Friday, February 17, 2012


Courtesy Salumi Artisan Meats - Seattle

Long before the Great Renaissance swept across Europe, and probably even in the earliest days of the Greek and Roman empires, people had learned to preserve animal protein from season to season by salting, curing and smoking all kinds of meat. Before the relatively recent convenience of “electric refrigeration” and even in the days when ice cut from lakes and ponds extended the shelf life of farm and home meat products, the ancient craft of “Charcuterie” was honored and passed on from generation to generation. My life-long interest in food history has convinced me that nowhere on planet earth can one find such a happy confluence of food traditions as here in the “New World” we call America. Not only is our continent the birthplace of food species which have fed the entire world since the voyages of Columbus, but those who later immigrated here brought to our land methodologies of food preparation which enrich us in profound ways; none perhaps more compelling in their great variety and gourmet delight than the art of “Charcuterie”.
            In Pennsylvania alone, the promise of religious freedom drew Bavarians, Hessians, Alsatians and Swiss in large numbers, their mixed ancestry usually catalogued rather carelessly as the “Pennsylvania Deutsch”, many of them of an Anabaptist faith, including the Amish and Mennonites. They lived close to the soil and practiced a frugal philosophy: they used every part of the animals they raised and filled their root cellars with the fruit of the land. They were sausage-makers and pickling kings supreme, putting up jaggerwurst, thuringer, landjagger, Deitscher Gans (“Dutch Goose”), and of course my favorite bratwurst. Their domesticated rabbits went into hasenpfeffer, or jugged hare, unused beef cuts into saurbratten, and the birds they hunted into fasaneworscht (or pheasant sausage). The thymus glands of their livestock became world-famous sweetbreads, and it is laughingly said even the squeal of their pigs was bottled for winter fare. All of this thanks to long-rooted skills in the use of curing salt, vinegar, spices and smoke. In my travels, I love to visit certain communities in Lancaster and York counties in Penn- sylvania and the villages near Kidron, and in Holmes county, Ohio. There we can feast on such century-sweetened treasures as these.
            I was blessed to grow up close to Italian-immigrant communities, and to absorb the taste and smell of sizzling sausages being grilled by itinerant street vendors. The sandwiches in the lunch boxes of my Sicilian school-mates always overflowed with such “cold cuts” as mortadella, (carelessly called baloney by the uninformed),capicolla, Tuscan salami, sopressata, prosciutto ham, pepperone, and (my favorite) pastrami. Our local butcher shop, with sawdust covering the wood floors, always hung with such savory tubes and globes of meaty magic, and Mr. Schuster always saved the ends and odd pieces for small boys whose eyes filled with wonder at the taste of old-world treats fresh from the smoker.
            The American “tasting table” goes on with Loukanika from Greece, kielbasa from Poland, chorizo from Spain and Mexico, breakfast bangers from England, and lap chong (smoked pork), from China.  I leave for last my love affair with all things Cajun and Creole, and the andouille and boudin blanc sausages without which my “filet gumbo” and “jambalaya” would be the poorer. (I now slow- smoke my own andouille.) And of course, old fashion corned beef ,(the mother of all meaty providence) is a regular feature in my basement curing crock. For a basic curing brine for five pounds of meat, I would use 2 cups of kosher salt, a half-cup of sugar, 2 cloves of minced garlic and two tablespoons of mixed pickling spice  in one gallon of water, brought to a simmer and cooled down in a five-gallon non-metallic container, such as a plastic storage bucket. Keep the brisket or other cut submerged with a weight for 3 to 5 days in the coolest possible place. (It is a good idea to add 4 teaspoons of “pink salt” – sodium nitrite to the brine as a health safety precaution and to insure a nice color to the finished product.)  A double rinse with clear water after brining and the corned beef will be ready for the required cooking.
            If I were preparing a ham or bacon, I would perform a dry cure of salt and sugar, and then a slow cold smoke over hickory wood, followed by a hot smoke for an internal temperature of 180 degrees F. NOTE: Cold smoking requires special equipment and experience. A good resource for pink salt and other curing supplies is  

Home-made pastrami is a special treat. The author first made a regular corned beef from a small rump cut, then rolled it in toasted and crushed pepper corns and coriander seed before smoking it over apple chips for more than an hour.     Al Cooper Photo

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Back in the early nineteenth century, when road travel was limited at best, getting Maine’s timber out of the woods and into the markets which so desperately hungered for it most often depended on river travel.  Legendary waterways like the Kennebec, the Androscoggin, the Allagash and the Saco became avenues of commerce with their storied log drives, connecting ports and commercial hubs with the Pinetree State’s forested interior.
Sometime around 1847, it became important to connect the great waters of Lake Sebago in southwestern Maine, with the Songo river and the maize of rivers, lakes and ponds which flowed into it north of the town of Naples.  To make the river more navigable for boat and barge traffic, a dam was built in order to fill the shallows below Brandy pond.  To make the step between the levels, a set of locks had to be built and operated along a lonely stretch of the river, and so the Songo Locks were born.
Little has changed over the years except that today’s river travelers are mostly recreational boaters, seeking the adventure of slow scenic meandering through some of Maine’s most beautiful countryside.  The locks are still operated by hand, raising and lowering the coming and going river traffic, one fifteen-minute lockful at a time.  The whole procedure is complicated by the fact that a low bridge crosses the Songo just above the lock station, and if occasional road traffic happens to coincide with boat traffic, the old bridge – a swing bridge – must be opened and closed accordingly.  The bridge is also hand-operated.
The tour group of Utahns I was leading one lovely October day, were listening eagerly as the friendly lock master was explaining all of this to us in the parking lot adjacent to his tiny lock-side shack.   So intent were we all, that the rather excited warning whistle of an approaching pleasure boat took us all by surprise.
“Can you folks help me “ he asked, with some exasperation, “I am all alone today !”  Four of us happened to be of the “Guy” persuasion, and so we were quickly dispatched with precise instructions. Duane and Ian helped open and close the lock gates, while Darryl and I ran to operate the swing bridge, turning the ancient hand crank to swing the bridge out from over the waterway just in time to accommodate the approaching water craft.
            It all went well, and we were still laughing about our unplanned and exciting interlude at Songo Locks when we arrived, a half hour later, in North Conway, New Hampshire – a REAL tourist mecca with five miles of “Factory Outlet” temptations. A world-famous steam-powered railway also operates from Conway, and I chose to park our rental van in its expansive parking lot near town-center. From long experience as a tour guide, I issued specific orders as our group dispersed in various directions, setting an absolute deadline for departure. (I knew all about the town’s seductive appeal to shoppers.)
            As departure time arrived, everyone was back and ready to go. Except Darryl. He was nowhere in sight. This was so uncharacteristic of his almost-obsessive sense of duty and time-consciousness that we began to worry. A long tourist train was slowly chugging its way out of the depot, and as the caboose finally passed by, there stood our AWOL traveler, crossing the nest of intermingling tracks in the switching yard. “Where have you BEEN!” We all asked at once.
            “Well”, the unrepentant Darryl explained, “I was just standing here minding my own business when this train conductor came running up and asked me if I had ever operated a train switch before. When I told him no, he said ‘well, you’re going to learn real fast; follow me’ The next thing I know, I have the job of switching that train that just passed, from one set of tracks to another. Sorry to be late”.
            And so. . . in a single morning we had operated the Songo Locks, hand powered a swinging bridge, and manually switched a passenger train.
            Guests who have been with me on subsequent tours no doubt have wondered why I break into a fit of soft laughter when we pass a roadside arrow sign pointing to “SONGO LOCKS”.

Monday, February 6, 2012


The story of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ all-black combat flying unit known as “The Tuskegee Airmen” has been told and retold by Hollywood film and television producers – most recently in the motion picture called “Red Tails”. In almost every case, the emphasis – and much of the attendant story-line – has been on the racial aspects of their unique place in military and social history. That would be understandable but for the fact that it almost entirely overlooks the legacy which those dedicated flyers left for us and for which they deserve to be most remembered.
            It would be difficult, if not impossible, to tell their story without beginning with that of a figure who in my mind – as a proud Air Force veteran myself – is a larger-than-life military hero. Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. (1912-2002), was born in Washington, D.C. to a military family. During the worst of the “Jim Crow” era, he managed to attend university, and graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the top 15% of his class in 1936. During those four excruciating years, he ate and roomed by himself, and was completely shunned by his classmates with the approval of the staff, in the hope he would drop out. No one spoke to him unless absolutely required by duties for four lonely years. Cadet Davis persevered.
            After receiving his commission, and serving in a number of assignments, he was sent to teach military history to students at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, a black campus and a socially “safe” assignment in the minds of military leaders not wishing to embarrass themselves with segregation-minded observers. At the time, with war raging and the battlefield calling, he assumed command of a training unit which would “experiment” with the controversial idea of black pilots. At that moment he became one of only two black field commanders in all the U.S. military: one himself, Major Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the other Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. – his father!
            The men selected to train at Tuskegee were educated, dedicated to the idea of proving their excellence, and crafted by Davis into one of the most highly-disciplined and self-confident flying units of WWII. They flew outdated Curtis P-40 fighters into combat without complaint and with considerable success. Eventually the original 99th Pursuit Squadron were combined with the 100th, 101st and 102nd Squadrons to become the 332nd Fighter Group of the 15th Air Force, with Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. commanding them.  Flying out of Italy with newer and faster P-51 Mustangs, they were assigned to escort and protect – at all costs - B-24 Liberators and B-17 Fortresses on long missions deep into the heart of Nazi Germany, including one historic flight of 1600 miles to Berlin. They became famous to the bomber crews because of their disciplined commitment to defending the “heavies”, not gallivanting after enemy fighters to achieve individual victories.  They were widely recognized because of the bright red paint of their spinners and tail assembly. The fact that these “Redtails” were flown by black pilots and kept flying by black ground staff was not widely known at the time.
            On the ground, Davis’s firmly-disciplined men did not engage in conflicts with their white comrades-in-arms, cause problems in civilian communities, or above all act like “school kids” in the cockpit; they had too much self-respect to bring dishonor upon themselves or the commanding officer who had imbued them with the sense of pride which touched them for the rest of their lives.
            In all, 996 proud Americans flew as Tuskegee Airmen in WWII, supported by 15,000 fellow crewmen on the ground. They flew more than 15,000 combat sorties and 200 escort missions, shooting down 111 German planes and destroying another 150 on the ground. In search-and-destroy missions, they wiped out hundreds of railroad trains, convoys and other ground targets, and sunk an enemy Destroyer at sea. On the final Berlin mission, they managed to shoot down three much superior Me-262 jet fighters; and in all of this, only 25 of the thousands of U.S. bombers they were sworn to protect were lost to enemy fighter action during the 332nd’s entire tour of duty.
            Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen were killed in action, while 32 became prisoners of war. Between them they received 150 Distinguished Service Crosses, 744 Air Medals, 8 purple hearts and 14 Bronze Stars.  More importantly, these dedicated Americans loved and honored their country, the cause they fought for, and each other.  And that is the way I choose to remember them.

After 34 years of active duty service, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr .retired as a  Lieutenant General, later becoming a four-star General (as had his father). He was largely responsible for making the U.S. Air Force the first of the Services to end segregation.

 Members of the 332nd Fighter Group (The “Red Tails”) attend a pre-mission briefing in Italy.  Over the years, the surviving Tuskegee Airmen have remained close friends, holding regular reunions. They are in their 80s and 90s today. Another of their number, Daniel “Chappie” James retired as a 4-star General in 1975.
Smithsonian Archives