Eating like a Lumberjack

Lumber Jack breakfast
A lumber jack breakfast (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

The Black Bear Camp Skillet

Served with Cherokee Sweet Corn Pone, Fresh Fruits, Cheese Grits, Hunt Camp Potatoes, Cathead Biscuit, Sausage (Sawmill) Gravy, and Thick Griddle Cake with Maple Syrup.

A Sizzling Combo of Country or Sugar Cured Ham, Pecan Smoked Bacon, Sausage & 2 Farm Fresh Eggs any style $13.95

I recently spent several days at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Breakfast naturally became an issue if a day’s plan included hiking. The menu at the restaurant played on the theme of logging which – many people might not know – was one reason for the creation of this national park in the first place. Terribly decimated by huge logging companies and, aided by sawmill companies, the old-growth forests fell to the logger’s axe over and over again. Trees that stood for hundreds of years, measuring 25 feet around at their base, died in the course of an afternoon.

It took a lot of elbow grease to do this kind of work, requiring thousands of calories per day. The food served up in logging camps sounds like something impossible these days, when our greatest physical exertion seems to be turning on iPhones or iPads.

Legends and folklore provide wonderful entrées into the heart of many cultures. And in the United States we’ve generated a few of these delectable tall tales.

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.

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)

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.

As for me, I shared my Black Bear Camp Skillet with someone else. And enjoyed every bite.

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.

Serves 4

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.

Crockett's breakfast camp rs
Breakfast like a logger at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

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