Shotgun Christmas

This weekend my wife and I’ll go hunting for our Christmas tree. While doing this, I’ll be recalling other adventures in the woods. This is the first of three linked stories:

Chapter One – New York City

Growing up in Manhattan, my idea of the forest was the little woods in the parks I played in. The lore of Christmas tree hunting was restricted. My father, sister, and I visited a vacant lot where a gentleman from Maine set up shop every year. This was in the days before massive trailer truckloads of trees made their way to the city after being cut in September or October. His product was uneven, and from his own acreage somewhere in the mysterious “North Woods.” The tree stand had been an empty waste place of weeds and broken brick the night before but became a transformed place through scent, texture, and color. 

Our selection procedure was direct. You tried to get there as early as you could due to the failing light of December. Evaluating a tree in the near dark was. You strolled the aisles of trees looking for likely candidates. Running your hands along spruce branches, you tried to determine if a tree seemed to have good color, was the right size and that the needles didn’t fall away with a light touch. If it made that cut, you took a more complete look. Out of the rack and onto the snow, already covered with a carpet of needles, came the tree. My father would give it a sharp bang on the ground while my sister and I watched how many needles the tree shed. If it dropped too many back into the rack it went. If it passed, we spun it in place and evaluated the thin spots, bushy areas, and overall shape. If it passed this test, it went onto the car and back to the apartment—end of the hunt.

Chapter Two – Somewhere Outside of Portland

Sometime towards the end of the 1960’s I was introduced to another form of tree hunt. I had accepted a job in an operating room at a small hospital in Maine. Just a day before Christmas Eve, the schedule of the operating room was slow. Only emergencies and a few scheduled procedures were in the offing. The operating room Director looked over at George and I ( the only two males on the staff) and detailed us to take the afternoon and hunt out a tree for the department party. I expected that George and I’d be gone no more than an hour. George had other ideas. Climbing into his pickup truck, he quickly pulled out a nearly frozen six-pack of beer. He looked at me and said: “let’s head over to my place, get some shotguns, and see if we come across anything interesting. ” OK”, I said  agreeably; after all, I was on a hunt, not working, and there was free beer. 

George had a large family. Everyone of age to hunt, if they liked to or not, got a deer ticket every season. Those with no particular love or aptitude for deer hunting passed them along to George. George ensured that his large family always had venison in the freezer. George knew his way about the woods and hunting.

By the time we arrived at George’s house, the near-frozen beer had chilled us terribly. A few shots of peppermint schnapps were needed to defrost. By the time we hit the woods, we felt nice and warm. But, anything in the woods easily eluded us. Around 3 PM, we realized that we wouldn’t find anything to shoot at, our “buzz” was severely faded, and we had no Christmas tree. We began seriously hunting for spruces. The woods around us were mostly pine, and we had to walk a considerable piece to find spruces. Our diligence was rewarded, and we stumbled on a small copse of balsams. Any of them would be appropriate. George looked at me and indicated a nice seven-footer. We nodded to each other but then simultaneously realized that our plan was flawed. We were about a mile from the truck. We had no saw. And had to be back at the hospital in about an hour.

Well, we got our tree and got back to the hospital in time. We both had hangovers from running through snow-covered woods with seven-foot spruce on our shoulders while coming down from a lousy peppermint schnapps high. Bea, the operating room supervisor, said nothing as she eyed the tree and took in the shredded stump. The long look she gave it told everything. “How did you boys cut this poor thing down? with your teeth?” George looked at her, grinned, and said, “No. Buckshot”.

Stay tuned for my next Christmas Tree adventure in Maine.

Coastal Cooking – Finnan Haddie, & Chowder

Sunday at a Farmer’s Market, I discussed smoked vacuum-packed haddock with a vendor. While she extolled the virtues of her process, I merely proclaimed sotto vocce ” finnan haddie.” She caught my reverential whisper. The promise in her look implied that with the tiny vacuum-packed candy bar sized piece of haddock encased in plastic, this sacrament of coastal eating could be mine. I resisted sneering as I turned away. I had been used to servings of smoked haddock cooked slowly in cream, browned nicely, that tested your capability to push the dish away. This tiny piece was not going to do it.

I was not always enamored of things like Finnan Haddie. I grew up in New York City where they made soup – I can no longer refer to it as Chowder- out of clams in a tomatoey base. Being allergic to bivalves ( clams, oysters, scallops – you know), I couldn’t touch the stuff. But I never knew about fish chowder. So, I got a real education when I left “The City” for points north.

I learned rapidly that from an old New Englander that Chowder had initially been the term for the pot in which you cooked the soup. That person, from Sargentville on the Blue Hill peninsula, affirmed that no chowder would be authentic without the head of the fish included in the pot. Getting the eye in your bowl was great luck, and the cheeks and tongue delicacies.
I also learned that the head, eyes, cheeks, and tongues were not universal to everyone’s recipe. To diverge a bit, I learned that tongues and cheeks were a specialty dish of their own. The cod cheeks can be about the size of chicken thighs, but much more tasty, and the best part of the fish. Not everyone gets enthused about tongues; they can be a bit slimy and not to everyone’s taste. I rarely found anyone who had kind words about the eyes.
Now you’ll find me tucked away in someplace like Gordon’s in Portland, or maybe Bob Lobster in Newburyport inhaling a heaping bowl of Chowder. But the first time that dish was put in front of me, I was so impolite as to ask, “what’s the main course?” Of course, the Chowder was the main course, with ample addition of sea biscuit. I was taken aback. In New York, my experience was that a cup of Chowder was an appetizer. Here was a massive bowl with a mountain of fish heaped in the middle.

With regards to finnan haddie, it seems to have originated in the area of Aberdeen, Scotland and spread widely throughout England. With good haddock stocks available offshore in New England, it became a popular dish on the coast. I became familiar with it as a dinner item, but I understand that some in England prefer it as a breakfast food. Like the saying:” You can’t get there from here” you can’t get suitable ingredients for a great finnan Haddie out of a supermarket. That thin stuff they sell has been injected with water and been coated with something called “liquid smoke” rather than being correctly smoked. It’s an abomination.

Search for the real deal. As the saying goes, accept no substitutions. You won’t be sorry.

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