Michelle Isenhoff

Tour Stop 29…If a Tree Falls in the Woods…

…is right here on Bookworm Blather. (Part of a blog tour for Beneath the Slashings.) This guest post about lumberjack cooking was supposed to feature on a cooking blog that never gave me a final confirmation. So here it is:

If a Tree Falls in the Woods…

Niceties like table cloths were unheard of till the later days of lumberjacking. This picture probably dates to the early 1900’s.

If a tree falls in the woods, you can be sure the man who cut it down will come home hungry!

The day of a 19th century lumberjack started well before the sun rose and didn’t end until after dark, broken only by a hasty meal in the woods at noon. You can imagine the kind of appetite he brought back to camp with him at night. Now picture 10, or 50 or 80 more men just like him and you can begin to understand why the cook was the most important and highest paid person in camp, after the foreman.

Cooking in a lumber camp was nothing like cooking today. Before the Civil War, all food preparation had to be done over an open fire. The main staple of these early camps was beans buried in the bunkhouse fire (the “beanhole”) and left to simmer all night. If you were with one of the finer organizations, they might be supplemented with salt pork, biscuits, and molasses. Even after cook stoves became common, fare remained simple and was contingent upon the supplies the cook was able to procure. Often these men, and later women, had to be extremely clever with what they had available. If a cook proved to be a “belly robber” and popular opinion turned against him, he was quickly replaced.

During my research for my novel, Beneath the Slashings, I came across several recipes from the lumberjack era and thought it would be fun to share a few. (Hey moms, they provide a fun teachable moment for kids too.) It wasn’t uncommon for a cook to go through 50 pounds of flour ever other day and sack after sack of beans, so I cut down the proportions. Beans and biscuits were time-honored staples from the very earliest days in the woods. Vinegar pie was popular in northern Michigan where my story takes place. And molasses cookies were another old favorite. Notice that none of the recipes require milk or butter, which did not keep. Eggs were not common until the later days of lumbering.

The spacious room, large stove, plank floor, glass (?) windows, and the cook’s tie date this picture to at least 1880, probably the 1900’s. Is that a cot in the corner?
1 pounds dry navy beans
1/2 t. dry mustard
1/4 c. molasses
1/2 t. salt
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 pound salt pork or bacon

Lumber camp directions: Soak beans overnight. Add remaining ingredients except pork to the beans and stir slightly. Beans must be covered with water. Slice salt pork and lay across the top. Cover. Place them in the camboose (bunkhouse fire pit), cover with coals, and bake for 8 hours or overnight.

Modern directions: Place beans and 2-1/2 qts. water in a 6-qt. Dutch oven; bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat; soak for 1 hour. Drain and rinse beans; return to pan with remaining water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 1 hour or until beans are tender. Drain, reserving cooking liquid. Return beans to pan; add remaining ingredients, mix well. Bake at 350 degrees for 2 hours. Add reserved cooking liquid as needed. Serves 8-10.

Lumber Camp Biscuits

2 c. flour
3 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
6 T. oil or soft shortening
2/3 c. water

Mix all ingredients together. Add enough flour to knead easily. Knead on floured board about 30 seconds. Roll out to 1/2 inch thick. Cut with small cutter. Place on ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake at 450°F for 10 to 12 minutes. Makes 15 to 20 biscuits.

Vinegar Pie

1 1/4 c. granulated sugar
1 1/2 c. boiling water
1/3 c. vinegar
1/3 c. cornstarch
Dash of nutmeg
3 eggs
1 T. 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; let rest off burner for one minute. Stir in a tablespoon of butter until melted. Pour into a baked pie shell.

–Adapted from: Barnes, Al. Vinegar Pie and Other Tales of the Grand Traverse Region. Traverse City, MI: Horizon Books, 1971. (Mrs. Russell Wood of Kalkaska, MI, cooked vinegar pie in northern Michigan lumber camps. This recipe is adapted from one she used.)
Molasses Cookies

1 c. sugar
1 c. shortening
1 c. molasses
2 eggs
4 c. sifted flour
1 t. soda
1 t. salt
2 t. cinnamon
1 t. ginger

Cream sugar and shortening. Add molasses and eggs. Add dry ingredients. Have at hand a small bowl of sugar. Dipping fingers into sugar (or flour), pinch off a ball of cookie dough, about walnut sized. Dip ball into sugar, arrange on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees 12 to 14 minutes. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Tour Stop 29…If a Tree Falls in the Woods…
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