Sunday, September 25, 2011

Old School

Blogger's note:  Please excuse all the blatant product placement found below.  It's integral to my thoughts today.  I have no affiliation with any company mentioned, nor will I receive any compensation for mentioning them.  I just like their stuff.

I'm at home this weekend because of some family obligations, which is rare for me.  You're much more likely to find me up north at camp, down south at Brian's place, or somewhere in between every Friday evening through Sunday evening.  There are so many gorgeous and fulfilling opportunities outside, I've been known to go months without a quiet weekend at home.  The laundry piles up and the lawn slowly begins to resemble a Central American jungle, but there is no glory in folding underwear and nobody has ever looked cool carrying a weed whacker.  Ever.  Even the name is ridiculous.

As a Madisonian food lover and cook with little to do on a Saturday morning, sleep in my eyes and flannel trout pants twisted in an unruly monkey knot around my feet, it was both my right and obligation to stumble up out of bed to sentience, and get my heiney to the farmers market.  I'm told the Dane County Farmer's Market, held in the shadow of the capitol dome, is the largest producer-only farmers market in the country.  It is a wonderful place to take in as a cook.  The bounty literally overflows.  It's one of those places that makes me wish I were a competent photographer, able to freeze all those vibrant colors and resplendent heaps of harvest forever.  From the sprawling, verdant capitol lawn down to the tiny first spring onion of the year, it's a place that makes a person excited to know the difference between spanakopita and spelt.

It was cold yesterday morning.  Not twenty-below midwinter cold, but it sometimes feels like that early in the fall before your uncovered bits adjust to the nip.  With all the root vegetables showing up, and the mercury plummeting, there was only one thing to do.  Comfort food.  I could have gone with modern, updated comfort food -- squid ink new potato gnocchi or some faux hawk, ear gauge, neck tat stuff like that, but I was cooking for me.  I listen to Elgar and get flipped off for for driving too slow, not exactly punk rock.  With no need to twist exotic ingredients into a Kubrick orgy scene, the decision was made.  Chicken soup, with all the down home charm that implies, it would be.

Chicken soup is the poster child for homemade simplicity.  How can such an easy combination of common ingredients transform into such a mythic, satisfying dish?  I have no idea.  Even in it's most simple, old fashioned preparation, it manages to comfort and sooth, not to mention taste downright amazing.  There's always an element of surprise for me, in that I can chuck a bird, some stock, a few veggies, and a handful of herbs and spices in a pot, only to be greeted later by a classic, elegant ambrosia.  Personally, I'm not a fan of noodles mucking up my liquid gold, but you may be.  That's fine.  As with many things from folk art to fishing lures, the draw is often a product of what the individual grew up with.  To me, that means keep your floppy noodles outta my broth, and don't cook the veggies to structureless mush, thank you.

Braced against the wind and rain by my hearty soup, family obligations out of the way, I fell back on my standard weekend distractions that evening.  The home version of which can include a bottle or four of local microbrew, college football humming in the background, and care of outdoor gear.  As I took to seeing after my tools, it occurred to me that perhaps the draw of unpretentious, traditional food can be linked, in some way, to equipment of the same ilk.  Some of my treasured possessions are old hunting and fishing equipment.  Maybe that fascination with the "they just don't make it like they used to" feeling applies to gear as much as it does to comfort food.

Let me be clear.  The vast majority of my gear is up to date, space age derived, polycarbonate and resin stuff.  I happily fish graphite rods, standing in Gore-Tex waders, wearing shatter-resistant polarized sunglasses with lenses that change their tint based on available light.  I once read something about the microscopic silver halide crystals impregnated in the glass lenses, and how they react to UV light... then promptly forgot most of it.  Not that I even know what silver halide is to begin with.  All I do know is that sometimes it's nearly dark out before I remember to take them off.   That's some cool shit, and I see and catch more fish in the stream because of it.  I know it's true because the advertisers told me so.

Amidst all the toys bristling with the latest and greatest, there are a handful of gems either truly old or based on old designs and technology, traditional tools made from traditional materials that just ring true in your hands or on your back.

As I paid vague attention to LSU stomping West Virginia in the background, I pulled out my hunting knives to sharpen them.  No motorized grinders or ceramic sharpening rods, I was armed only with natural whetstones and honing solution.  I've dallied with all sorts of modern sharpening tools in the past, had varying degrees of success and failure with them, and finally settled on a couple traditional stones and plenty of patience.  Fitting, as the first knife I went to is almost three times as old as I am.

Marble Safety Axe Company began as a one room manufacturing facility behind the home of founder Webster L. Marble, legendary timber cruiser of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, in 1898.  They went on to produce knives and a great many other things, under a few different names, for about a century.  My model is called a Marble's Ideal, handed down to me after my grandfather, "Boompa," passed away.  With a stacked leather handle and blood groove, it was forged somewhere around 1922 in Gladstone, Michigan.  More than that, it belonged to a man I loved and admired.  It's a little shorter and wider than I usually like, and the handle is too stumpy for even my moderately sized hands.  Still, as much a talisman as a tool, I was thrilled to use it for the first time on those crop damage deer we harvested last weekend.  Just thinking of all the things it has been through, with it's slight pits and pocks, makes using it a pure joy.  It was embarrassingly dull last weekend, but I'm proud to report it is blunt no longer.  After plenty of time on the stones, resisting the urge to press too hard or go too fast, concentrating hard on angle and cutting surface, I'd like to think it now possesses an edge close to that which it carried when it first came off the line.  Ready for the next challenge, Boompa.

Of course, such important undertakings as knife sharpening and gun cleaning cannot be undertaken out of uniform.  In order to achieve the proper mental state, you must be dressed accordingly.  I think Buddha said that.  So I donned a Stormy Kromer, and got to work.

Somewhere around the turn of the last century George "Stormy" Kromer came up with the idea for the hat that still bears his name.  With a decidedly northwoods fashion bent, the stormy is not exactly Madison Avenue material, but man, is it ever comfortable.  As their poster says, "For fishin', huntin', or just plain wearin'," the simple wool and canvas construction, true to the original, never fails to warm the noggin, and always stays on in a stiff breeze.  The peculiar looking flaps rest in place around the back of the hat until that breeze takes on winter's bite, at which point they easily slide down to cover the ears.   It was a great design back then, and it still is today.  And I think the ladies secretly really like the look of a Kromer man.  I've had my eye on a new one in a cool newer pattern for a while now, as matter of fact.  They're practically required up north in the winter months.

After the zen-like repetition of sharpening a bunch of knives, it was time to get messy, time to wax the bibs.  C.C. Filson founded his company in Seattle in 1897, catering to the hordes of Klondike Gold Rush fortune-seekers with a line of tough-as-nails outdoor clothing and gear.  Filson's trademark Tin Cloth, basically canvas impregnated with paraffin, remains the toughest waterproof cloth you can find today, at least in my opinion.  In order to maintain the waterproof qualities, wax must be applied occasionally.  You take a heat gun or hair dryer, and just get in there with your hands, smearing warm wax into all the high wear areas.  It's a fun job for a formerly obsessed mud pie builder.

If I had to pick a single piece of outdoor clothing for the rest of forever, my Filson Double Tin Bibs would be the obvious choice.  If only because they might last that long.  They are the best of all worlds, and have been for more than a hundred years.  A boon for the upland hunter, they withstand the thickest stands of Prickly Ash, briars, and Buckthorn with ease.  Where synthetic waterproofs would be shredded, where Cordura brush pants would be soaked, Tin Cloth outshines them all.  If you're looking for gentle comfort, look elsewhere.  These things practically stand up on their own out of the box, the closest you can come to wearing aluminum siding, they need some serious breaking in before you stop walking like the Tin Man.  But you can charge through the nastiest cover in them without becoming an involuntary blood donor or drowned rat, then plop down on any convenient stump for a water break without getting a soggy bottom.  Totally worth it.

The "Good Old Days" should not always be lovingly fawned over through rose colored glasses.  Times were often tough, with hardscrabble men and women barely squeezing out a meager existence.  Modern life definitely has it's advantages.  I like modern dentistry, anesthetics, and using the loo indoors when it's colder than hell outside.  That being said, occasionally men like Filson, Kromer, and Marble really hit the nail on the head.

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