Stewing Over Active Ingredients
MY disinterested attention was arrested by a television commercial that told me such-and-such has 60 percent more active ingredients than its nearest competitor."My first thought was of our fiscal waste - think of the untold billions of dollars we've spent on public education, and there isn't a person in the entire United States of America who can tell us what that means. Then I became reasonable, and began to wonder what an inactive ingredient might be, and how much I'm spending each shopping day for things that do me no good. Like, I remember, Irium. When Irium was being promoted as the big thing in toothpaste, I asked Dentist Brown what Irium might be. He said , "They be no such a thing." That was long ago, and now inactive ingredients seem to be out in the open. I recall that Sime Colby used to mix sawdust in his hens' mash. He said the hens didn't notice the difference, but the eggs fell off. May I be permitted a fond recollection in my effort to explain what active ingredients are? I refer to a somewhat forgotten delicacy of the Maine woods which was known mostly as a pot-hellion. More couth folks knew it as a hunter stew, a camp chowder, a pot-pour-tous (Fr.), and now and then a last-ditch-soup. It came on the last day of the outing, when the hunting or fishing "sports" were about to break camp and go home to their humdrums. The purpose of the hunter stew was to use up whatever food was lef t, so little had to be sacked back to civilization. It's like a clearance sale. The recipe is vague and varied, but has the merit of being adjustable - with a minimum of don'ts and mostly dos. In the Maine woods, the cook is always the real boss, and it is unbecoming to find fault with his efforts. (Anybody who finds fault automatically becomes cook.) So the hunter stew can be thus and so, or it needn't be. The question of active vs. inactive ingredients never arises. The hunter stew is always tasty and nourishing, partly because men in the woods are always hungry, but also because it brings the word "osmosis" to a peak of semantic perfection. The hunter stew gets stewed for better than a full day. Longer is better still. If anybody is tempted to try one of these stews in a civilized place, I can approximate the directions. First, dice a decent dimension of salt pork and try it out in the bottom of the biggest pot, or kettle, in the place. This may be done in a frypan, of course. The large kettle is based on the estimated number of servings and the fact that all the water must be inserted at the beginning. Never add water to a hunter stew once it has begun. Braise some cubed stew meat (venison was the traditional starter in camp) in the pork fat, and add some brown sugar, maple syrup, or a dot of molasses, or all three. And don't toss away the pork scraps! When the estimated correct amount of water comes to a simmer, you begin adding whatever you have. Throw discretion to the winds. Let your imagination soar! What do you have? Potatoes and onions. Some dry beans. A can of green beans. Consider what needs more and what needs less time to cook. A bit of macaroni or noodles? Any lentils? Stick 'em in. Green peas, carrots, mushrooms. No matter how improbable the label on a can is, the secret of the hunter stew is the long hours of the steady simmer and the e pluribus unum consequence. In hunting season, a pa'tridge breast, maybe a bunnie haunch. But never any fish. Goes without saying. In due time one of these last-ditch stews begins to advertise itself. The camp becomes a bower of delight. The nimble hunters who walked the ridges or whipped the waters until past meal time will now come whooping in an hour or so early and sit drooling in the congenial atmosphere. Early indeed, because it takes at least an hour for the dumplings. For the dumplings, you need a cover on the pot. A watched dumpling never cooks. When you drop the little darlings into the soup and place the cover over them, leave the cover in place for the entire hour. Lift that cover, and you have a decent stew defiled by a gob of wallpaper paste. I'm telling you, for sure! So let the hungry hunters and the famished fishermen jolly well sit and drool and wait. It's home tomorrow and the shelves are empty, and there are never leftovers with a pot-hellion. Also, you no tice there is no such thing as an inactive ingredient.