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January 06, 2016: “Little Night” on “Little Christmas”

January 6, 2016

 

Moo's Minestrone SoupI get this Christmas article done just under the wire: today is the last day of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Today, January 6th, is known as “Little Christmas” or (in Irish) “Nollaig na mBan” otherwise know as “The Feast of the Epiphany” when the wise men, according to tradition, gave the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ-child. It is also the day, James Joyce used to place in time one of my favorite short stories, “The Dead.”

It is quite appropriate that I should publish this on “Little Christmas” as it concerns the Christmas dinner I made for my family, which I called “Little Night.” Swaseys+DogsFor a while now, I have been promising a “Big Night” for my folks. This is a dinner based after one of my most favorite foodie films of that name. The film features some of the most amazing Italian food in cinema, and my idea is to make a number of dishes from the film to serve after my family seeing the film. Christmas, of course, has too much going on to devote all that time to cooking, so I thought I would give my family a scaled-down version to whet their appetite…hence, “Little Night.”

One of our family traditions for some time was developed when, years ago, I made Minestrone Soup at Christmas and it was a universal hit. Even the guys who won’t eat veggies (…and you know who are…Stephen Swasey…oh, did I just type that?!!!) liked it. A tattered copy of my recipe has been hanging around for some time, and the actual dish has been duplicated so well by others, that I haven’t made it at Christmas for years now. Moo did an excellent job with this years’ batch. The rest of the meal was mine, ‘tho. We had:

Moo’s Minestrone Soup Chicken Roasted in Spiced Dough Bow Tie pasta with Greens Fancy Salad Tiramisu Chicken B-Ball

The chicken dish is called “Pollo al Sal” or chicken roasted in a salted dough. The dough spices the meat as it traps all the delicious moisture in. The dough bakes as the chicken roasts. At the end of cooking (dubbed the “chicken basketball” by the guys by virtue of how it looked) and after resting, you break the dough with a hammer and you have the most tender chicken of your life! We decided to substitute fresh herbs (rosemary, and thyme) instead of salt for a healthier, tastier chicken.Hammering Chicken

My next dish was a bit of a flop…this time. I usually make the bow tie pasta dish with broccoli raab, a slightly bitter veggie that looks like broccoli gone to seed. It sweetens very nicely when you saute it with garlic in olive oil and sweet red peppers. Trouble was…I couldn’t find broccoli raab anywhere, so I substituted dandelion greens instead. This ended up a little too bitter for most of my family’s taste. I also made the mistake of grilling the parmesan cheese which ended up hardening the pasta a bit. Microwave always has worked for me in the past. Lesson: stick to what works for the basic dishes.Plated Chicken+Pasta Salad

My salad was nice with a center of lentils cooked in olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and spices. This was covered with exotic greens, matchsticked fennel, fresh mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, clementine sections, all topped with a blood-orange olive oil and wine vinegar. The salad tasted very good, but I need to work on my salad-arranging skills for the next big meal.

My Tiramisu has been perfected over the years, and I love especially it near Christmas. When I found out that Nickki my niece liked it, I had to make it! Most recipes use beaten raw egg yolks. I cook mine with kaluha, beating all the while, to make zabaglionTiramisue, an Italian light custard, which I then cool before whipping in the marscapone (an Italian cream cheese.) I could not find espresso either, so I brewed a strong coffee and concentrated its brewing to get a good substitute. I also could not find spiced cocoa, so I made my own. Then, it’s all assembly: lightly dip lady fingers in the coffee, a layer of the custard, sprinkle of spiced cocoa, and shaved dark chocolate. Cover and chill. I save the top layer of chocolate shaving until just before serving. Steve+Sophie“Little Night” was my gift, but my family spoiled me rotten with gifts of their own, with the charming company of four lovely dogs, as well as their own sparkling personalities!

[Thanks to Stephen Swasey for all photos, except the one of the family (me) and the one of me and Sophie (Nickki)]

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December 01, 2015: “Rice Noodle Fish”

December 1, 2015

RNF_Cover_smOne of the joys I have these days is the occasional contact from some of my students from my old job that choose to stay in touch with me. Not only is it a pleasure to see these fine people as they progress through life, but it makes me think that I just may have done a few things right in my old position.

Sometimes it’s fielding Facebook posts from Sarah on her career as one of the finest wedding photographers in New England. Once and a while I’ll get a very entertaining Twitter from Regan’s son, Mason…or perhaps a spirited comment here from her mom. Sweet Emma will chime in on FB, from time-to-time, with news of weird weather patterns, and even weirder wildlife from “the land down-under.” True to form, Isaac may suddenly show up out of nowhere to “kidnap” me to go see a movie, or like his last contact: a phone call to announce the birth of his son!

A couple of weeks ago, Regan sent me a link to an article on okonomiyaki (the comfort food that Yoshio has published a book about, and where this blog gets its name) that she thought I would like…and she hit the proverbial nail on the head! The story was about everything I try to write about in the blog: making good Japanese food in the most authentic way possible, while trying to explore Japanese culture as best a Westerner may. RNF_insert_sm

The story was about a Guatemalan chef who emigrates to Hiroshima to make okonomiyaki…something almost unheard of, as the Japanese can be wary of gaijin (foreigners) and almost never would accept a gaijin cooking what is considered to be Japans’ most hallowed comfort food! The first thing I noticed was the article was very well written: a story/tapestry of  history, Japanese food, travel, cooking techniques, the pursuit of excellence, all wound around a personal story of daring and success! Needless to say, I loved the article, but towards the end of it, I had one of those, “Hey! Wait a minute!” feelings.

Back up to a week and a half before. I’m at my local library, checking out films and asking for help with research on a piece I’m working on. I’m striding to the checkout desk with my usual brisk pace, when a book practically leaps out from the shelf at me!

This has happened a few times in my life, and it always has served me well to follow the instinct: one time, it was a rare book from a former teacher of mine that did the “leaping” and I still cherish that book to this day. So, whenever this happens, I just roll with it.

The leaping book was “Rice Noodle Fish” (Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture) by Matt Goulding. “RNF” is published through Roads and Kingdoms (an independent journal of food, politics, travel, and culture.) The book seems to be strongly attached to Anthony Bourdain, who I gather is some sort of celebrity chef of some sort. I could not be less impressed by this part of it, but if this attachment got the book published… fine, but the writing (and some of the photography) is Matt’s.

My “Waitaminute!” moment was one of perfect synchronicity: Regan’s article to me was from a part of “Rice Noodle Fish” that I hadn’t gotten to read just yet. RNF Food Groups_smWhenever I pick up a new book, I look to the dedication. To my mind this sets the tone of the book, and Matt Goulding has nailed the right tone (and my interest and trust) with his:

“To the shokunin (artisans) of Japan, pursuers of perfection, for showing us the true meaning of devotion.”

With this measure of respect, one can continue, and the rest of the book is just pure fun: it is part travelogue (Matt divides the book into the separate regions of Japan); part etiquette book; and part history book. But the main focus is on the variety of the people and food of Japan. Best of all (for us) Matt’s perspective is from a Westerner, but one who is thoroughly open to Japan’s people and food. Like most of us, Matt freely admits he will never completely understand the myriad of subtleties of Japanese culture, but offers a handful of guidelines, tips, directions, and even some language, to smooth the road for the open adventurer who is looking for a taste of the unfamiliar.

Roads and Kingdoms have made portions of the book available online. It also offers some tips for those traveling to Japan: roadsandkingdoms.com/japan

[Much thanks to the Randall Library of Stow, Ma. for having stocked such wonderful leaping books and for my extension on my loan to complete my article.]

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September 27, 2015: Tri-color “Salt” Potatoes

September 27, 2015

Tri-Color Salt PotatoesOne is never sure what will work. Sometimes, what can seem at first mundane, is virtually unheard of to the world at large.

Back in December of 2010, I was stuck for a topic/food/recipe for the blog, and I got a brainstorm: I had never seen a recipe for “Salt Potatoes” in any of the sundry food blogs and magazines I subscribed to. At the time I thought that was because I couldn’t imagine anyone documenting such a common dish.

How wrong I was.

Growing up, salt potatoes were at least a weekly dish. We kids didn’t mind. Salt potatoes are tasty, go well with many meals, and with eight kids to feed…cheap and plentiful! Having an Irish woman as a mom probably added to the frequency with which she added them to the weekly menu.

Writing the original article, what I didn’t consider was how common this dish is to my locale and why. You see, I hail from Syracuse NY, which in an earlier American history was where much of our salt came from. The natural deposits of primeval salt in the local lakes made salt production easy and cheap. One main street of Syracuse is named “Salina Street” due to the impact the industry had for residents.

So, with cheap salt supplies and Irish workers digging the nearby Erie Canal, salt potatoes were pretty common. They are still often sold at open markets and fairs, often replacing french fries as the potato treat of choice.

So, I was pretty surprised when my (to my mind..a very, very basic) recipe was picked up by a national food blog! The recipe was “featured” as best recipe of the day and yielded my best day for the blog, with a total of 125 hits!

My sister Mary Lou, happened to call that day and I was excited to tell her the news. When, knowing my range as a chef, she asked what recipe was featured, and I told her…there was long pause. “WHY?” she asked! Turns out what a native Syracusan considers commonplace was not so for the rest of the world!

Salt Potatoes are indeed so basic, it is hard to improve them, but recently I picked up these tri-color baby potatoes in a local farm stand and these upped the ante! As well as color, each potato had its own individual taste, and I was surprised to find the inner part tinged with a slight color of the outside. The one that appears black, is actually a dark purple like a beet, so the inner potato had light purple color!

A good chef is always looking to improve on even the most basic recipe! Adding this one to my repertoire of cheap, easy, aesthetic, fun, and unusual dishes!

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September 17, 2015: Cucumber Soup

September 17, 2015

Cucumber SoupAs I mentioned in my last article, when my family visited last month we went to the Colonial Inn in Concord, Ma. Cooking for myself like I usually do, I’m very impressed when I go out to eat these days to find almost every restaurant caters to the vegetarian palate to some degree. Sometimes it’s just soup and bread, but I can almost always find something to eat.

Once in a great while I find a restaurant that raises the bar on their vegetarian dishes to the unique and noteworthy. Such was all the dishes we  tried at the Colonial Inn.

My niece ordered the Colonial’s Black Bean Burger. I saw this on the menu as was almost going to order it, but changed my mind at the last second. As she was on the other side of the table, I didn’t hear her order and was very pleased when she offered to share a taste with me.

One problem with black bean burgers, homemade and store-bought, is that they often add just a tad too much cumin in the mix. Cumin is one of those spices that it takes an expert hand (and tasting while tweaking the addition) to keep the balance from interesting that can quickly shift to overwhelming. The Colonial got that balance just perfect. Topped with a tiny corn relish and a fine roll, the taste was easily the best of any black bean burger I’ve ever had. The texture was very close to a meat burger, which shows the skill of the chef, as veggie burgers often fall to pieces when soft like this, but because we’ve never had one with such a delicate texture, both my niece and I agreed that it was rather unfamiliar.

I was pleased to find Truffle Fries on the menu and they were very good at the Colonial and seemed to be fried in truffle oil. But after one taste, I realized the down-side of knowing a master chef like Yoshio. He makes truffle fries and tops them with real grated truffle (which makes the dish far too expensive to make for mass distribution.) Yoshio has forever spoiled me this way, but the Colonial’s fries were a very delicious and welcome second.

I also ordered what the Colonial called their Cucumber Gazpacho Soup. The name was a little confusing (as gazpacho is usually a tomato-based broth and cucumber soup is usually a cream-based broth) so I asked the waitress to describe the soup. She explained that it was a cold, creamy cucumber soup with a topping of salsa. I loved the addition of a tiny bit of heat into the cool, slightly sweet, very smooth, cucumber base and I was inspired to make my version. Again, made for mass-consumption, there was nothing wrong at all with the Colonial’s soup….I just tend to like my soups a bit more on the savory side and I don’t mind a slight amount of texture that the Colonial carefully got rid of.

Cucumber Soup

2 Medium Leeks (washed thoroughly; chopped; green part for stock)

6 Large Cukes (washed; de-skinned (save skins for stock); de-seeded

2C. Baby Kale (washed; chopped)

6 Tblsp. Fresh Dill Weed   2 Bullion Cubes

2 C. Heavy Cream         3 Tblsp. Butter

Make stock of cuke skins, green part of leeks, and baby kale stems. Sauteé veggies in oil until tender. Add 1 Qt. H2O. Add bouillon cubes to fortify. Bring to boil and then reduce to simmer for 20 minutes. Strain.

Sauteé white part of leeks in butter until tender. Add de-seeded cukes (cubed into 2″ pieces) and baby kale. Add stock and H2O to cover veggies. Bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover until veggies are tender. At the end of the simmer, add dillweed, salt & pepper and grind with an immersion blender. Add cream.

Top with a splash of hot sauce, then sour cream and a dab of mild salsa.

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September 09, 2015: Beer Accents

September 9, 2015

Lime-Crusted BeerA couple of weeks ago, my family did me the honor of visiting me. They had seen all the sites in the Marlborough area, so this time I took them around to nearby Concord, Ma.

To my surprise, they were game for “Sleepy Hallow” Cemetery, so we saw the resting places of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts. Just down the road from Sleepy Hallow was Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Here, my family braved the observation tower heights to get a spectacular view of the vista that is Great Meadows. We caught the season perfectly as water-lilies were still in bloom and purple loosestrife lining the edges of the pond.

Then, it was down to walk the paths for an up-close encounter with Nature. This was cut short by the presence of a large, black snake sunning itself at the beginning of the path. My niece and I were at the fore-front of our group. Seeing the snake at the same time, we had polar reactions: mine was to move closer for a better look, and my nieces’ was to skedaddle post-haste back to the parking lot!

Perhaps indicative of a much earlier garden of Nature guarded by snake, our mutual reactions were consistent: the descendant of Eve expressed a natural caution, perhaps motivated by the memory of have been burned before. Adam’s scion however…has never learned, and still has a bumbling attraction to all things reptilian. Our Nature-hike ended, my nephew etched “Big Black Snake” in chalk on the nature watch chalkboard and it was into town, to allow sleeping reptiles to lay.

We bounced from shop to shop with no particular agenda. I tend to shop, by myself, as if a mercenary with timed mission: in and out, so I enjoyed the luxury of just ambling around (and spending nothing!) We also had the pleasure of lunch at the Colonial Inn. Before a rather amazing meal at the Inn, the waitress suggested to me a pumpkin ale, the rim of the glass lined with a cinnamon-sugar. Never having even considered a libation as perfect as pumpkin ale needing embellishment, I was intrigued…and subsequently pleased with the effect! The balance of spice-to-sugar at the Inn was so perfect, I was itching to try it myself.

I thought I had gotten my chance a few weekends later. I was asked to work on    a Saturday which has the fringe benefit of being mere steps away from a Farmers Market. Amidst stalls selling unusual veggies like baby bok choy and tri-colored potatoes, I found a stall selling mead…specifically pumpkin mead!

In my beer-making days, my two best concoctions were a pumpkin stout and a raspberry mead. Through chance or  some mistake of mine, the mead had a little bit of fermentation still going on at the end of the aging. This shouldn’t have happened, but the tiny bubbles made the mead taste like a champagne with slight tastes of the raspberry and the honey from which the mead gets its main flavor.

I rushed home to sample the mead that I had bought to see if I could then add the cinnamon accent. At this point, let me mention, that while my raspberry mead was perfection, I have never had a bad mead, even the store-bought ones. And I love pumpkin. I’m one of those people who just go ga-ga in the Autumn, scarfing up pumpkin cookies, ice cream, butters, etc. So, the first taste of the pumpkin mead was more than a letdown…it was seriously one of the most awful libations I’ve ever tasted! Like…spit-take worthy! Picture…if you can stomach it..turpentine and cat piss, mixed with a tad of dishwashing soap! Later, I was thinking perhaps I had overreacted, and tried another sip. NOPE! I finished the rest of the bottle by cleaning out my kitchen sink with it!

So, my plans bruised, but not broken, I thought, “OK, if what you expected to like didn’t turn out, what do you know you like and adapt the idea to that?” The answer to that was pretty easy. My  Summer guilty pleasure libation is lime-beer. It’s affordable, easily obtained and refreshing on those really hot days. And I like lime almost as much as I like pumpkin!

I took a lime and used a fine grater to get zest and added the tiniest bit of sugar to make it bind to the rim of the glass. I juiced the lime and dipped the rim into the juice and then into the zest-sugar. Delicious, decorative, and unusual. This beer-accent has broadened my Summer drink repertoire by one!

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August 30, 2015: European Breakfast

August 30, 2015

European BreakfastLast Christmas, Teja and Barb gave me a fantastic gift: a sturdy, white-ceramic lined 10″ fry pan. One of the most perfect cooking tools I’ve ever owned (I’ve never had a pan that so easily cleans to a spotless finish) it is too large for most meals I make for myself, and sadly, since I don’t entertain for large groups as much these days, I don’t use the pan as often as I would like.

The Trip_2010The Trip To Italy

I’m a big fan of the two “The Trip” movies. These are about two friends who travel (the first in England, the second in Italy) reviewing food in restaurants as they go. The movies are much, much, more than this simplistic overview, but the food was the first hook for me. The big English Breakfast that the boys experience in the first film caught my attention. I remember similar breakfasts at B&Bs from my trips across Ireland and I found I missed them. As I was cleaning up, early this morning, I was looking at my beautiful pan and it all came together. I had all the makings for an European Breakfast!

Normally, the European Breakfasts are big on meat. The Irish ones were very meat-heavy ones: sausage-links, bacon, and even blood-sausage were prevalent at just about every B&B I visited. Since my visits to Ireland, I have been a steady vegetarian, but I keep an eye out for the best meat substitutes. The choice ones, these days, are made by Quorn, who have even developed a good bacon substitute (or “facon” as I know it) which is something I thought I never would experience (‘tho Quorn’s is closer to “Canadian Bacon” than what we know as bacon, it still is pretty good.) Their sausage patties are the best, so in a thin layer of olive oil, they were the first to hit the pan.

Next was a combo of sauerkraut with juniper berries that had been steeping in the sauerkraut juices for an hour. I like a slightly crisp edge to the sauerkraut, so that is why I put it in early.

Next, was a little bit of butter and 1/2″ slices of fresh tomatoes that my bosses, Jim and Wendy, had given to me from their garden. A grind of pepper, sprinkle of oregano, turning ever so often. No need to tamper too much with Nature’s (and a good gardener’s) perfection.

Then, it was pinto beans mixed with a little molasses. followed quickly by a couple of tablespoons of chopped leeks. Last was an egg, topping the leeks.

Altogether, ‘tho delicious, it was a little too much breakfast for me really, these days to be honest…I’m usually only game for a bit of cereal, a small yoghurt or some such, but I enjoyed the bounty…and an attachment to a memory of bounty, where a big breakfast like this took me 40-50 miles on my bike to the next destination…an Irish town I had just barely sketched out on my map…far from home.

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July 06, 2015: Montcalm

July 6, 2015

Montcalm HeaderB&W

A memory can make an indelible impression on a young mind like that of a potters mark in soft clay. Once fired, that mark lasts as long as the vessel itself.

Montcalm MenuOne evening, when I was around 12 years old, was an evening of many firsts: first “real” restaurant, first link with a living history, and first (and last) lobster. My family was visiting my sister who was attending college in Glenns Falls, NY. To celebrate the occasion, my dad decided to take the whole family out to a “fancy” restaurant in the area called the “Montcalm” that he had heard good things about. Back then, the Montcalm was located on the grounds of what once was Fort William Henry, on the shore of Lake George.

Please LobsterBack in the early 70’s, it was still the style of people to dress up before going to dinner. Now, I’m all for casual Friday’s and such, but I feel we, as a culture, have lost much by giving up this tradition in America. I used to enjoy the preparation and subsequent buildup of anticipation to the special event. There was also a kind of respect for oneself, fellow-diners, the restaurant itself…but mostly for the respect for the family occasion of dining out.

So, resplendent in my suit-coat and tie, I go to my first real dining experience. I remember the Montcalm being large, somewhat dark, with eclectic artwork. My memory is bit fuzzy here, but I believe they attempted to recreate the feel of the fort in the overall decor. The focus of the dining room was a roaring fireplace, over which was a portrait of what obviously was a military man in a light blue uniform. From the clothing, hair style, weapons. etc. in the portrait, I judged the time period to around the Revolutionary War. To my query about the portrait, my dad gave me a history of the place.

B&W-father-smMy dad explained that Fort William Henry was an English fort against the French in a war, that among other things, was the battle over which nation would rule what would eventually become the United States and Canada. As Americans, we call this the “French and Indian War” because that’s who “we” (as we were British back then) were fighting (although the British used Native American allies as well…largely the Iroquois nations against the Hurons, Ottawa, and Abenaki, who were allied to the French.) In the wider European aspect, this conflict was called the “Seven Years War.”

General Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm was the French commander attacking the fort. After several days of bombardment by the French, the British commander of Fort William Henry, Colonel Edmund Munro, met with Montcalm in parley for terms of surrender. Munro was surprised with General Montcalm’s generous terms for the fort’s surrender: all people in the fort were allowed to leave safely, with their arms…an almost unheard of convention, under the condition that they do not take up arms again against France.

As the British were leaving the fort, they were attacked by over 2000 French-allied Native Americans who saw the surrender as robbing them of the spoils of war. They wounded, killed or captured, not only soldiers, but many men, women, and children the soldiers were to protect. Numbers vary, but later research seems to suggest that over 150 people were lost, under the most brutal conditions, in the attack.

When I asked my dad why anyone would name a restaurant after a commander who essentially “beat us” my dad thought for a moment and said that it was probably for the honor and respect Montcalm bestowed upon Col. Munro and the residents of the fort, despite being victorious over them.

I had other questions for my father that night, not all of them about history. Up to this point the only waiters I had ever seen were the ones at Howard Johnsons and Friendlys. These were different: dressed in formal service attire complete with bow tie, vest and a longer-tailed suitcoat. The bussers (which I had never seen before…dad explained their function) were dressed in their own more simple uniform. I remember being amazed and anxious that the waiters could balance huge trays with just one hand. I also asked dad why we were served salad before the meal (at home we always had it after the main course) to which dad told me it was to keep us quiet while the staff could make the main part of the meal. Before we ordered, dad talked me into having a whole lobster, which I had never had before.

Montcalm trying to stop the massacre

Montcalm trying to stop the massacre

Many years later, reading up on the history of the Seven Years War, I came across the Battle of Fort William Henry, and discovered that it was generally accepted that Montcalm himself tried to stop the attack on the citizens of the vacated fort, but the violence had escalated too far by that point. I also found that being on the “frontier” like they were, residents of New York State had more dealings with and trading between, the French and so were a little bit more accepting that the British hard-liners from other areas. More reasons, I suppose, why there would be such a place dedicated to Montcalm in New York State.

Just before the meal came, the waiter helped me on with what I was to discover was a required accoutrement: a lobster bib. I was at an age where I found this all very embarrassing. After the waiter left, I asked my dad if the bib was truly required. With a chuckle, dad told me that I would find it very helpful once I started eating. The next set of tools the waiter gave me was a nut cracker and a small pick. “What am I getting myself into?!!!” I thought to myself. When the lobster came, I had even more reservations. “Looks like a big BUG!” I told dad.  “Yeah.” he said, “That’s pretty much what it is: a big, oceanic bug! But it is also delicious!” Dad proceeded to give a few lesson on how to crack the shells and pick out the meat, told me not  to eat the organs, etc. Dad was right, it was delicious, but all-in-all a little too messy for my tastes! Although I have happily prepared lobsters for others (even professionally…as a chef’s assistant in a French restaurant) I have never eaten lobster since that night.

Cooper's Cave-1917

Cooper’s Cave-1917

So, the lobster didn’t make a big impact, but the history did. Years later, I was reading “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper and realized that the whole story takes place right around the area of the Montcalm, where I had dined so many years previously! In fact, the genesis of the whole story was when Cooper visited the cave under the Glenns Falls. When a friend of his commented on the cave by saying “here was the very scene for romance” Cooper promised the friend that he would write a story worthy of that “romance.” By doing so, Cooper became America’s first internationally recognized novelist.

Cooper’s story begins a few days preceding the French attack on Fort William Henry. The hero, Hawkeye, and his adoptive Mohican father Chingachgook, and brother Uncas, are hunting in the woods west of Albany, when they foil an attack on a party traveling from Albany to the fort. The attackers are Hurons, led by the villain of the story, Magua. The party is led by British Major Duncan Heyward, who is guiding Col. Munro’s daughters, Cora and Alice, along with a singing instructor, David Gamut, to Fort Henry. After the Hurons are either killed or driven off by Hawkeye and the Mohicans, and realizing Magua (who escaped) would return with reinforcements, they lead the group to a secret cave under the falls, where they spend the night in safety before continuing on to the besieged fort.

Hawkeye is just one name for Cooper’s hero, who seems to have more monikers than any other figure in literature. He is also “The Trapper;” “Le Longue Carabine (the long rifle);” “Leatherstocking;” “Pathfinder;” “Deerslayer;” and (oddest of all, what seems to be Hawkeye’s birth name) “Natty Bumppo!” I’m not quite sure what he was thinking with all the names, but perhaps to Cooper, the number of names suggests the varied people Hawkeye comes in contact with and the esteem they hold for him. The “Natty Bumppo” only makes me think of an early “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnnie Cash (as in…with such a silly name he’d just have to grow up a tough tracker!)

“Last Of The Mohicans” is the second of the five “Leatherstocking Tales” by Cooper, all with Hawkeye as each book follows him through different phases of his life. I always think of Cooper and his hero as I travel by the “Leatherstocking Region” sign on the NYS Thruway on my way home, but I never really knew its’ context. Turns out “leatherstocking” is what the Native Americans call boots.

Revisiting Cooper’s writing, I found it a bit uneven: his style can actually be confusing to the point that I often did not know what I just read. I admit, that I tend to race through a book, so when I slowed it down a bit, Cooper’s style became a little more readable. Cooper’s writing style so angered Mark Twain, that he felt compelled to write an essay called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” and even started a Huck Fynn/Tom Sawyer parody of  “The Last Of The Mohicans” but gave it up before publishing. There is the occasional historical inaccuracy or confusion in Cooper’s writing, also. Like the name, “Mohican”…no such Native American tribe. Did Cooper mean “Mohegan?” “Morican?” “Mahikan?” Cooper also consistently calls Lake George by “Horican” throughout the book, but that seems to be a name he picked up (yet another Native American tribe is “Horican”) because he liked the sound of it. To the casual reader, there are other confusions. Like why, if the Iroquois are allied to the English does Hawkeye consider them enemies? It could be that Hawkeye is allied to the Mohicans, a subset of the Delaware tribe, and they are enemies to the Iroquois. But Cooper clearly states that the Iroquois are allied with the French! As the group is coming close to the fort, Hawkeye warns them, “Montcalm has already filled the woods with his accursed Iroquois.” A bit of sloppy history research, there. All this may be historical nit-picking, but only if the story holds up. Unfortunately, it sometimes doesn’t.

Glenns Falls-1896

Glenns Falls-1896

At a couple of places, the inconsistencies of character or situation tore me right out of the reading. One instance: while holed up in the cave under the falls, Hawkeye allows the singing instructor, David Gamut, to sing a song, and then proceeds to get a little weepy when he does. All this while they are being hunted by the Hurons! OK. Wrong place! Wrong time! Wrong action! I picture the Mohicans frantically priming their weapons, while rolling their eyes at Hawkeye!

There is also Hawkeye’s treatment of Cora and Alice. So…we have a 40-year-old man…who has spent a lot of time in the woods…with just male Mohicans to hang out with. He meets two attractive, vibrant, young women and after an adrenaline-infused rescue, what does Hawkeye do? He nods, smiles at them and then starts treating them like sisters! I mean, the girls have been around (you know…London, Boston, Albany) I’m sure they have some great stories to tell, but does he engage them? Noooo…not the boyscout Hawkeye!

I can’t help but picture the following conversation:

Cora: “What’s with this guy?”
Alice: “I know. I mean, we’ve been on the trail for a few days…but jheesh!
Cora: “Hey, look. Is dung on my dress? Venison in my teeth?”
Alice: “No..no. Ya think maybe he’s a little…[teeters hand vertically]?”
Cora: “Mm…maybe when you’re in the woods too long, social skills get..um..mossy!”
Alice: “Say, I wonder if his Mohican friends are free?”
Cora: “Yeah! Dibs on the young one!”

The worst offense by Cooper takes place at the start of the massacre of the fort populace. A woman and her baby are slaughtered in an extremely violent manner. Yikes! I only hope that all the high schoolers reading  “LOTM” as required reading are warned ahead of time!

So…a few problems with style and consistency. Still, “LOTM” has good story potential, if one could iron out all the highs and lows.

Luckily, someone has.

Michael Mann’s 1992 version of “Last Of The Mohicans” totally morphs Cooper’s book, smooths out all the story bumps; adds exciting battle scenes (both hand-to-hand and on a large-scale); romances; a villain you love to hate; sweeping panoramas of nature; an near-perfect film score; accurate costumes and makeup; and stocks the film with some of the best actors available at that time.

Hollywood has made four versions of “LOTM” (1920, 1932, 1936, and 1992.) I think it interesting that in the 23 years since Mann’s “LOTM” no one has dared a re-make. I think Hollywood acknowledges that it would be silly to tamper with perfection!

Although I mourn Mann’s choice to substitute my native New York with North Carolina as a setting, I understand that the Adirondacks don’t look quite the way they did in 1757. NC is an excellent stand-in with its majestic forests, steep rocky cliffs, raging waterfalls, and clear rivers. You can tell how much effort went into set design, wardrobe, and makeup (notice the warpaint of each Huron, for instance: no two look like…the way it would have been!)

Daniel Day-Lewis, as the perfect

Daniel Day-Lewis, as the perfect “Hawkeye”

Daniel Day-Lewis has played more challenging and provocative roles before and since, but he is the perfect Hawkeye: what every boy wants to be, yet what every lady likes to look at! Day-Lewis plays Hawkeye as tough and capable, with a bit of a snide humor, and best of all, he has the capability to be sensitive, romantic, and tender. NO wooden boy scout here! Day-Lewis has rounded Hawkeye out into a full figure of man! At the time of filming “LOTM,” Day-Lewis was at the height of his immersing himself in the role part of his career. DDL stayed out for weeks before the shoot in the woods, eating only what he could bring down himself.

“Forget all that ‘Natty Bumppo’ stuff, Miss Cora. Here, I’m called Nathaniel…or even better…just call me ‘Hawkeye'”

Mann has (mercifully) changed Hawkeye’s name to the more dignified “Nathaniel Poe.” Where the book is almost devoid of romance, in the film everyone is in love: Hawkeye loves Cora, and so does Heyward. Uncas loves Alice. I would go as far as to say that Hawkeye and Cora’s love scenes are as smoking hot as a director can show with the leads still wearing clothes!

In fact, all the emotions are amped up in Mann’s film. The best is how he has changed Magua. In Cooper’s book, Magua’s motivation of revenge is because Col. Munro introduced Magua to alcohol and when Magua acts up under the influence, Munro has him whipped. So…Magua is a mean drunk with a grudge. The film Magua, played to perfection by Wes Studi, is a lean, brooding, stealthy, sociopath, always an inch away from violence. This Magua has a real reason for a grudge: Munro has made Magua lose his entire family and had him driven from his tribe so that he has to be adopted by his enemy, the Mohawks, in order to survive. Magua not only wants to kill Munro, he wants to eat his heart, but only before he has killed his daughters in front of him, so Munro knows his whole line dies under Magua’s tomahawk!

Hawkeye and Cora get all swoony on the parapet of Ft. William-Henry

Hawkeye and Cora get all swoony on the parapet of Ft. William-Henry

One other change Mann makes is that of his character of Montcalm. After Montcalm has graciously allowed the English to leave the fort, he clandestinely meets with Magua, and implies that he would rather not meet these English again as he drives his forces towards Albany. Magua picks up on the hint and organizes the massacre, thereby enabling a chance for revenge on Munro.

I began to see that there are as many versions of Montcalm’s actions prior to, and during the massacre in media since 1757. Even Cooper has a more abject version of Montcalm’s actions. After the massacre has begun, Cooper’s characters are observing from a nearby mountain:

“The cruel work was still unchecked. On every side the captured were flying before their relentless persecutors, while the armed columns of the Christian king stood fast in an apathy which has never been explained, and which has left an unmovable blot on the otherwise fair escutcheon of their leader.”

[This being a fair sample of how convoluted Cooper’s writing can be, but what he seems to say is:] “Montcalm stood by and did nothing to save the fort’s inhabitants.”

General Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm

General Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm

I think these versions exist as they make good drama. But in actuality, why would Montcalm behave more honorably than just about any military leader known one day, and then behave so dishonorably the next? Not only is not keeping in character, but there is only one way his colluding with the attackers could benefit him: if there was not a single survivor, and that was something he could not possibly guarantee. If word got back to the English of his collusion, the only possible reaction for them would be hatred toward a dishonorable foe. As it was, the outrage over the massacre would never be surpassed in America, until after Santa Anna decimated the Alamo!

I tend to take whatever version of history with a grain of salt. There are many variations of events that have taken place just yesterday. To find the absolute truth in actions taken place 258 years ago, is next to impossible. All one can do is look at the general character of Montcalm. He was brave, a good leader and military strategist. At the very least, he feigned honor in the occasion of Fort William Henry, if only for the sake of good form. Having made this stand, why would he then renege on it when he knew the outcome would only to have history typecast him forever as a scoundrel?

Just when I reached a point of frustration with Cooper’s writing, I read a section from the earlier Leatherstocking Tale, “Deerslayer.” In this tale, Hawkeye is younger and has met an older fellow tracker called “Hurry Harry ” who gives Hawkeye his opinion of the races. He rates the white race as the highest. Blacks he considers “useful.” His opinion of the American Indian is the worst of all. He tells Hawkeye: “You may account yourself as a red skin’s brother, but I hold ’em all to be animals, with nothing human about ’em but cunning….”

One begins to think that maybe Harry is in a “hurry” to judge his fellow-man.

Hawkeye’s response is perfect: “I look upon the red men to be quite as human as we are ourselves…. They have their gifts, and their religion, it’s true, but that makes no difference in the end, when each will be judged according to his deeds, and not according to his skin.”

Sadly, history was not written in the woods of the frontier. History was (and still is) written in the towns of the victors… and History (with all its inconsistencies) chronicles the general movement of us over time:

The British overcame the French. We overcame the British.

The “frontier” of Eastern New York State did not stay still. It was pushed constantly westward until no frontier exists in our United States. Along with this sweeping frontier, we wiped the original inhabitants away. We will never completely know the could-have-been-contributions of a Peoples who might have added much (as did subsequent immigrants) to the textured amalgamation that is America culture.

Montcalm lost his life fighting the British in the Battle of the Fields of Abraham, outside of Quebec.

The falls that covered the real cave that inspired James Fenimore Cooper to write “Last Of The Mohicans” has long since been dammed over…it’s once raging flow restricted and tamed.

The restaurant named after Montcalm, that I dined at so many years ago, moved from the shore of Lake George, to a few miles away in 1984. It was closed in 2013 and now a shopping center exists where it once stood.

It has been some years now, that I have had the joy and benefit of the culinary prodding to adventure and impromptu history lessons from my father.

Times change, but our memories, cemented into words, become what we call “History.” Generation after generation, we put these words down. In a sense, we are all the last of our kind. Best stated by Uncas, who at the end of Mann’s film, finding himself to be “The Last Of The Mohicans” our stories let the world know:

“But once, we were here.”

[Much thanks to Jim Dowrey for his wonderful historical mind and for his memories of what fine dining was like back in the day.]

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