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Codfish Chowder and Sun

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

There are many kinds of picnics; but my kind is the only kind that satisfies so well that it lasts me through a whole year.

To begin with you must have the Maine coast. But more than that—a particular part of the Maine coast, Casco Bay with its islands, a new one for every day in the year, ranging in size from Great Chebeague and Great Island, each capable of supporting far-flung villages, to the Chunk o’ Pork and the Pound o’ Tea and Jello with its bushel of soil. And you must have my kind of a family—one in which there are enough babies sprinkled in among the grown-ups to keep a panoramic camera busy. A picnic without a dozen yards of grandchildren would be only half a picnic for my mother. Not any children at all will do, either; they must be babies who take life as a sunrise or a circus or both together even when they still go on all fours.

Then you must have islands with fir trees packed so closely together that you might walk along their tops, if you were spry, and you must have the myrrh of the balsams in your nose along with the smell of the sea all a summer’s day. It must be a day in August and one of the kind that you will find nowhere else on this round earth save Maine; northwest wind blowing the sky as clean and clear as a bell, a blue sky that you can fairly hear ring, and white galleons of clouds with flat keels which sail over by thousands and yet never get in the way of the sun. The sunshine turns everything to amber and crystal and pours over the world like a tide. You can hear it lapping the granite coasts. The whole world is very hot yet airy; you can smell the tar in the calking of the boats. Your face turns into a russet banner. Your brain turns into sunlight. The ocean grows darker and deeper blue between the white crests that are coming in from far Spain. The sea and the sun get in under your soul.

I cannot begin to tell you all the ingredients you mix together to make this day of bliss. Somewhere at the beginning you stir in a motor boat of the sort that is wide in the beam, good to hold a small army. You add spray all over everybody, especially the children; for my picnic would lack spice if all of us were not well drenched down with brine and salted down till our eyes were a fast blue. To have the best spray you need a flooding tide to kick up a chop against the wind. Throw into the picnic all the sandwiches, ginger ale, coffee, salads, fruit, cakes, and doughnuts you please, for nothing can spoil the mess. You have the safe sine qua non in the baskets at the bottom of the boat. Nothing could kill the flavor of the clams and lobsters you are carrying with you alive. The codfish are alive and waiting, too, out in the ocean you are heading into.

It is well to add an aunt who makes it a point to be prepared. She will have the salt and the pepper all done up in separate packages and marked against mistake; and she will have castor oil and all sorts of unguents and ointments for the aches and the burns the children are bound to collect. A dash of uncles who are landlubbers and who are finding their annual sea a moving and epic affair is always in order. And don’t forget the lady who will bring all sorts of cups and spoons and knives and forks that no one will possibly have time to use when you are all into the feast up to the eyes. A demijohn of cold spring water you surely must have. If it is the old-fashioned kind of crock with blue flowers painted on it by hand, so much the better. Add a pinch or two of song. For one should approach this picnic singing, or trying to sing.

After the many islands, all white with granite and dark green with spruces and cedars, all looking as bright and new as they looked on the morning of Creation, you must have the island where you are to land. I am the last person to be finicky, but this island should be absolutely like Pond Island. Now Pond Island has always been in the family along with my mother’s ladder-back chairs and melodeon. When they were young and quite brand-new to each other, mother and father lived one summer upon this jewel they had acquired soon after marriage. It was before most of us were born or “thought of,” as Maine folks delicately put the matter of generation. It was lucky for most of us, for, though the island is the very heart of a picnic, it is not for the everyday use of unhardy souls. The house they built had to be anchored down with chains; and the chains had to be moved each time the wind shifted. For Pond Island is the last place between Maine and Spain. There isn’t a tree on it; the twelve winds from the twelve corners of the sky use it for their playground. The spray of a sou’easter salts the springs that bubble up in its very center. The sheep that bite its grass have to be thickset and low to the earth; they carry, their heads raked like the stacks and masts of ocean craft. They are adopted cousins of the gales and the surf. The island can be smelt miles to the lee, since it is one mass of bayberry and juniper.

Pond Island has its name from the many ponds which pit its slopes. Years ago a lobsterman found a crock full of Spanish doubloons in a cleft of its rocks. That was enough to bring searchers for the treasure of Captain Kidd hither to dig in droves. All Maine fishermen believe in buried treasure. Why shouldn’t they, when any lobster pot may bring fortune flapping and kicking to the surface? But pirate legends are one of Maine’s richest crops. So you can judge the number of pits on the island. Yet richer than any jeweled crucifix any freebooters ever hoarded are the pools far out in the ledges where rock-crabs slide like great emeralds through crystal. All the shores slant down into deep water so clear that you can see great fish and more mysterious things fathoms down moving beautifully like thoughts one has in the starlight of a winter night. Mystery comes close up to the island, ribboned kelp and jellyfish that shine like dim moons. But one place, open to the open ocean and the White Bull, the reef which bellows and whitens forever with surf on the rim of the horizon, is the holy of holies of all the island’s windy beauty. It is Shell Cove, and it is heaped with the petals of flowers that blossom in the sea, white with shells of living things that flourished aeons ago and that will go on flourishing for aeons to come, God being willing and God being the lover of sheer, delicate, pearly things that He was of old. Upon this floor the long breakers curl over through the nights and the days, the years and the ages, over and over in arcs that are flawless and complete, patterns of rhythm akin to the rhythm of the circling stars. The tremendous whisper of the things the sea tries to tell to men runs through and through the hours like peace. The air is snowed with seagulls leaning their white breasts on the wind and holding it in the symmetry of their wings. Foam takes flight, and the clouds go over; the place is like Gilead and the cedars of Lebanon. Bones of ships are bleaching among the shells to be your firewood. It is here the feast must be spread. No, no other island will ever do.

The first thing to do is to put most of the babies, with suitable chaperones equipped to feed them, ashore on Pond Island. Those that can run can chase the butterflies which grow bigger out here and fly over like flakes of the clouds and the sky, and those that can only creep can wallow in the sand. The landlubber uncles are best dropped along with the infants and women. But the hardier picnickers are off for the heaving ridges of Lumbo Ledges and the cod which graze there. I shall not dwell on the angling for the savory ladings of the kettles. Deep-sea fishing is a means to an end; it has no beauty or sufficiency in itself. I have crossed the Atlantic a modest number of times, and in such rolling timber as the Santa Marta, of cursed memory, built to ferry bananas and yams on the Caribbean Sea but launched on greater waters without ballast in the desperate times of the War; but I have been sea-sick only once. That was deep-sea fishing in a motor launch that rolled in a scorching July sun on oily swells off Pond Island. The smell of the fish, the agony of the inexorable anchor, the double movement of the boat—it was such a combination of unspeakable things that undid me. When they put me ashore in their wrath on the island and went back to their fishing, I sat on the solid earth but was I not aware of its solidity. The island kept tipping up and sliding off just the way the boat had done. But I won’t spoil the picnic by remembering melancholy things.

Nor are the fish one catches in the ocean exciting things. If a twenty-pound cod had the fight of a trout in his inches, there would be few dories left over here to tell the tale; they would all be over by Spain. The bite of a haddock is like the bump of a sluggish automobile in the dark against a wall. There is no piquancy in it. Suppose a hake should take hold of your line like a bass! There is no blue lightning in salt water fishing this side of whales. There is no charm of the unexpected. After you have hooked something, it remains only to pull up, as one would saw wood, steadily and grimly to see whether one has gotten a hake or the anchor. Angling needs delicacy. The line you fish with here is a hawser, the hook is a grappling iron. This is business, not sport. The fish you catch, though, are satisfactory things. They flop over the boat bottom with belated surprise, bulge-eyed, and plump with their toothsome-ness. They have bronze spots on their sleek sides, and deep in their eyes shines the winter moon. They are ripe for the picnic.

The cod taken, you are for the shore and a fire. It is easy to get a cradle of coals as big as a bed with so much old timber frosty with salt lying all about. You fetch the big iron kettle that was cast to feed a family of the pioneer age. Sling it on a green fir-bole and put it over the blaze. Now begins the ritual of your chowder. First you cut salt pork into ribbons and throw it in. When it begins to seethe, throw in halved onions and fry them till they squirm like hissing adders. Dowse in half a jugful of water on the blue fumes. Cut up the codfish and throw them in heads and fins and all. Throw in salt by the fistful, pepper by the pound. Slice potatoes, and in with them. Keep the mess stirred up. Give everybody a stick. Let everybody stir. Too many cooks are the making of this broth. The more cinders and bark you get into the kettle the tastier the pottage. You stir in everything you can find. The spray from the sea, the iodine of kelp, the smell of bay-berry bushes scorching in the sun. Even the wind and the blue day, get into the chowder sooner or later. It is a wedding of sun and sea.

When the thing begins to smell like Kingdom Come and boils over for the third time, heave it off the fire and set it where everybody can ladle in. Here is molten manhood, liquid thews and sinews. Throw away the cups and spoons the innocency of the thoughtful aunt has prepared. Split sticks and clamp them on clamshells. There you have the only proper spoons for this chowder of the sun. Let everybody squat down on haunches like squaws, fall to, and dip in. By the time the fish are caught and cooked, everybody will be on the far slope of famine anyway, and boiled dogfish would taste like Esau’s pottage. But when the chowder before you is the very marrow of the sea and the milk and honey of paradise, you can see how thin the veneer we call civilization is. Aunts who would eat a Boston cracker so modestly that you would never be aware that eating was going on become gorging gluttons. Uncles with dyspepsia devour bones and all. The children wallow in savoriness to their eyes. Of course everybody burns his mouth. But burnt mouths are as much a part of picnics as soiled clothes. It would be well, though, to serve rubber ponchoes to the children along with the chowder. . . . Don’t forget to save the crinkly-edged lucky bones from the heads of the fish. They are fine to keep for pocket pieces; and I know a man who has good luck the whole year through for no other reason than that his breeches pockets rattle with them.

The rest is silence and orgy . . . Saint Gluttony! —Beulah Land!

  . . .  . . .  . . .

When the sharpest edges of hunger are dulled by the chowder, then it is time to fall upon the lobsters. They have been broiling in the coals, and you rake them out now, split them down the back, and pour in butter, salt, and pepper. I heard of a man once who thought broiled-live-lobster was a food of doubtful value; but that was many, years ago, and the man never lived long enough to grow wise. Some folks may turn up their noses, but for me the most delicate part of this creature that is all delicacy is the tomally. The tomally may be the entrails of the creature, but so are all the subtlest meats—heart, kidney, liver.

After the lobsters come the clams. I don’t mean those fat, hard-shelled imitations that pass for clams below Cape Cod; those things are quahaugs; we have them in Maine, but no one dreams of eating them. I mean the thin oval vases that have to be mined in the mud. These are really the crown of the feast. So one should leave some corner vacant in his frame for them. Now the kinds of clambakes are legion. But my way of baking clams is the only proper one. You build a series of fires and let them burn down to coals. Then you throw on a layer of rockweed fresh pulled from the water on each. You dump on a peck of clams on top of this and cover all with more rockweed. Then you let nature attend to the rest. And nature is the mother of miracles! I know there are those who roast clams in the open on iron grates and the sides of defunct cookstoves. I know there are those who play the mason and build elaborate fireplaces of bricks or stones. But all this artistry is sheer nonsense. When I am in the open, I cook as the open decrees. I want none of stoves. And when my clams are uncovered, they are wide open yet all have their juice within them, and they have the taste of the rockweed smoked into their every tissue. The best parts of the sea, the sky, and the earth meet in them. They melt away in the mouth and leave one thinking of what a splendid, round, and sufficient thing this old ball of an earth is. I have eaten the best feast the Old Dominion can spread; I have tasted the burnt honey which is the November sweetpotato taken ripe from the ground and roasted on the coals in a Virginian twilight; and an Uncle Remus of a negro brought oysters still dripping with the Chesapeake to give their flavor to the bake. To add piquancy, the yams were stolen that we had, and a long day of toying with the twelve-inch rifles of Fort Monroe had reduced us to a band of aching voids. But that banquet does not hold a candle to my native clams martyred in rockweed.

The series of clambakes is necessary, in my family. For, having finished one lot, we all move on to the next. It is a progressive feast. You may not believe it, but I know a woman who is a perfect mother and puts her children first always in all things; but when that lady starts eating clams she goes on through thick and thin to the last heap of shellfish; and her offspring might fall into the sea or immolate themselves in the coals, and she would never look up. Once annually she neglects her children; it is on our picnic.

After the clams are stowed away, if any one has a place for cake or sandwiches or such Monday and Tuesday things, let him fill it. But at the last pile of clams the numbers of us are few. Only the hardiest meet there. And by that time the day is well down.

We go home through the sunset on waters that spread benediction around. We do not notice the departure of the sun, for we have the sun under our belts; and sunshine will be ours for another whole year.


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