The importance of logging camp cooks can’t be fathomed, really. But try to imagine being miles from anywhere, without a restaurant nearby or a place to cook for oneself; imagine the sheer dependence on log camp cooks, of men burning up 8000 calories a day while felling trees.
Like baby birds counting on their parents to fill their open mouths and gurgling stomachs with food, the men literally couldn’t live without the cooks. This calls to mind a famous, and often quoted, part of the the verse novel, “Lucile,” by Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st earl of Lytton.*
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man cannot live without cooks.
In Changing Lives: Women in Northern Ontario, by Margaret Kechnie and Marge Reitsma-Street (1996), the authors quoted a woman of 100 years of age who’d worked as a cook in a logging camp:
You couldn’t annoy the cook. If the cook left, the camp might have to close. (p. 118)
The food was salt pork, beans, peas, flour and tea. So the cook had to change those as best he could as he had nothing else. There were no forks in those days and each man had a big jack-knife to eat with. When we got through we wiped the knife on our pants instead of washing it. Each man helped himself to the edibles and sat down as best he could to eat.
Well, that’s interesting now, isn’t it?
In a commentary on logging camps, Cathe Ziereis wrote:
One of the most common ways that women participated directly in logging was as the camp cook or cookee. Few books on logging mention this fact but historic photos and first person accounts make clear that many camps had a female cooking staff. This was particularly true in jobber and independent camps. In many cases, the cook was the jobber’s or camp foreman’s wife, while the bull cook might be the cook’s adult daughter or sister. Women tended to fall into the cook’s roles because, of the domestic cooking and cleaning they commonly did in the home, but cooking for a logging camp demanded stamina and considerable physical strength. Staples such as flour and salt pork were stored in barrels that often weighed over one hundred pounds each. The large kettles and pots were usually made of cast iron, also extremely heavy. Camp cooks often worked over an open fire, fireplace, or wood burning stove, and cooks had to make most items, such as bread, completely from scratch. Logging camp cooks had to prepare meals for anywhere from ten to sixty or more people per day. Such meals included a wider variety of foods and a large quantity of food than would be prepared in virtually any household. In addition, the quality and quantity of the food served in a camp often determined whether its owners would succeed or go bankrupt, since camps with poor food could not keep their lumberjacks for long. As a result, women who cooked for logging camps had a great deal of influence over the camp’s operation. The wife of popular logger Herman Dieck of Suring, for example, often cooked in the camps her husband operated. The quality of his camps’ cooking was cited as one of the reasons for his success.
Another account of logging camp cooking came from one Hattie Nevin, Reflections of a Logging Camp Cook (1980). Only eight libraries in the world own copies, but it would be interesting to read a woman’s account of things.
One recipe often served was SAWMILL GRAVY, a version of which I used to eat as a child, made with ground beef and served over rice, not biscuits. Legend has it that a cookee made it one day with coarse cornmeal, there being no flour at hand. The men grumbled and noted the mouthfeel resembled sawdust. Hence the name.
1 pound mild sausage, crumbled
2 ½ T. all-purpose flour
1 cup milk plus 2 T.
½ t. freshly ground black pepper
Fry sausage in heavy cast-iron skillet until well browned. Remove meat, leave drippings. Stir flour into drippings until all lumps disappear. Add milk slowly, stirring constantly until smooth and thickened. Stir in sausage and black pepper. Serve over fresh hot biscuits.
*Lord Lytton (1831-1891) wrote poetry as Owen Meredith and served as Viceroy to India during the great famine there, 1876-1878.
Tomorrow: a fascinating foray into logging camp culinary lingo.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen