Sunday, February 22, 2009

10,000 pies later

Over the years I've read of more than one man who turned to cooking after a lifetime of heavy work. No longer physically able to punch cows or fell trees, these workers often saw the camp kitchen as a worthy alternative.

Ramon F. Adams, author of Come An' Get It: The Story of the Old Cowboy Cook (Amazon link), talked of "broken-down punchers whose riding days were over, but who could not endure life away from cattle and horses ..." Such a cowboy, one who often traded his horse in for a chuckwagon, finished his days behind the kitchen range.

It makes sense. The rancher retains a valuable employee, one who's served him well for years. And the cowhand-turned-cook continued his career in an industry that he'd come to love and thrive.

I recently ran across an article about a much younger cook in the Atikokan Progress, the hometown newspaper for the town of Atikokan in southern Ontario, located about 50 or 60 miles west of the shores of Lake Superior.

The article tells the story of how Joe Gordon became a camp cook after a life-threatening accident cut his short logging career short.

The career-changing injury occurred as Gordon and three buddies drove logs down a river in New York State. He emerged from a three-month hospital stay unable to roll logs down the river at the young age of 24.

While that event, which killed the other three loggers, might have ended any chance at working in the woods, Gordon's "bosses looked around for a place to put him, since he was unable to do any more log-rolling. He was put to work in the kitchen peeling potatoes."

Gordon toiled in the camp kitchen for the next 47 years. By his recollection, he baked "10,000 pies," "plying his art at mining and lumber camps and on the sidewheel boats of the Mississippi."

I don't know if Gordon intended to make the kitchen his new career or to just peel potatoes until something better came along. Whether intended or not, Gordon soon found himself responsible for feeding the whole camp.
“That was the start of my cooking career,” says Joe. “I'd only been at the job a short time when the regular cook decided he'd take a holiday. He said he'd show me how to make pastries and pies and so on before leaving. Well, he was just supposed to be gone for two weeks but he never came back and I found myself as the cook.”
The Atikokan Progress first printed 58 years ago, one week after Gordon turned 72 on April 19, 1951. That means he started baking pies in 1903 or 1904.

Gordon had to "bake about 60 pies and 90 loaves of bread" to satisfy a camp with 250 loggers when he worked in the Rainy River district of Ontario. That's one pie for every four loggers, a hefty portion when you consider restaurants cut each pie into eight slices.

And what about Gordon's claim to have baked "10,000 pies" in his 47-year cooking career? Divide 47 into 10,000 and you get 217 pies per year. I think he grossly understated his pie-baking activity.

Assume Gordon baked 60 pies four times each week during a three-month logging season. By my conservative calculation, he probably baked 150,000 or more pies in his long camp cooking career. That number could double if he baked pies for lunch and dinner!

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