The Appetite of Paul Bunyan

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox
Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox (Photo credit: Brian Kurtz)

Legends and folklore provide wonderful entrées into cultures. And in the United States we’ve generated a few of these delectable tall tales ourselves. Take the mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan, who stands heads above the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow and other similar characters.

Lumberjacks created Paul and, with each telling, he grew bigger.  And hungrier. Take the story of his birth, for one:

… it took five giant storks, working in relays, to deliver Paul to his parents.  And what a baby Paul was; his lungs were so strong that he could empty a whole pond full of frogs with one holler when he was hungry.  It took a whole herd of cows to keep his milk bottle filled and he could eat forty bowls of porridge just to whet his appetite.

A lumberjack’s appetite in itself could be the stuff of plenty of legends. The average man put away 8000 calories a day, in the form of beans (usually served at every meal), meat, rice, potatoes, bread, biscuits, cakes, cookies, and pies, according to Maureen M. Fischer in Nineteenth-Century Lumber Camp Cooking, a book written for elementary school kids.

A Paul Bunyan Breakfast
A Paul Bunyan Breakfast

Obviously the cooks found their work cut out for them. In 1918-1919, 100 loggers lived and worked in the Scott Bog area of Connecticut. EVERY DAY the cook there rustled up

75 – 100 pounds of beef, a bushel of cookies, 3 bushels of potatoes, 30 pies (apple, mince, cherry, raisin, lemon, and prune*), 21-pound cans of condensed milk, 2 gallons of tomatoes, 3 gallons of canned apples, 16 – 20 big double loaves of bread, 200 doughnuts, 10 yeast cakes, 40 pounds of sausage, 25 pounds of liver and two gallons of molasses. (From “Loggers and River Drivers,” Fairbanks Museum, St. Johnsbury, Vermont, p. 6)

Men Eating at a Logging Camp
Men Eating at a Logging Camp

Like medieval monks, the loggers kept silence at the table, in this case because the cooks and their helpers wanted the men to eat and leave quickly. With the amount of food prepared every day, the cooks needed to minimize the time spent cleaning up.

Of course, Paul would have made short work of it. Too bad he was a only figment of the collective imagination.

Tomorrow [September 15, 2009] we’ll pay a visit to some of the logging camp cooks.

Prunes*Prune Pie

From the 1918 edition of Fannie Merritt Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.

1/2 lb. prunes
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup sugar (scant)
11/2 teaspoons butter
1 tablespoon flour

Wash prunes and soak in enough cold water to cover. Cook in same water until soft. Remove stones, cut prunes in quarters, and mix with sugar and lemon juice. Reduce liquor to one and one-half tablespoons. Line plate with paste, cover with prunes, pour over liquor, dot over with butter, and dredge with flour. Put on an upper crust and bake in a moderate oven.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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