Food: Pondering the rugged life of a lumberjack
The atmosphere is rustic and the utensils are even plainer, but I was deeply struck by the setting. I was visiting the logging camp at Pioneer Park in Rhinelander this past week to do a story on the railroad museum, and the lumberjack kitchen display there had me spellbound, and admittedly feeling a little guilty.
Guilty because I had not taken the time to visit this very interesting place before. Why is it that people will travel all over, looking for interesting spots to visit, when places like this exist right in the backyard? I have to admit, I am guilty of this.
Needless to say, I was taken by the lumberjack kitchen set-up. I have always been fascinated with lumberjacks and this kitchen put my mind to wondering what it must have been like to cook for 30 or 40 ravenous men at a logging camp. No running water, no electric or gas stove, no refrigeration, and constant and unrelenting serving and then cleaning up.
One common custom of the “shanty boys” was the fact that no one was allowed to talk while eating. Only slurps and burps could be heard when the men consumed their food. The reason behind this was that the cook wanted meals eaten fast so he could clean up and start the next one. If someone did break this rule, they were pulled from the table by the back of their shirt and thrown outside and were only allowed back in when prolific apologies were rained on the cook and he decided to forgive the rule breaker.
The cook had to haul water from a creek or lake to make strong coffee and wash dishes; he had to bring in wood to keep the giant kitchen stove going which also provided heat; and he made endless amounts of bread that were cooked in pans measuring 3 feet across. Pots and pans were massive and wooden utensils were used to stir giant patches of pancake batter and beans, favorite foods of lumberjacks.
Lumberjacks were tough characters, willing to work in a rough profession for little pay with dangerous conditions. But there were few lumberjacks who hated their job. They were tough men (and some women, called lumberjills) who thrived being outdoors; had an almost insatiable longing to be independent; and weren’t afraid of riding a log down a river or sitting atop a pile of giant timbers as horses dragged them out of the woods.
In fact, they even created their own language and many had particular and interesting nicknames. For instance, “axle grease” was butter; a “bait can” was a lunch bucket; a “bean burner” was a bad cook and pancakes were called “monkey blankets.” These terms might have been uttered by Caribou Bill, Clothespin Ole, Dead-Eye Dick, Poker Pete, Smutty John or Three-fingered Fred.
I was thinking all this as I slowly made my way around the exhibit at the logging museum. Here was everything my heart desired as far as lumberjacking goes and I had passed it by 100 times. But no more.
I found a recipe in an old cookbook, called Lumberjack Casserole, which sounds good. I plan on making it this weekend to accompany some brats and hamburgers on the grill. I think the Lumberjack Casserole will make a good side dish and some fantastic leftovers.
I highly recommend taking the time to visit this logging museum, which also includes artifacts from the early days of the railroads. There is the CCC museum and an old school house, too, and Red Marquardt’s sawmill. Best of all, admission is free and the tour guides are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.
But for sure, make a visit to the kitchen section of the logging exhibit. It will give you a very thankful feeling for all the modern conveniences we have today. But I still would have loved to meet a real Northwoods lumberjack. Caribou Bill, Dead-Eye Dick and even Smutty John would be welcome any time at my table. I’d even let them talk, provided they didn’t call me a bean burner.
1 lb. ground beef
16-oz. can baked beans
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup barbecue sauce
1 T. minced onion
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
Brown ground beef and drain. Mix ground beef with baked beans, brown sugar, barbecue sauce and onion, and heat through. Put meat mixture in an oven-proof pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. Top with cheese and bake until cheese is melted, about two minutes.