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Friday, April 21, 2017

Mort's Panther Pond Cookbook - Part II - The Recipes

It would be misleading if the author pretended Adirondack climate were easy to adapt to, much less live in, cook or produce healthy meals. Most of New York State enjoys milder temperatures and rich soils for agriculture, but the gneiss and granite mountains of the Adirondacks do not.

An Adirondack garden is usually limited to potatoes, lettuce, carrots and radishes. Sometimes squash matures into a mild fall if careful soil preparation has been made. Modern fertilizers also make it possible to coax a few additional species out of the earth before autumn. Corn will not prosper, neither will tomatoes. This is due to shortness of growing season, temperatures that are too low at night, and a miserly layer of topsoil, which is little more than gravel softened by dead leaves.

In the early 1900's owners of the great camps brought their entire farms up for the summer, and the grazing cattle made excellent soil in a small cleared areas. The chief impediment to wholesome vegetables was the paralyzing length of winter. Deep high lakes, notably Brandreth and Blue Mountain, retain winter ice until April or May, and sometimes as late as mid-June.

The Vermont farmer housebound by drifts of dry snow in January contrarily is blessed by bountiful produce due to rich limestone soils and elevated summer temperatures. Winters relaxed in February when the maple sap began to run. Men wintering in the Adirondacks hunted, since animal husbandry normally failed there if livestock had to winter over. Thus most of the northern diet in the last century during the coldest months was composed of salted, smoked, dried meats and fish. After the Second World War canned meats became more prevalent. Residents hunted to bring something fresh into their diet, longed for maple syrup, and would have traded a limb for a piece of fresh fruit.

What we see then is a map of relative prosperity, and that it becomes obvious that where the temperatures fall the most and the soil is poorest, so also the resident is poor and somewhat desperate in his relations with nature. Once roads and year round snowplows punctured the region with tarmac and salt to melt ice, any man could winter over and enjoy maple syrup on his pancakes. Alas, without the challenge of the hunt and the hardships of cold and snow, he turns to drink.

Lumbering operations along the Mac 'n Mac railroad line worked the men six days a week. At the end of each stint the desire to go on a bender became truly terrible. Our lumberjack chef, Mr. Morte LaPorte, was no different than any other man at his table. Many were French Canadian, some were German speakers from Pennsylvania, others were Mohawks from the valleys to the south. A few Native Americans on the payroll were from the West Coast and for a period there were two Chinamen who had worked cutting the Trans-Pacific through the Rockies.

To a man they were rough in manners and appearance. If they shaved they used a knife. A favorite pastime while smoking or chewing tobacco, was whetting the edge of an axe or filing the teeth of a bucksaw. Hours were passed honing blades on a leather strop. Some would demonstrate their craft by shaving the thick hair off their forearms with an axe.

The men lived slept and worked in the same shirt, but kept another for going into town. Most were illiterate. It has not been proven that Mort could read, though we suspect he was taught by a young woman in Montreal named Shoestring Sally. We lack anything written by him as Morte relegated all cooking documentation to his friend and sous chef Knut Deergarten.

At intervals Mr. LaPorte was given two days off during which time Knut took charge of the kitchen. These two days Morte presumably used to drink and carouse in the small town of Tupper Lake, two hours northeast by rail of Brandreth Station. We lack description of  his activities in Tupper, and frankly, we lack any first hand account of his experiences within Brandreth Park, except for what is alluded to in Knut Deergarten's Panther Pond Cookbook.

We do possess one testimonial of Mr. LaPorte leaving an Old Forge bound train late one December afternoon in March 1934. The information comes gratis Franklin Brandreth, who at the time was the youngest heir that bore his family name. Mr Brandreth had taken a job for the Mac 'n Mac lumber operation scaling loads that came and went from the station.

The five o'clock from Tupper arrived slightly behind schedule, but paused up track from the station. The engine did not discharge steam. The mail car doors slid open, then a conductor and mail handler energetically kicked out a long rolled carpet, which fell into the snow with a thud. The car doors were slid shut, and a cloud of steamy warmth, for it was blessed with a small wood stove, hung in the frozen air outside the train.

The whistle blew and the train chugged off, a sound lost to a gentle sigh of breezes which that day were in deep negative zero territory.

The carpet laid where it had fallen for a full five minutes. Then according to Mr. Brandreth it abruptly stood, dusted itself off and walked into the woods. That carpet, according to Mr. Brandreth, was Morte Laporte.

The trainmen later explained to Mr. Brandreth the circumstances of Mr. LaPorte's arrival. "He asked to be rolled off at Brandreth."

In defense of Morte's lengthy lifespan, drinking was an occupation only taken up late in life, presumably because aches and pains of tired muscles ease in the wake of an alcoholic infusion. Morte excepted, most lumberjacks lived short lives, curtailed as often by their own livid tempers in fights as by venereal disease, tuberculosis or the hazards of the occupation, crushed by a falling tree, drowning beneath a boom of logs at the center of a lake, toppling from the heights of a stump while limbing, or bleeding to death from an injury.

Yes lumbermen ate terrific quantities of food and consumed significant quantities of liqueur but what is not generally known and may be a puzzlement to modern cooks. is that salmon to them was a trash fish, not welcome at the dinner table. Contracts with men of the north contained verbiage that decreed “not to be fed pink river truite more than one day per week”.

Lumberjacks of yore expended terrible quantities of energy wielding saws and axes, floating slippery logs across a lake, or slinging railroad ties into the narrow gauge tracks of the Mac 'n Mac line. They thus sought meals rich in fats and carbohydrates for energy. Salmon was a poor man’s fish, and though fatty when compared with trout, it couldn't compete with pork, beef or venison garnished by bacon, bear fat, or butter. Those familiar with the appetites of bygone years will understand the prerequisites of a working man's diet. The foremost requirement was high energy, secondly low cost (because of quantities eaten), and thirdly (a goal that was not always attainable) quality of protein.

Management loved the salmon. It was the cheapest and most easily attained meat, widely available in early autumn when lumber operations were at their peak. Millions of the heavy pink-fleshed fish headed up the Black River, the Raquette, the Oswegatchie, the Grasse, Moose and all the tributaries of the St. Lawrence starting in late September. Netted, trapped, or caught by rod and lure, the flesh dried, smoked or salted could be stored for use in other seasons. It reconstituted beautifully as stew. But lumberjacks hated it. It took a skillful chef to prepare salmon so the men of steel would eat heartily when gathered around their long plank tables.

Energy was infused through gargantuan consumptions of flour, sugar, butter and lard, served mainly as countless loaves of bread, muffins, and numerous pies. 

They ate in silence, axes and saws beside them. Words were forbidden, and sometimes Morte found it necessary to toss one or two of the men out into the snow. The only vocabulary allowed were the names of foods stationed along the massive crudely built table. "Bread", "Butter", "Pie", "Muffins," "Stew." Any other utterance could spark a fellow's dander, and anger at a table with sharpened knives and axes could turn lethal.

The recipes amalgamated here are attributed to that Northwoods giant of cuisine Morte de la Porte, though modern chefs will dismiss these culinary artifacts as literal routes to 'Death's Door', no pun intended since that is the actual meaning of Morte's name. More will be shared on Morte's birth and origins later in this compendium.

We submit Morte's recipes from the period, garnered from a variety of sources, some direct, some passed down.

Morte’s Blueberry Snow Traffic Cone

This recipe is donated by Morte’s last surviving family member, one Mildred DeCarie Turcotte of Prairie, Montreal. The reasons for publishing this strange set of plans for a dessert will be evident.

Ice-cream cones first appeared at the World's fair in 1904. It was only in the 1950's a full three decades after Ernest Hamwi's Western Cone Company began to mass produce pastry cones, that distribution reached the north woods.

Though apple pie à la mode was Morte's favorite desert, we know he experimented at ways of serving flavored ices with cone shaped pastries as early as 1880 and thus it may be claimed Morte invented the ice cream cone long before that first unveiling in St. Louis. The oversized blue-berry snow cone was Morte's solution. Alas Mr. Laporte never patented this invention. 

According to Mildred Turcotte . . . 

“Take one ordinary traffic cone, and line it with pie crust. When the crust has air-dried, remove and bake the crust inverted atop the opening of a wood stove. Allow to cool. Fill it with fresh blueberries mixed with fresh snow and maple syrup. This was Morte's homemade ice-cream cone, though a bit larger than most. Eat and enjoy.”

We distrust one aspect of this recipe: Morte in his day, would have been unable to find or procure a plastic traffic cone. In defense of the recipe, large dimensioned megaphones of rolled veneer or wood composite were employed by crowd managers across the land. Morte himself may have pilfered such a barker's device from one of his circus jobs, or from a platform busker at campaign stops along Penn Central's line to Montreal. It seems clear that as the megaphone went out of custom, the traffic cone came in. Mildred's version of the recipe is just a modernization.

How did Morte procure fresh blueberries at the same time as fresh snow? Did he employ shaved ice from the icehouse during the hot months of August when blueberries reached their prime? Perhaps he stored winter snow amongst the blocks of ice, since one suspects that ice shavings might have made his snow cone soggy.

The historicity of cuisine is daunting.

Spring-thawed Salmon with Wolverine Musk

We transcribe from Knut Deergarten’s original text:

“When da spring comme, and da fish in da icehouse are startin to look a lil pale, take here a bigge fishe, as bigge as ye can finde, filler up with fat of da bear or failin’ dat, da fat of da pork or failin dat, da tail rind of a buck or a doe deere, don mader. Den garnish wid wolverine muske whiche can be gotten from de hinde end of da ballsac of da nastyest critter on da planet. Dis will conceale daw stink of daw fish as she rotte and make her smelle goot to daw men of da woode.”

Auberge de Truit, confit de White-Footed Mice en Terre

Teke a bigga truit ob da lak, maybe 10 to 30 poun, Don't make dis dish wid a tithing minnow brooke truit ob 5 poun, cuz you will be fillin da body wid a large number of mices. A brookie no matta how bigge ain't big nough.

Clene da lake truit in da normal way. Wash her in water jus like she swim. Don cut da hed or take outa da gills. Set dese asid as you wanna make a sauce outta dese later.

Deergarten’s original explains the final steps:

“Take ye any numbr of daw mice that ye find in daw larder after ye have put daw poison from Mongomry Wart oute in daw pantry. Nay ye mind, dis will nat harme ye. 

Put alla dem critters in daw belly of daw lake troot, and truss her up real goot. Morte say use lether shoolase for dis job. Doo not use cootten. Cootten will rotte, and the recipee will be spilt.

“Takee daw troute now and wrap her up good in buckskin, and den bury her in 1-2 feet of earthe. If it is winter bury her neath da hokey-poke, da groonde der nevr froozes. . . . Comin spring for or fiv mont latr dig her up an serve. Sprinkle on daw black flie garnish and Wolverine muskie . . . use wid cawtun. Serve wid doast to daw men.

“If some of daw men wantit gibbem daw giblet grabie offen daw innerds which ye ground up as a saucee.”

Note: A Hokey-poke is an outdoor privy cabin, or latrine.

Revelations and changes to local cuisine occurred after the death of his friend Knut Deergarten, an event which is hinted at in the following recipe:

Morte’s Lumberjack Stew

The frigid months of January and February, particularly in areas northeast of Old Forge, from Raquette and Blue Mountain, through Brandreth, through to Long and Tupper Lakes, regularly suffer drops in the mercury as low as -40 degrees F.

Normally these temperature troughs do not last for more than a day or two. The winter of 1926 though was a nasty exception. At the weather station in Old Forge, a low was recorded on January 19, 1926 of -52 degrees F. The cold snap lasted two weeks. To the north and east, where the plateau elevates, temperatures are reliably fifteen degrees lower. We thus calculate the mercury at Brandreth fell to 68 degrees F below zero during that fateful week, and lasted for five days.

It is difficult to imagine survival during such circumstances. Entire herds of deer are found frozen where they huddled in thickets, or found splayed on the ice after the snowmelt where in vain they tried to use the ice to reach low hanging branches of lakeside cedar. The terrible irony is that such food is unavailable for scavenge during the coldest moments. Nevertheless the spring thaw brings an unexpected bounty to birds bears, wolves, and coyotes, all of whom are close to death when winter ends.

It was during this particularly ferocious cold spell that Morte Laporte and his loyal friend Knut Deergarten holed up in a ramshackle lumber camp near Panther Pond on a branch of the Mac-n-Mac Railroad, on Brandreth Park in the Central Adirondack Mountains.

This last recipe derives from notes recorded by Deergarten in Morte's Panther Pond cookbook during late December, prior to that cold spell in January 1926.

“ Morte weent diggin after groun varmits. Got nonn. Outta buluts. Outta sugr. Everytin gon.”

“Gott a ded skunk, cookd it up wid som pin needls.”

“No more skunk, at all r flour. Fir wod all gon. Wes gonna die”

These are the last entries in the Knut's Panther Pond Logger’s cookbook.

Then, surprisingly in the summer of 1926, we find Laporte working alone, albeit weighing in at only 290 pounds having shed a third of his body weight over the winter. He had taken a job as a chef on a lumber operation north of Lake Placid. His belle at the time, Mamie Lapontiere recorded a recipe which he apparently passed down called “Morte’s Lumberjack Stew”.

“Prepare a pot with bear grease. Morte says bear grease may not be available so use butter. Then put in a well hung-joint of mutton or porc or beef, if those are not available, use any other meat that can be found. Darling Morte loves this dish and says it was responsible for saving his life. He says he found a carcass in the forest and that sustained him for three months. I asked Morte what animal he found but he wasn’t sure.“

The culinary details of this dish hardly matter, as the keys to its interpretation are the words "any other meat that can be found" and "responsible for saving his life".

The author believes dear reader, that Morte Laporte cooked, and consumed his dear friend and scribe Knut Deergarten. Did the sous chef, of smaller frame, freeze or starve to death? Most certainly. The opposite is unthinkable, as undeniably a great friendship existed between these men of the North. No dear reader, Deergarten perished of natural causes, but Morte made stew of Knut's body to save his own life.

This last recipe is submitted as an anthropological specimen not intended for home cookery. The title is alas is truthful, though a trifle misleading.

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