Beaver stew, anyone?
The Adirondack Cookbook features a smiling young man on the cover, a pipe in his mouth and two big strings of fish in his hands. Of course an Adirondack cookbook should contain recipes for trout, but there are also recipes in this small spiral-bound book for these mountain edibles: wild turkey, eel, squirrel, squab, snapping turtle, bear, duck, rabbit, beaver, and grouse. Fortunately authors Hallie Bond and Stephen Topper include recipes for more familiar local ingredients like potatoes, apples, maple syrup, and blueberries.
Bond is a historian who worked for many years at the Adirondack Museum. Topper is a chef who has worked in several restaurants in the Adirondacks. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Adirondack Cookbook contains a good deal of history as well as recipes.
Indeed, what makes this cookbook interesting even to an armchair cook are the historical photos and Adirondack food lore that accompany each recipe. Across from the instructions for Spiced Apple Fritters is a photo from 1882 of Old Mountain Phelps sitting outside with a pipe and a newspaper. He’s reading aloud to his wife, who has a paring knife in her hand and a huge bowl of apples in her lap. Against the wall of their house is a wooden frame from which hang an astonishing number of strings of apple slices. The hours and hours of hand labor required to create those dozens of strings of dried apples remind us of how hard nineteenth-century cooks had to work to bring food to the table.
A recipe for Buttermilk-Fried Rabbit Loin has with it a 1922 photo of men at the Lake Placid Club holding up the catch of the day, snowshoe hare. In a paragraph at the bottom of the page, the authors explain how buttermilk is produced and why it is useful in baked goods and rabbit recipes (it tenderizes the meat).
At first it disconcerted me that while the photos are old, the recipes are new. Lentil-Stuffed Yellow Squash includes fresh tarragon and olive oil, while Marinated Skirt Steak uses chipotle peppers and a liter of Pepsi. But one point of this interesting project is to showcase new Adirondack recipes with the tradition that helped create them.
I decided I couldn’t review a cookbook without trying a few recipes. With no snapping turtle or bear meat on hand, I turned to Green Beans and Shaved Red Onion Salad. It didn’t have too many ingredients, and I got to put liquids in a jar, shake them, and produce a vinaigrette. The green beans in this recipe are cooked for only one minute in boiling water so they have a fresh, crunchy texture. Previous generations of Adirondack cooks would have cooked their green beans for much longer and served the mushy result with plenty of butter or margarine. (In 1910 Henry Clare took his wife Lucelia’s butter and eggs into Cranberry Lake to sell. He brought the butter back unsold because, Lucelia wrote in her journal, “everybody is using Oleo.”) As I munched my oliveoiled green beans, I learned that the Mohawk and Abenaki people grew over sixty varieties of beans and often added them to their sagamite, a boiled cornmeal soup that was a daily staple.
I also tried the Spiced Winter Squash, another easy recipe, and the crisp orange cubes tasted like spicy French fries, without the grease. Of course I had to try a dessert recipe. The instructions for Honey Oatmeal-Stuffed Baked Apples said to use an apple corer, not a utensil in my kitchen, but a sharp knife worked well to make deep wells in my apples. I had too much stuffing and had to mound it on top of the apples. This created a delicious, buttery caramel in the bottom of the pan, a sweet addition to this traditional autumn treat.
My favorite recipe in the book is a dessert that millionaire Marjorie Merriweather Post Close Hutton served at her lavish Camp Topridge (sixty-eight buildings and eighty-five employees) near Paul Smiths. I found it amusing that this rich dessert was a favorite of the sophisticated Marjorie as it was also a popular treat at the rustic tables in logging camps, and it was a handy way to use up breakfast leftovers. Layered Pancake and Maple Dessert has only three ingredients: eight pancakes, one cup of butter, and a cup and a half of maple syrup. The syrup and butter are heated together and ladled over one pancake at a time in a round pan. When the stack of cakes is completely soused in calories it is chilled.
When it’s time for dessert, cut into wedges and serve, on fine china or chipped enamel plates.
I did wonder if Adirondack Cookbook concentrates a bit too much on exotic Adirondack meat recipes that almost no one will cook. But then I remembered the day a few years ago when a neighbor stopped by for a visit and brought a pot of stew. My friend enjoys cooking with wild game, but the meat in this stew looked darker than venison.
“What’s the meat?” I asked.
“Try it,” my friend said, with a little too much of a grin.
I hesitated but after several spoonfuls, including a morsel of the mystery meat, I declared the stew delicious. “It’s beaver. I met a trapper coming out of the woods below my place, and he only wanted the pelt.”
I took another bite of the stew, rich with vegetables and the meat of a large rodent. As Stephen Topper writes before his recipe for Beaver Stew, “Sometimes beaver can be a hard sell to get people to try it, but I have never had someone try it and not like it.”