A Lesson in Custards For Schoolboys and Sailors

Because I've been a good boy, my cook made me a custard for today-nooning, and with its dollop of maple syrup it was some old good. I like custards. But my mother, who made as fine a custard as anybody, didn't add one to my school dinner, and while my classmates laid them out lovingly, I would have only cake or cookies, or maybe a half-cord of Baldwin pie. This made no reason to complain, so the matter never got family discussion. I just never got custards for school nourishment. Today, as I tackled my treat, I remembered how much I would have liked a custard back in the days of Biddie Royal, little supposing that my table- or maple-shade-sharing classmates would have like one of my cookies.

Mine was a custard town because we were a hen town. Freeport, Maine, had so many boys and men at sea that in Singapore they believed it was America's principal city. As a lad, I lived neighbor to so many sea captains that I, like all the children in town, was well aware of the "hen frigate."

As the commercial sailing vessel developed into the magnificent clipper, and then the clipper was improved and adorned to become "the down-easter," the sumptuous accommodations aft led women to sail with their husbands, and their babies, and there was an era of maybe 30 years when the down-easters not only moved the world's goods but were homes for Maine families. The historian says the down-easter was a vessel built by Maine craftsmen and sailed by a Maine master and crew. And most down-easter captains took their wives and children. A ship with females was a hen frigate, and like the canal barges of Europe could be identified by window curtains and flowerpots.

And along with percale at the portholes and flowers at the fantail, the hen frigate had poultry aboard, because mothers believed a fresh breakfast egg was good for a youngster. Cows were never sailors, so fresh milk was had only in port, but a few laying hens were no problem on a voyage, and galley scraps fed them nicely, with a sack of California grain to piecen-out. When a hen had laid out her clutch, she'd make a fine stew, and at the next port a seaman would go look for replacements.

In this way, and exactly in this way, the down-east State of Maine shortly became a second home for every variety of domestic poultry known from Constantinople to the Islands of Cook. With a tin of evaporated milk, a Maine mother forlorn in the Doldrums could still produce custards to cheer everybody up. So we youngsters in my town knew a Silver Spangled Hamburg from a White Orpington, and we knew a custard was to cheat the dreary days of the Horse Latitudes.

And, I must warn you, we knew that a ship's wife was never the seagoing mate of the captain. Be not beguiled. The ship's wife was invariably a man, employed solely as navigator. You see, many a wealthy master mariner, having a son coming to age, would give the boy a ship and wish him good fortune, leaving him to go to the sea on his own and see what he could do. Most such young men did well, but now and then would come one who needed some help. If his blind spot was celestial navigation, then he hired a man to do that for him, and such an assistant was called a ship's wife. He didn't need to know a thing about custards.

We used to have an excellent boys' secondary school in the Maine town of Farmington that offered a one-semester course in navigation, and any Maine boy who came to be 15 and couldn't tell port from starboard would be enrolled for the "insurance" course. If this worked, his difficulty would be overcome and he'd never need a ship's wife to handle his legacy vessel for him. At one time it was not complimentary if your credentials included the line "and one term at the Abbott School." All the same, Abbott was a fine institution and kept many a craft from the reefs of the the world.

Those brave days of the wide blue water were long gone when I was a lad and took custardless lunches to school, but the hens lived on. My father was the odd one, being a keeper of American Dominiques, the only native breed. They were the "little speckled hen" of pioneer farming and had no seafaring heritage.

But in the town could be seen the immigrants of the down-easter days, or descendants thereof. They did get mixed up with their plumage as the generations moved along, and we heard of White Wyandottes that one spring laid brown eggs. This disqualified them with the American Standard of Perfection, but Andy Reynolds, who had them from his great-grandfather, had papers to prove they originated in Patagonia. And Russel Winslow had a Bolivian midget rooster that was five feet high.

One time my father had a Dominique cockerel in the Madison Square Garden poultry show, and the bird was judged best-in-show. Soon after that my father had a letter from a man in Oregon who said he needed a male Dominique, and my father offered this best-in-show bird for a mere $50. The man wrote to say thank you but that $50 was beyond his means and he had decided to go out of the heritage poultry hobby. So, we had this rooster for Sunday dinner, and for years my father would brag about the Sunday dinner that set him back $50. At that time, six 50-dollar bills would buy a new auto.

And Captain Julius Sewall told me that he could once get laying hens in Calcutta for three cents apiece. He said the hens "out east" get fed on fish, and that custards made at sea always taste like mackerel. Good, but unusual.

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