Monday, January 18, 2016

Life and Food in the Open Air, Maine, 1856.

Theodore Winthrop (1828-1861) was an American writer and traveler who inevitably therefore, could not resist writing about his travels.  He did not let his poor health get in the way of his travel, nor did it stop him enlisting on the side of the Union, right at the outset of the Civil War. Sadly, Major Winthrop was killed at the Battle of Bethel – the first major land battle of the conflict.  

It is quite clear that Winthrop also enjoyed his food, and I am most grateful to him for the following quotation, which I think pretty well still sums up the situation today:

“It is surprising how confidential a traveller always is on the subject of his gastronomic delights. He will have the world know how he enjoyed his dinner, perhaps hoping that the world by sympathy will enjoy its own.

Winthrop’s words on the impulse of the traveler to report on his dinner appear in Life in the Open Air: and Other Papers, which was published posthumously in 1863. So, what gastronomic delights of his own journeys would he have us know?  
In Life in the Open Air, Winthrop describes a journey on the waterways of Maine that he took in about 1856. He and his companions have just begun their journey down the Penobscot River, and camp for the night at the point where it is joined by “a little stream, the Ragamuff.” (The translations in italics are my own.)

Iglesias, as chef, with his two marmitons, had, meanwhile, been preparing supper. It was dark when he, the colorist, saw that fire with delicate touches of its fine brushes had painted all our viands to perfection. Then, with the same fire stirred to illumination, and dashing masterly glows upon landscape and figures, the trio partook of the supper and named it sublime.
Here follows the carte of the Restaurant Ragamuff, — woodland fare, a banquet simple, but elegant: —

Truite. Meunier.
[Troute with Meuniere Sauce]

Porc frit au naturel.
[Fried Pork]
Côtelettes d'Élan.
[Elk chops]

Tetrao Canadensis.

Hard-Tack.  Fromage.

Ragmuff blanc.         Penobscot mousseux.
Thé.    Chocolat de Bogota.
Petit verre de Cognac.

Camping fare to boast about, indeed!

On another occasion the travellers are guests of a family in Millinoket [Millinocket], Maine, and he waxes exceeding lyrical about the simple dinner they were served: 

Ch. XV
What could society do without women and children? Both we found at the first house, twenty miles from the second. The children buzzed about us; the mother milked for us one of Maine's vanguard cows. She baked for us bread, fresh bread, — such bread! not staff of life, — life's vaulting-pole. She gave us blueberries with cream of cream. Ah, what a change! We sat on chairs, at a table, and ate from plates. There was a table-cloth, a salt-cellar made of glass, of glass never seen at camps near Katahdin. There was a sugar-bowl, a milk-jug, and other paraphernalia of civilization, including — 0 memories of Joseph Bourgogne! — a dome of baked beans, with a crag of pork projecting from the apex. We partook decorously, with controlled elbows, endeavoring to appear as if we were accustomed to sit at tables and manage plates. The men, women, and children of Millinoket were hospitable and delighted to see strangers, and the men, like all American men in the summer before a Presidential election, wanted to talk politics. Katahdin's last full-bodied appearance was here; it rises beyond a breadth of black forest, a bulkier mass, but not so symmetrical as from the southern points of view. We slept that night on a featherbed, and took cold for want of air, beneath a roof.

I give you the instructions for Sauce Meûnière for your next camping trip, from Alexis Soyer’s Gastronomic Regenerator (1848). He gives it in a recipe for turbot.

Small Turbot a la Meûnière.

Crimp the turbot by making incisions with a sharp knife, about an inch apart, in the belly part of the fish, then rub two tablespoonfuls of chopped onions and four of salt into the incisions, pour a little salad oil over it and dip it in flour, then put it on a gridiron a good distance from the fire—the belly downwards—let it remain twenty minutes, then turn it by placing another gridiron over it, and turning the fish over on to it, place it over the fire for about twenty-five minutes, or longer if required; when done place it upon a dish and have ready the following sauce: put six ounces of butter in a stewpan, with ten spoonfuls of melted butter, place it over the fire, moving the stewpan round when very hot, but not quite in oil, add a liaison (No. 119) of two yolks of eggs, a little pepper, salt, and the juice of a lemon, mix it quickly and pour over the fish; serve directly and very hot. The fish must be kept as white as possible. For the above purpose the turbot should not exceed eight pounds in weight.

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