Deep in the woods, the best restaurants in Maine
Caesar was not a witty writer, and left us, as I remember, but one feeble pun in the vulgar Latin. He promised his soldiers he would make them knights if they won the battle, and so he did - hostlers, all. The play comes on the low Latin word for a horse, "caballus," which gives us "cheval," "caballero," "cavalier," and "chevalier," which is a knight. Sir Lancelot was a knight. That is, in good Latin he is an equestrian.
I speak from olden memories, for I have avoided horses since our plug Tantrabogus stepped on my bare toe when I was 6. At the time, I had not found Caesar. When later I met M'sieur Lucien Sansouci, who was a hostler, I called him M'sieur Chevalier, and he always laughed more than I ever did at Caesar. Lucien lived in St. Georges, Quebec, knew not one word of English, and attended the stable at Scott Brook lumber camp of the Great Northern Paper Company in Maine.
The age of machinery harvesting would shortly eliminate both horses and lumber camps, but Lucien still had three teams to care for. And Bill and I, who were on our first of 30 annual fishing trips, would soon see a new camp without horses, with no axes and saws, and without cookshack and bedroom. Roads had opened the wilderness, and men commuted. No more being snowed in for the winter.
So Bill and I arrived on our first visitation and found Scott Brook camp still functioning and 100 or so men in residence. Del Bates was clerk with a woods-line telephone he didn't dast touch in a thunderstorm. We checked in with Del to tell him we'd arrived and where we planned to camp. Before we left, he said, "When you break camp next Sunday, don't bother to make breakfast; just come along and eat with me here." That's what we did.
On Friday afternoons, all the Canadian woodsmen at Scott Brook would tool their pickups back to Quebec for the weekend, leaving Clerk Bates and Hostler Sansouci in charge. Del was the watchman. He knew no French.
While there was no conversation, the situation was congenial. Del liked to do crossword puzzles, and Lucien cooked. Lucien had a dingle of groceries and a cold box of meats sufficient for 150 men, plus every kitchen device from paring knife to gas range, for every lumber-camp cookshack was the best restaurant in Maine.
On the Sunday morning when Bill and I first attended, we found Del by the window doing a crossword, and Lucien at the stove making a mushroom sauce for the steaks.
I asked Lucien, "Sommes-nous de bonne heure?" and Del said, "What's a 'reliquary' in six letters?" Then I first called the hostler M'sieur Chevalier and Lucien first laughed at Julius Caesar's little joke.
I shall not tease you with an enumeration. In those days, Great Northern commissaries had real clout in the market and got top quality. It was understood that if the food wasn't good, the men would find another camp.
In honor of Bill and me, M'sieur Chevalier started with an Acadian delicacy handled like flapjacks except for wild strawberry jam instead of maple syrup. This was supported by saucisses à tête de porc chez nous with home fries, and then the steaks, lamb chops, poached venison liver with onions, and braised partridge. Lucien had made some sourdough- bread toast and baked beans.
Altogether it made quite a breakfast. Bill quit after he had a piece of the sugar pie du pays. I did manage, also, a piece of the lemon chiffon, so we didn't hurt Lucien's feelings. Del had a piece of the apple, too. The breakfast at Scott Brook on departure Sunday became an annual ceremonial banquet that continued until the camp was closed.
The last time Bill and I visited, the buildings had been removed and the clearing was already breast-high with forest seedlings. We knew where Del Bates was, but what became of our Sir Chevalier of the pots and pans?
In the long-ago, the winter harvest of timber culminated in the "drive." On the freshet, the wood floated downstream to the mill and lumber activity ceased until there was snow again on which horses could haul logs.
If you'd like to do so, take Maine's road to Baxter State Park. Just before Ripogenus, take the side road to Chesuncook Dam Boomhouse. There you'll find a memorial to the river driver of old. Foolhardy, bold, and proud, he brought the harvest down the churning flood, and he was always hungry.
The cook, with a chore-boy, a cookee, a teamster, and a two-sled kept pace with the drive, and served six meals a day all the way down. (Two breakfasts, two dinners, two suppers.) The Great Northern Paper Company erected the memorial shaft, which has all the tools of the chopper hanging on the granite sides. And lest the cook, most important of all, be forgotten, atop the shaft sits a cast-iron beanpot, the very one, I think, M'sieur Chevalier used when we came to his breakfasts.
Where are the beans of yesteryear?
In my fancy, and if you know better don't tell me, I seem to see M'sieur Chevalier, the best Maine woods cook, happily busy at a golden cookstove on Mt. Olympus. He's fixing the nectar and ambrosia, while Zeus and stately Juno patiently wait, a-drool, for the beans to come from the oven. It is a good fancy I have, but as Caesar did not write, sunt lacrymae rerum. Del Bates just looked up to ask Zeus what kinds of pie he'd like before they brought the plum pudding.