FEASTS MADE FOR LAUGHTER
The fire-place in the cabin at ShaboMekaw. That’s a mounted muskellunge caught by the author in Wisconsin, but the same species of fish inhabited Kinniconick and grew just as big.
The cabin at ShaboMekaw was an important part of my life for twenty years. Looking back at all of the breakfasts, lunches and dinners that were served up to family and friends on hundreds of weekends, and recalling the folks seated around a hand-hewn table with a view of mountains and creek, I’m reminded of how delicious the food tasted in that rustic retreat. Good food and drink made for hundreds of “happy hours”.
Soon after the cabin was constructed, I installed a propane gas stove, a very efficient four-burner with a small, gas-operated fridge below. The stone fire-place was constructed with a raised hearth because it would serve as an indoor grill when the weather was suitable. In the heat of summer, an outdoor grill was employed. Wherever cooking took place the chef was surrounded by guests.
In this photo, the propane stove/fridge is visible in the “galley”, behind the bar. The kitchen sink was next to the stove, beneath a window, and the hanging cabinet held glassware and dishes. (click to enlarge)
This was the dining area with a big window overlooking the “Swirl-hole”. The table was crafted by my Dad and me from Tennessee red cedar logs. The hanging lamp was an “Alladin” which produced brilliant light by pumping a base containing kerosene and then igniting a mantle.
The dinner that became a “signature dish” at the cabin was beef roasted in the fireplace along with foil-wrapped Idaho potatoes and a simple salad. Porterhouse steaks cut to a thickness of about three inches were broiled over a bed of embers, preferably made from a beechwood fire. When the bed of coals was just right, a basket grill containing the steaks was placed on an iron grate, and because I had wrapped the steaks with bacon strips a lot of flames erupted and charred the bacon. Then the chef kept a close eye on the embers in order to control the cooking time. In those days beef was mostly grass-fed, more flavorful and tender. When served, the charred bacon was removed but it had imparted its distinctive character to the meat. When all went well the meat was cooked to medium-well and medium-rare, but once in a while it was too rare for a few particular folks. A hunk of the beef was returned to the fire and the feast was finally devoured.
On occasion porterhouse was replaced by whole beef tenderloins. When I purchased them at Avril’s meat market in downtown Cincinnati back then big tenderloins cost about ten dollars each! A good friend and frequent guest at the cabin called the prized cut “elephant wang”. The same friend was disappointed on one occasion when I introduced a boned, stuffed leg of lamb though it was grilled in the same way and was scrumptious.
One memorable dinner was not cooked over an open fire. Several men who worked in the paper and printing industry were guests and one, a guy from Maine, brought live lobsters for Saturday night dinner. A big cauldron of water was placed on one of my small propane burners and we got into a “very-happy -happy -hour” and waited for the water to boil. As I recall, it took all of an hour to bring it to a boil, the pot being large and half-filled, and at one point we thought it was a lost cause. How would those lobsters react to being thrown into the fireplace embers? At last the critters took the plunge into boiling water and we feasted on them, and after several martinis they were the best I’ve ever eaten.
Breakfast usually included bacon and eggs, and I’ll always associate those cooking aromas with early mornings at the cabin, when mists began to rise from the creek to the top of the mountain ridge across the way, and the sun beamed through blue skies. Some of the best bacon ever was procured at a meat market in Vanceburg where locally smoked “jowl” bacon was available. Jowl is the cheek of the hog and is thicker, more heavily smoked and saltier than the commercial product.
Without electricity, we toasted bread on a wire rack that sat on one of the stove burners. Coffee was brewed in an old-style “drip” pot, and I’m convinced that new electric makers are incapable of producing the same marvelous taste and smell.
Looking back I can’t recall entertaining teetotalers at the cabin. Happy Hour was always celebrated before dinner and for some reason a cabin mellows people in a lot of ways. We drank mostly gin back in those days but whiskey and scotch were available, too. In my days as a buyer at the Procter and Gamble Company, I made lifelong friendships with four co-workers and they became regulars at the cabin for twenty years. On a Kentucky Derby weekend one year, a member of the group brought a beautiful silver bucket, fresh mint and a bottle of Bourbon, filled the bucket with ice and then swirled the contents until a rime of ice coated it. We passed the bucket as we sat in a circle before the fire and drained it, the cabin glowing with the laughter of old friends.
One weekend I entertained a group of suppliers from the Michigan Carton Company. Soon after we arrived some bad weather moved in and it rained continuously for two days. Happy Hours were somewhat extended. I do have a vivid recollection of the four of us sitting on the porch after dinner, with rain pouring down, a black night with thunder and lightning booming. We talked about a lot of things, but then one of the guests from Michigan began to tell about his experiences during the Second World War. We were taken back to the jungles of New Guinea, the torrential rains, the dripping forests, and the stories got better and better as the night wore on. The more we drank the more we laughed, there in the dark, in the wooded mountains of Kinniconick.
When I look at photos of the cabin interior I want to picture in my mind all of the many friends and relatives who sat around the big table and in chairs near the fire, over all of those twenty years, and keep them alive in my heart, because most of them are no longer living. Sure, it’s a sad exercise in a way but in another it’s a commemoration.
Those cabin feasts were “made for laughter”.
The cabin: a place made for feasts and laughter.
(The title of this chapter is inspired by Craig Claiborne and his book “A Feast Made for Laughter”.)