who live here put up with inspectors who want labels for the birds. The answer is certainly in our Declaration of Independence, ``... all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves....''
Some years ago a friend who was in the food-packing business told me he had encountered a similar problem and didn't know what to do about it. The Big Authority had him licked. I was glad to give him an answer at the time, although so far I haven't come up with a solution about meatballs for birds.
My friend was packing a good many sardines then, and as anybody who knows anything about sardines will affirm, there are many grades of quality. Herring run big and small, there are many kinds of oil used, and even mustard. You say what you want, and the packer will have it. Some come cheap, and some get a fancy wrapper and fetch a price. And my friend knew, which I suppose is common knowledge, that some sardines aren't worth the effort to open the can.
So when an extra happy run of herring would come ashore, my friend would pack a batch that was meant solely for himself. A few cases. He might give a can now and then to a friend, but he planned to have enough to last his own household a year. He used the finest olive oil, and because he planned to eat these sardines rather than sell them, he pasted on no labels.
What really made these special sardines the ``finest kind'' was a small cube of smoked alewife meat that was inserted in each can, just enough to impart that different flavor so much admired.
The alewife is a sea run fish that comes up in Maine tidal inlets each spring by the hundreds of millions, and while a few get eaten, most are taken for fertilizer and bait. A smoked alewife is called a smoker or a bloater, and sometimes a Kennebec turkey, and while he goes well with mashed potatoes and a cream sauce, he is not generally considered the greatest of delicacies. He's bony, too. But there is a certain ``call,'' so my friend keeps a smokehouse and fires it up for the alewife runs.
It occurred to him one year to put a bit of smoked alewife in each can of sardines, and it was a wonderful idea except that the Pure Food Inspector waved the rules at him, and he couldn't label the can ``Sardines'' if it had alewife in it - even this smidgen. So he packed some for himself, and gave a few cans to friends, and now and then he'd favor one of the buyers who came with a ``sample'' case - unlabeled, of course.
In this way the buyers began urging him to pack his sardines with smoked alewives commercially, and that's when he told me his problem. I was delighted to embrace an opportunity to help my friend, no less pleased at the prospect of foiling an inspector, so I told him to paste on a label that said, ``Maine sardines `a la gaspereau fum'e.'' ``Gaspereau'' is the Nova Scotia French word for an alewife, and it seems nobody in the Food and Drug Administration knows that much French.
So if you see meatballs for the birdies, look closely at the label - I may have another thought.