Thursday, April 23, 2009

Wolverine Cuisine

The author Walter Mosely was in town recently, and he was interviewed on public radio one morning during his visit. I caught bits of the interview between trips to Menard's, because I've been working on a couple of little building projects on our land in Wisconsin, and as any DIYer knows all too well, any project more elaborate than hanging a picture is going to involve at least half a dozen trips to Menard's.

As I got back into the van with some plywood and one-by-twos, Mr Mosely was talking about the question of influences. His unvarnished opinion: Every writer lies when asked about his influences. Well, maybe not intentionally, but if a writer claims to have had her style shaped by Toni Morrison (the example he used), she was really probably much more strongly influenced by, say, Nancy Drew. Writers naturally want to associate themselves, even by way of homage, with the all-time greats--Joyce, Faulkner, Austen, Hemingway, Cather, Flaubert, etc.--but their sensibilities were largely formed long before they ever held a copy of The Sound and the Fury, My Antonia, or Ulysses. More likely, in Mosely's view, one's literary imagination is first forged by the Hardy Boys, or My Friend Flicka.

Because it's the books we read as kids that open our eyes to the power of literature, open our hearts to the wonders of the imagination, and that's where a writer should look to see how he became the writer he grows up to be.

Then I had to get out of the van to load lumber, and when I got back in they had changed the topic.

But that notion intrigued me, and I came back to it in my mind over the next couple of days, and that's what brings us to Carcajou. That, and the beans and maple syrup. Carcajou, I mentioned in my previous post, is the French-Canadian name for the wolverine, a large member of the weasel family renowned for its ferocity, cunning, and downright orneriness. It's also the name of a novel by Rutherford G. Montgomery, published in 1936, a book that impressed me greatly when I read it in grade school (much later than 1936..!). A few years ago I was reminded of the book when talking with a friend about favorite books of our youth; Carcajou was tops with both of us, and, you know, what with the Almighty Internet at our service, it wasn't hard to get a copy in a few days.

The book is about an Indian trapper, Two Gray Hills, and his companion Mister Jim, a tame grizzly bear. Set in the deep snowy heart of a northern wilderness winter, Carcajou turns on the dilemma that Two Gray Hills faces when a wolverine shows up in the territory and starts wreaking havoc with the trap lines. You see, Two Gray Hills has sort of used Mister Jim as collateral with the white fur traders who supply him with food and other necessities at his wilderness cabin. If Two Gray Hills doesn't bring in a certain number of pelts, Mister Jim will be taken away and sold to a circus. Of course, the white traders have been guilty of a certain amount of skullduggery to ensure that the quota isn't met.

But the main foe that Two Gray Hills must contend with is Carcajou, who cleverly sets off or destroys traps without being caught himself, or eats or defiles the fox or martens that have been caught in the traps.

Long story short: Two Gray Hills and Mister Jim persevere through many perils, and things work out okay for them in the end. For everyone and everything else...not so much. Looking through the book again just recently, I was struck by how brutal and unsentimental its outlook is. Yes, there's some corny anthropomorphizing and purple prose, but it deals with the hard facts of life in the woods, and with frontier justice, in crisp, swift fashion. A reminder that kids' books aren't necessarily kid stuff.

But hey, this is a food "blog", and I promised to illuminate the notion of Wolverine Cuisine. It's all about the beans. And the sorghum syrup (though I would substitute maple). Because one of the things that really impressed me, as a hungry lad growing up in Minnesota, were the meals described in the book. I have this image in my memory of the trappers huddled around a wood-burning cookstove, eating from tin plates heaped with beans and salt pork--eating their beans with their hunting knives, the only utensils available. Such a romantic, appetizing image! And I recall when I was young secretively scooping up my wieners and beans on a kitchen knife, and dreaming of a snowbound cabin deep in the woods.

Looking at Carcajou now, I see that most of the really good food scenes actually involve...the bear:

"From a large earthen pot beside the fire [Red Heron] ladled out great mounds of steaming beans. Mixed with the beans were chunks of fat venison. Mister Jim rose upon his haunches and grunted loudly. His tongue was dripping, and his little eyes danced. Red Heron's leathery old face cracked into a grin as he shoved a heaping dish over to Mister Jim."

But Mister Jim is a bit of a fussy gourmand, and actually shoves the dish back to Red Heron. Then,

"...the Indian reached into a deep cavity in the wall above the fireplace and pulled out a jug. Jerking out its cork, he spread a thin stream of black sorghum over the beans. Shoving them back to the bear he turned to Two Gray Hills. 'You have spoiled the little one.'"

Mister Jim gets a second helping of beans, and dried apples for dessert. Lucky bear.

I think I'd have to conclude that I disagree with Walter Mosely on the question of literary influence. No question, early reading is hugely influential on one's view of the world, the way your mind and imagination are formed. But not everyone who reads as a child turns out to be a writer, and for those who do take up the literary life, then the work of their grown-up peers, the examples of that timeless pantheon, are even more influential.

No, I'd rather not write like author of Carcajou; but I'm happy to eat like Mister Jim.

Text (except the Carcajou) and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw

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