Thursday, February 17, 2011


Each year, a growing number of country villages across Italy cordon off their downtown areas and host open-air street festivals dedicated to the celebration of “slow food” – a phenomenon which has given birth to an international counter-insurgency movement decrying the world’s obsession with what for want of a better term we call “Fast Food”. While I tend to be suspicious of all “movements” which threaten to become socio-political cults, I find comfort in the renewed focus on the idea that we would be happier people if we took more time to savor and appreciate the food we eat.
As a young boy, I was invited by their son to spend some time on a small farm in upstate New York, owned by an Italian family we had come to know in a more urban environment. The parents of my friend were immigrants from Sicily, and on their newly-acquired farm they had embraced a return to the country life they had once known in the “old world”. While I was already thoroughly-indoctrinated into the ethic of family dining (I had a mother who required our attendance at the kitchen table if we wanted to eat), I was unprepared for life with the Bruno Bralla family, where the thick board table was piled high with a dozen different kinds of smoked meats, sausages and cheeses, including rounds of Provolone and lengths of Pecorino which hung from the low ceiling on cords and from which each person was free to cut off slices and chunks. We each were equipped with a wooden platter, a large very sharp knife, a thick glass of red wine, and total freedom. One could choose home-cured veal, pancetta, salami, mortadella, capacolla, breseaola, prosciutti, or a variety of pickled peppers and marinated olives, which we could pile on the half-loaves of crunchy bread we pulled apart by hand. It took an hour to eat, all the while Senior Bralla regaled us with stories of his former life as a smuggler in the Italian Alps. And you had time to taste everything in its own moment!
Science tells us that we humans possess four well-known and long-identified taste centers, scattered around the mouth, tongue and palate. We distinguish sweet, sour, bitter and salty, and from these neuro-sites, signals are sent to the brain. They help to activate the metabolic system that converts what we eat into what our bodies need and, given time, when we should stop eating. (Satiation takes about twenty minutes.) All of this is interesting and helpful, but there is more.
Since around 1908, we have known there is a fifth taste center. Isolated by Professor Kibunae Ikeda of Tokyo University, it was given the Japanese symbol for “delicious taste” which translates into the spoken word “umami”. The closest word in the English language which has some equivalency is “savory”, thus a food which is imbued with umami we might say is possessed of “savoryness”, or perhaps, “meatyness”. The chemical which produces this taste quality is a glutamate, and can be found in many non-meat foods, such as cooked mushrooms, certain kinds of seaweed and in things like anchovies, and pastes made from these sources.
One of the joys of cooking lies in the art of using ingredients, combinations, and kitchen science to discover and amplify the almost limitless nuances of tastes and flavors with which to bring pleasure and enjoyment to those who dine with us. In no other venue can we touch the creative possibilities available to us in quite the same way. This being true, why don’t we slow down, leave the world outside, and give the inner self time to explore, savor and relish the culinary gift of the moment ?
Years ago we were able to visit with the late Scott and Helen Nearing on their self-sufficient homestead on Maine’s Point Rosier, where they had settled to live and write about their search for happiness. They explained to us why they chose to eat with chop sticks from the simple wooden bowls in which they served up the daily fare from their gardens, berry patches, orchards, root cellar and greenhouse. “We have found”, Helen said, “that we are better able to concentrate on each morsel, consider where it came from and give our palate the opportunity to celebrate life deliberately, piece by piece”.
From a health standpoint, we are told that if we eat slowly, we will improve digestion, avoid high acidity, and eat less. Some say it can amount to a lifelong weight-control strategy. What I know for sure is that good food, well and lovingly-prepared is too great a gift to take for granted or to disrespect with thoughtless, thankless and “high-speed” consumption. In my quest for the mythical umami, a fifth taste tells me this is true.

A simple meal of fruit, crusty peasant bread, and a well- aged cheese invites diners to eat slowly, enjoy conversation, and linger long enough to savor time spent in carrying out an ages-old human tradition.

A meal guaranteed to titillate all five taste centers, a Dutch oven of home-made file gumbo brings together four diverse culinary cultures in an amalgam of at least fifteen key ingredients; a marriage of Spanish “Creole”, French” Cajon”, Choctaw Indian, and African “Carib” food traditions.

Photos by Al Cooper


It will come as no surprise to those who know me and follow my word-ramblings that I cannot hide for long my special love for coastal New England; it is a sad burden to bear if a year passes without a return to my private “Mecca-by-the-sea”, no matter how brief.
It has become my Maine habit to rise early each morning in order to pay an anonymous visit to a nearby wharf where I can observe the start of a “fishermen’s day”, as lobster boats line up at the fuel dock, take aboard blue barrels of bait, and, amid the burbling of diesels and the cry of gulls wend their way, one by one, through the narrow passage from New Harbor to the waiting Atlantic.
On one memorable occasion, I was late in getting there, disappointed to realize I had missed the moment. The local “fleet” had already sailed. All except one boat. I watched as a lone teen age boy, in yellow boots and ragged jacket prepared his small, unsophisticated lobster boat just beneath the overhanging dock from which I watched. I was not alone. Within easy ear-shot were two old-time “locals”; grizzled men of the sea who no longer plied the trade, but were always there, watching, measuring, still attached by a lifetime of memories to a way of life which would always define them. Finally, the neophyte lobsterman cast off, his final purchase – a six pack of Coca Cola – lowered to him by dock workers, as the two old timers watched critically. I could sense a touch of mild disapproval, even in their silence. Then one took his pipe from his mouth, and amid curls of blue smoke said to his companion in a grudging bit of Down-East understatement “Wal, he may be late, but he always goes”.
You would have to have grown up among these seemingly-gruff, and unarguably laconic “Yankees” to understand – as I did – that a great compliment had just been shared. Over the years, that mental picture and those words have stayed with me: “He may be late, but he always goes”. There is much to be said for the old fashioned virtue of persistence; that inborn tenacity which drives people to honor some tradition, cause, or ethic even when it is difficult or uncomfortable to do so. Inherent in the lives of these Maine lobster fishermen can be seen a respect for old values, and a quiet kind of integrity which never fails to warm my heart and restore a flagging pride in my race.
Lobsters from the cold waters of the northeast are – to be sure – the king and queen of seafood. However, to the truly initiated, a “Maine Lobster” (Homarus americanus) is in a special league, and a “Monhegan Lobster” is supreme. In the waters around Monhegan Island, nature, (and man) have been especially kind to this culinary crustacean which, for a number of reasons grows larger and more delectable there. And they sell for a higher price! Many years ago, the lobstermen of Monhegan got together and decided to limit the length of their fishing season and the size of their catch, believing that the extra-large specimens should be protected as “breeders”;all of this when there were no such limits on lobstering in other Maine waters. What’s more, they discouraged (in their own way) poaching by “outsiders”.
As a matter of long tradition, their self-imposed season would run from January 1st into the month of June, the exact starting day determined by common consent in an annual meeting. For weeks, the local fishermen would stack their repaired and weighted traps beside the island’s wharf as they prepared for the magic day known as “Trap Day”, honor bound to the idea that all should have an equal chance of success. This ideal came to a test one year when the wife of one of their number was taken seriously ill, and was being treated in a mainland hospital, where her husband remained at her side. Not only did the Monhegan men see to it that his traps and boat would be ready upon his return weeks later, but that no boat would launch until they could all launch. “Trap Day” on Monhegan Island – to this day – takes place when everyone is ready to go.

Lobster traps help to frame the approach to Monhegan Island’s lone dock, connected by a network of hiking trails to Cathedral Woods, the stone lighthouse and the 200 foot cliffs which drop off sharply into a breaking sea on the island’s east side. The small harbor is protected by tiny Manana, an islet where Viking artifacts have been found.

Maine lobstermen at Round Pond help each other to load traps, floats and gear for a day off-shore. From here, it is a twelve mile run out to Monhegan. A two-man crew might maintain and harvest from 100 to 200 traps, attached to floats painted with their unique licensed color scheme. Each float might be tied to six or eight traps which are usually “pulled” daily, in all kinds of weather.

An old and weathered “fish shack” acts as a community bulletin board on Monhegan Island, a favorite destination for artists and tourists in the summer months, but year-round home to fewer than one hundred hearty residents. The entire island comprises little more than one square mile. It was probably the first point on the New England coast to have been visited by Europeans.
All Photos by Al Cooper


Sometime in 1831, and probably on a South Carolina railroad, a local postmaster in a hurry got the idea of asking a locomotive engineer to hand-carry a mail pouch to another destination along the line, thereby beating the best stage coach delivery by a noteworthy margin. This, and other such experiments, no doubt brought attention to the British Railway System which had begun doing the same thing on the Liverpool to Manchester route a year earlier, using special mail carriages. On July 7, 1838 the U.S. Congress designated all railroads as official postal routes, and the age of steam was poised to alter the whole concept of communication across the growing expanse of North America.
In 1862, as the American Civil War was entering its second year, the “railway post office” came into being, with converted baggage cars put into service on the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad, which in turn connected with the Pony Express. In the years to come an important step forward was made when cars were especially designed to facilitate the sorting and bundling of mail en route, eliminating the need for pre-sorting at both ends, and making possible delivery at way points in between.
Railroad Postal Offices (RPO’s) would become the very backbone of rapid mail delivery in America, and would remain so for another century, finally phasing out in the 1960s, as commercial aviation and the Interstate highway system matured, and railroads declined. (As a matter of fact, many railroad systems had depended on U.S. Mail contracts for their existence as passenger traffic had fallen off.)
Over the years, the RPO turned into a highly-efficient “post office on wheels”, manned by a select group of mail clerks who worked long hours on their feet in a 70-mile-per-hour, clicking, rolling and bouncing environment, where they had to memorize hundreds of details of information in order to anticipate ultimate destinations spanning thousands of miles of delivery routes; they were unable to rely on printed references or schedules of any kind. As a youth, I knew one of these devoted postal employees, who was seldom at home, but sound asleep during the hours when he was. He was the father of a “best friend”, and I came to think of him as a “ghost”.
In order to serve the many towns through which passenger trains traveled without stopping, mail pouches were picked up from high-speed hooks suspended beside the tracks at the same instant a RPO clerk would kick a sack of mail for that destination out the open door. It should be pointed out that this was dangerous duty anyway. Because the mail car was at the front of the train, (usually right behind the coal tender), derailments, collisions and other train mishaps found the crews in an exposed position.
And that brings us to the second part of this story.
On a cold autumn night in the “blizzard year” of 1888, postal workers in Albany, New York found a puppy nestled among a pile of mail sacks in their office. A mixed-breed terrier, the waif became a resident of the place, finding a mysterious attachment to mail sacks, whether fabric or leather. He seemed only happy and content when in contact with the U.S. mail. One day, he thus managed to find his way to a mail train and embarked on his first rail journey, returning to the Albany post office to the amazement of his benefactors who continued to feed and care for him. This was just the beginning of a travel career which would span nine years for the “Post Office Pooch” who picked up the name “Owney”. (Nowhere can I find any recorded origin for the name.) Wishing to insure his care and safe return from the increasingly distant journeys, the workers affixed a harness and label to Owney, requesting as well that postal employees at distant destinations would attach some kind of tag or adornment as evidence of his travels.
In the years to come, Owney would accumulate a total of 1,017 tokens, medals and trinkets, each of which would be preserved by his caretakers at the Albany office. Owney became not only the mascot of the Albany staff, but a sought-after traveler on cars of the railway postal service where he was looked upon as a “good luck” mascot. As long as the Terrier was cuddled among the mail bags loaded aboard, no accident would ever befall a train on which he rode. (Between 1890 and 1900, 80 railway postal clerks were killed and 2000 injured in a record number of wrecks and accidents across the U.S.!)
As if his hundreds of rail journeys were not record enough, Owney made a round-the-world trip, by steamship and train in 1895, visiting Japan (twice), China, the Suez, Algiers and the Azores, returning to Albany 132 days and 143,000 miles later. Convinced that the traveling terrier must belong to someone of importance, Japanese officials issued Owney an Imperial Passport, entitling him to travel anywhere in the world.
Worn out and nearly blind, Owney retired from the Postal Service in 1897, and died shortly thereafter. . A preserved Owney stands today in a glass display case along with his collection of tags and tributes at the U.S. Post Office Museum in Washington, D.C.

Shown with some of his one thousand-seventeen medals, Owney the Postal Pooch is pictured late in his adventuresome life. Smithsonian Photo

The interior of a Railway Post Office of the 1940s shows the system of folding mailbag holders, and the crowded working area in which the highly-trained RPO staff sorted and processed mail. A fully restored postal car can be seen at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento.
Catskill Archive Photo