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Stirring up memories


Shanty-boys, river-hogs and cookees
February 23, 2005

            Tall tales, and fairy tales, legends and myths—Michigan is a storytellers’ land.  No wonder, not only did Native Americans share their stories with the newcomers from the old world, but these folks brought their own along.  It’s not surprising that in those dark Michigan woods you can hear stories of flying Dutchmen, Russian witches, Irish leprechauns, and even a Scandinavian troll or two.  It’s enough to keep you up all night!

            But the favorite Michigan tale, the favorite North Woods tale, will always be Paul Bunyon and Babe.  The stories abound with Paul as the hero.  My favorite, though, is an early one wherein Paul gets rather confused.

            In early, early spring, just as the river began to thaw,  Paul got on a raft heavily loaded with fresh-cut logs he’d hewn.  He was headed for the mill.  Down the river he went!  Down the river he went.  Seemed like he should have gotten to the mill long before.  Then suddenly, Paul noticed he was seeing the same scenery over and over!  He’d picked out a river that went in a circle!  Poor Paul!  I’ve had days like that.

            As much fun as the Paul and Babe lumberjack stories are, the true lumbering stories of Michigan are just as amazing.

            In the 1800s as Americans pushed westward, folks needed lumber, particularly the white pine of Michigan, to build their homes and businesses.  In 1869, Michigan produced more lumber than any other state.   Doing it wasn’t easy.

            Most lumbering took place in the dead of winter so that the cut logs could be hauled by sled over the deep snow to the rivers.  After the spring thaw, those logs headed downstream for the lumber mills—unless it was Paul’s circular river.

            This meant that the workers headed into to the cold, snowy woods at the end of autumn, and there they stayed working long lonely days in the lumber camps.  While we may call Paul Bunyon a lumberjack, in the Michigan woods, he would have been known as a shanty boy—that’s lumberjack in Michiganese.  It’s for the shanties where the men stayed on the long winter nights.  But just because the sun came up late, didn’t mean the shanty boys got to sleep in.  Not at all.  They were up around 4 a.m. getting ready to start the long, long day chopping down, trimming and hauling those huge trees. 

            Is it any wonder the biggest meal of the day was breakfast?  These fellows, after wrapping up good, waited to hear the welcome sound of the gabriel—the long tin horn that the cookee (Michiganese for cook) used to call them to the cook shanty for a more-than-ample breakfast of fried potatoes, sowbelly, lots and lots of beans and naturally flapjacks, served up with molasses or gravy.   Breakfast was mighty good, but also mighty silent.  The rule in the lumber camp was “No talking at meals.”  It held fighting down to a minimum!

            After breakfast, Cookee packed up the leftovers and handed each shanty-boy his flaggins—lunch to be eaten it the woods.

            Many of these lumbering men were from Scandinavia, and on special occasions (or when he got hold of some milk and butter) Cookee might have prepared this special Finnish treat called kropsua or pannaukakku. Or, baked pancake!

Cookee’s baked pancake

5 eggs

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups milk

1 stick butter, melted

Beat eggs until thick and lemon colored. Add sugar and beat until sugar is dissolved. Stir salt into flour and add to egg mixture alternately with milk, stirring until well blended. Add 1/4 cup of melted butter and blend. Pour remaining 1/4 cup melted butter into 9-x-13-inch pan. Pour batter over butter. Bake in preheated 375 degree oven for 35 minutes. It’s good served with jam or fresh fruit.  But on an icy morning, molasses does just fine.

In spring, when the thaw finally came, the shanty-boys loaded the logs onto rafts.  Now it was the river-hogs (some times the same fellows) who took over to guide these rafts over the perilous waters to the downstream mill.  River-hogs earned more than shanty-boys because the work was so dangerous.

And Cookee?  He went right along.  They’d build a wanigan—a floating cook shanty--right onto one of the rafts and it was dinner as usual.

While breakfast was the big meal, everyone looked forward to supper.  More beans, more sowbelly, more potatoes and lots of coffee, but nearly always there was pie. When supplies were scarce, those resourceful cooks weren’t discouraged.  They used what they had on hand.

North Woods Vinegar Pie

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups boiling water

1/3 cup vinegar

1/3 cup cornstarch

Dash of nutmeg

3 eggs

1 tablespoon butter

Baked 8" or 9" pie shell

Separate eggs and beat the three egg yolks together. Stir the first five ingredients together and cook until clear and thick. Stir half the mixture into three beaten egg yolks; add mixture to remaining mix in saucepan and stir until combined;  then take it off the burner and let it rest for one minute. Stir in a tablespoon of butter until melted. Pour into a baked pie shell.

But when times were better—remember, Michigan is the state famous for its apples.  When they are dried, they’re a year ‘round treat.

Dried Michigan Apple Pie Recipe

  prepared double-crust pie shell

 3/4 pound dried apples

  4 cups apple cider

 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

  3 tablespoons cornstarch

 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

  2 tablespoon cold unsalted butter, cut into bits

  1 tablespoon cold milk

 1 tablespoon heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In large pot, combine apples and cider (add water if necessary to cover apples). Bring to a boil and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, 20-30 minutes or until apples are softened. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup of cider. Allow apples to cool.

Sift together 1/4 cup sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and nutmeg into mixing bowl, then add cooled apples and toss. Add reserved cider and toss gently until mixture is combined.

 Spoon the apple mixture into the pie shell. Dot with butter. Place top pastry over filling and crimp edges. Brush pastry lightly with milk. Sprinkle with remaining sugar, and cut slashes into the top for ventilation.

Bake on baking sheet in lower third of oven for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 400 degrees and bake another 30 minutes. Five minutes before baking is done, drizzle heavy cream into vents on top of pie and return to oven. Serve warm.

            It’s good without that last dollop of cream, but oh, so good when you add it!


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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network