Whatever renown Batali, that chef of no small girth, achieves at the southern end of New York state in a place called Manhattan, his historical counterpart to the north in the forests of the Central Adirondacks and along the desolate station stops of Web’s old Adirondack railroad line, the one name in fact the only name, to have achieved greatness, despite the fact he is in all other ways a beast amongst men, is that of Morte LaPorte.
Morte LaPorte, or “Death's Door” loosely translated from French, descends from an unknown mother, probably from a brothel in Montreal. He was a foundling, put near the kitchen entrance to a house of ill repute, for rough men of the north who spent their money on liquor and women between bouts hunting, trapping or cutting Adirondack spruce.
Drawn to kitchens and lands of endless provender, adolescent Morte carved spoons from logs to stir cauldrons of oatmeal, flayed deer carcasses for evening meals, and assisted in the blacksmith shops forging shoes for the giant draft horses that pulled stumps through the forest. Teen-aged Morte also served culinary stints at some of the fancy hotels along St. Catherine Street in Montreal, as well as at the first lumber-camps on Brandreth Park, in the Central Adirondacks.
An uneven temper caused many rifts between Morte and his employers. We notice the lad as a frequent troublemaker in his late teens working the New York Central line from Montreal to Albany where he wandered village to forest, consorting in part-time cookery appointments. His avocation after hours seducing bargirls, fine ladies and actresses in station houses, opera houses, lumber camps, bordellos and stagecoach lunchrooms helped spread the reputation of the giant. From the decks of river ferries, to the living rooms of great camps. Morte never could appease the wanderlust that coursed his giant veins.
Barging into strongman contests, sometimes entering mid-contest, he never lost a bout no matter the form, be it hoisting logs, lifting boulders, or immobilizing any number of opponents. Mort would amuse stage passengers from the city by idly leaping a loaded coach catty corner from bootbox to whippletree landing nimbly without making the whip or jehu duck.
It was rumored that Morte trained by leaping the Hudson from its source at Lake Tear-in-the-Clouds atop Mt. Marcy, past Newcomb to North Creek before the river's girth was simply too wide for any person or deity to leap in a single bound. Speculations that Morte could vault the Hudson at Schuylerville reached newspapers in New York, though this is probably exaggeration.
At eleven Morte expressed interest in the Standing Block Chop, a speed competition cutting through a vertical 12" log with a five-pound axe. One such contest was held in Saranac Lake in 1894:
Contestants preened and prepared in a practice area set about with plenty of odd sized logs and axes to put into use. Some of the woodsmen wrapped wrists with leather straps, and lower abdomens with giant hide belts to add power to their cuts.
Morte got the hang of it, and decided he would participate.
A crowd had assembled in a simple ring of bleachers three rows deep. The promotors wore green gaberdine suits and shouted through megaphones strapped to their jaws, They looked like muzzled St. Patrick's day dogs with brown top hats. Buxom women paraded jugs of lemonade and beer which they used to fortify the contestants and audience before each bout.
Morte stood a head and a half taller, but was leaner of build. His hands were as wide as the axe face he swung though his wrists appeared finely boned and forearms tapered. A few called bets for the stranger, introduced by the barker as "the man from Maisonneuve". The other lumberjacks were known to the attendees, a few were champions, and the share of the bets verbally shouted got placed on them.
An MC fired a pistol and contestants began swinging blades. Chips flew in every direction. After two blows, and hardly an quarter the way through his log, Morte put down his axe. It seemed he had quit the contest. He studied his piece of wood carefully. Then leaning down ever so slightly he broke it in two with his hands. Nine seconds.
An amazed crowd gasped in disbelief. Morte had hardly used his blade at all. Ten seconds later the strongest contestants hacked through their logs. Ten seconds after that the competition had finished.
Judges huddled. A nervousness descended. One of the barkers shouted a decision. Morte was disqualified. Rules stated that logs had to be cut with an axe.
Morte became furious. He smashed every other timber for the contest into bits. Police were called but only watched. The mood of the crowd shifted to the side of Mort. The promoters who bet on other contestants looked worried. Police conferred with contest management. Anxious to pacify the mob, and preserve the potential of Morte as a future contestant, a consolation prize was offered, an oversized ice figure of a lumberjack, intended for an end of festivities celebration. Mort carried it to the home of a young lady he had met during the day, but it melted that evening.
Morte distrusted cameras. To this day one shot of the giant survives, believed to have been Morte at ten, standing beside his life friend Knut Deergarten in the kitchen at Paul Smith's.
At fourteen, it was said LaPorte could seize a draft horse by girth harness and hoist it over his head. This is likely a myth, as any live horse would kick terribly. Middle-aged Morte did steal a post-prohibition run of beer from Mssrs Budweiser. He detached the team and pulled the giant keg of beer himself to a private section of woods where he camped for a few days One wonders why Morte did not have the horses pull the wagon since he had already dragged out both drivers and kegmen, and was in total control of the precious load. A quarter of the beer was recovered a week later with Morte alongside it, a crime for which he spent a week in jail. (Champlain Times, July 1935)
At an international competition held in Portland Maine, Morte entered the Caber Toss, a Scottish event where a single 19' 6" Larch log weighing 175 pounds is lifted and thrown. The champion, Mitch McDuggin, a brawny Highland giant, had booked a steamship from Inverness to participate.
Upset from the journey, McDuggin's log bettered a previous record of 17'. Morte strolled into the match grounds and before the shot was fired to begin, kicked a giant timber into his grasp with his instep, caught it, then spun it baton-wise over his head and hurled it like a spear 29' 6".
The crowd roared, convinced that Morte had won, but officials charged Morte with ignorance of the rules, and improper stance at the start.
Disqualified again, Morte attempted to smother his rage,. When the judge's decisions were announced he stood before the pile of larch logs, grabbed two, walked towards the judge's booth in the stands, and threw both simultaneously over their heads and into an empty patch of bleachers. The timbers crashed through upper seats and destroyed concession stands below. No one was hurt.
"Mr. Laporte was asked to accompany Portland police to a holding cell until he cooled down. Much to their surprise he complied and did not break his way out of jail." (Bangor Morning Dispatch, May 1922)
In wrestling bouts Morte could not be bettered by any mortal, though they might rush him ten or eleven at once. Word of the Adirondack giant who was nimble on foot and more agile than any cat reached P. T. Barnum who announced he would train an elephant to take Morte on in a contest of strength. Morte declined. Barnum persisted and offered Morte a chance in his ring with his lions. Morte went to the circus in Albany, met Barnum but was horrified at how the animals were treated, so left in disgust.
Offered contracts to fight across the country Morte had already gravitated towards cooking. Somehow the peaceful stress of an Adirondack kitchen put Morte's aggressive side to rest. He resisted temptations of fame, much to the chagrin of local promoters:
"Let's sing the hymn of Morte LaPorte
Who lives in kitchens but also in court.
At least part human, part Titan in breadth,
Also a beast, with a gorilla's chest,
Morte LaPorte has a fearful rage,
He can hold back an engine of any gauge.
Can hoist a horse above his head,
But has no enemies, 'til he's dead.
When all the contests are finally done,
One man is standing and Morte who won.
Is he a human, or is he God?
From what clan, from what pod?
What make or use of brawn is meant,
Unless Morte is Zeus or Neptune sent.
We see no brothers, he hasn't any,
Nor his mother, or even a Granny.
One thing is sure, of this we're proud,
Morte is the strongest man around." (Whitehall Evening Gazette, May 1912)
Authorities assert that at the age of twelve Morte reached three hundred-fifty pounds, though here we lack for facts. Most arguments about Morte's size and girth are not substantiated. Other historians put his maximum weight at thirty stone, which is four hundred and twenty pounds. Admirers say Mort was of athletic build, but heavy because he was muscled and extremely tall. Yet other sources claim he reached forty stone. What's true is the following:
Morte Laporte once carried a Steinway grand piano a mile as a service for a young lady he admired in the town of Glens Falls. She wanted to practice at home over the holidays. (Glens Falls Post Star, November 1884)
Morte himself did not play piano, but kept his fingers in tone uprooting steel rails from their beds with his bare hands, much to the chagrin of Mr. Vanderbuilt. He hated railroads and considered them the bane of nature. (Penn Central Railroad Newsletter, April 1919)
He lifted a fifteen-hundred pound granite founding stone for the Tupper Lake Public Library but after misinterpreting cues from the master of ceremonies, held the thing in his hands during a twenty minute speech by the mayor. (Tupper Lake Republican-American 1928)
It was rumored that at sixteen Morte strangled several large black bears to death, though this has not been substantiated by this author, and is doubted because it is known that Morte loved animals, though one must also acknowledge bear fat was Morte’s preferred cooking medium, and he never delayed an opportunity to procure more.
In 1923, again in a furious rage because his famous Deer Head Stew had been ridiculed by a party of politicos, Morte obstructed the progress of a gubernatorial campaign train to Albany:
“He countered that engine at startup with the thrust of a giant arm outstretched. The head of steam, built for ten minutes at the crossing, could not achieve any degree of movement. Morte was lured aside with the promise of as many apple pies as he could eat in a single day and went from that argument happy as a pussy cat, much to the relief of Mr. Vanderbuilt who had been informed of the train’s delay.” (Glen’s Falls Gossipmonger, 1923)
One day in March 1921 Morte, having not been provided enough firewood to properly cook the feast for a Champlain Boy Scout Muster, tore the picnic tables to shreds with his naked hands to provide enough kindling to cook his famous “Morte Laporte's Flash-Fired Corn Dogs”. That recipe, born of rage, omitted the corn. “ Morte Laporte Arrested for serving Dog to Boy Scout Troops!”. Morte later confessed to police that the dog had already died, and that it was a sin to waste good meat. (Saranac Chronicler, 1926)
We hereby submit, respectfully, the recipes of one Morte Laporte, a man of enormous stature, but modest renown. His cuisine, collected throughout his later years at Brandreth Panther Pond Lumber-camp, was transcribed by his kitchen assistant Knut Deergarten, whom Morte kept as a sort of pet. Knut could write but could not read since being blinded during a kitchen accident at Paul Smith's. So please excuse Knut's penmanship.
We shall supply details of Knut Deergarten in another chapter of this compendium. We will say had been the most agile of man ever to scale the spruce. His exploits at limbing giant conifers have never been equaled by any lumberjack since. Axes were to Knut what the six shooter was to Jesse James.
The loss of sight put Knut into a deep depression, from which he might not have emerged were it not for Morte, who insisted that Knut be hired at full wages wherever Morte took a job. Peeling carrots and potatoes and chopping game was an easy task for Knut, what gave him life was his compendious note-taking on the craft of the Adirondack chef.
The first known recipe created by Morte de la Porte is mentioned in Vaughn, whose compendium of Adirondack tales freely mixes fact with reminiscences often doubted by scholars. Vaughn comments on this entry, saying it is myth, concocted by an ill mannered co-worker who hated Morte for reasons of his strength and physical beauty and his success with women. Nevertheless Vaughn makes the following citation:
"An early dish "Chat abandonné en Croûte", fashioned by Morte at "Hotel du Monde" in Montreal, features alley cat, parboiled in clarified butter, packed with french toast, and wrapped in a sheet of pastry. Morte was just eight. He had not yet been taught to fillet or de-bone a carcass, or remove outer layers of fur." (Arthur Vaughn, Heroes of the Mountains, 1972)
Imagine for now, if you would, the culinary masterpieces, as Morte dictates to Knut these immortal recipes: