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Making Good in Canada
Chapter VII - The Cook: The Autocrat of the Camp


If there is one man more than another for whom there is a very keen demand, then that man is the one who is an expert cook. Whether it be on the trail, in a mining camp, in the town, frontier settlement, or among the surveyors and graders of a railway, the disciple of Mrs. Beeton always reigns supreme. He is the autocrat of the community, and he rules with an iron hand. Etiquette at the frontier table may be rough and ready, but it is the chef who commands the situation, and he can make or mar the serenity of the camp. Men will tolerate extreme discomfort, suffer terrible isolation, and overlook a thousand and one disconcerting factors so long as their cook is a master of his craft.

As may be supposed, the cook has not failed to rise to the occasion, and, token on the whole, he is the most difficult individual to handle. He is the pampered child of necessity. Tough fellows, who bully and browbeat their smaller companions in the camp, cringe like grovelling whipped dogs before the cook. Pitted against such an antagonist as the purveyor to Little Mary, terrorism stands not a ghost of a chance. A cracker jack of a cook, though he be a physical weakling, can retaliate in a hundred different ways if he is driven to it. What is more to the point, he does it. Attempt to override his authority, browbeat him. and disaster swift and sudden follows. The human digestion, hardened by the bush, can withstand severe buffetings without a quiver, but when the cook deliberately sots himself out to upset gastronomical equilibrium, one may be sure that he will wipe out his score with a good balance in hand.

Strange to relate, it is the young Britisher who excels in the particular role of bush chef. Why? It is difficult to say, especially when it in recalled that at home the inculcation of the culinary art does rot enter into the masculine educational curriculum. But somehow or other cooking appears to be a second instinct with the Britisher. He may not know' the difference between a saucepan and a frying pan when he first strikes the West, but it is not long before he has penetrated the mysteries of the cult, and can prepare the most exquisite pumpkin pie, natty little pasties, and dainty dishes, which would make any autocrat of the millionaire’s hostelry turn green with envy.

The chef of the luxurious city hotel or the humble restaurant is querulous almost to mania in his demand for the latest and most up to-date utensils and condiments with which to prepare his dishes to perfection. In the backwoods of Canada it is not the man who can achieve the greatest successes with the stock of an ironmonger's warehouse who makes the strongest appeal, but the man who can make bread without yeast with the crudest and least of utensils and facilities.

Take the case of a cook attached to a party moving swiftly through a new country. Everything that the open air kitchen and larder demands must be carried upon the backs of animals. Accordingly, it is imperative that everything shall be cut down to the irreducible minimum so far as weight and bulk are concerned. The cook, despite his overwhelming importance, must bow to circumstances and be satisfied with only the barest necessities in regard to tools for his trade. His outfit will probably comprise a couple of frying pans, a Dutch oven or reflector—a small collapsible tin affair to serve for roasting and baking—-a couple of enamel saucepans or pails, a ewer of similar material, and maybe a couple of small enamel basins. With such limited utensils, he must be prepared to meet every contingency, from the baking of bread to the grilling of salmon: the production of appetizing mush to a huckleberry pie.

On the pack-trail the life of the cook is arduous. He is the first astir and the last to bed as a rule. Although the trail menu is slender so far as variety is concerned, consisting for the most part of bacon, pork and beans, oatmeal, bannock, and tinned fruits in infinite assortment, yet considerable time is occupied in the preparation of even such simple meals. The cook is about between five and six o’clock in the morning, the camp fire is lighted, and the matutinal meal hurried forward, because immediately breakfast is finished the platters are cleaned up and packed so that the pack-train may hit the trail between seven and eight o’clock. During the day the cook fulfils a second role—he forms a unit in the crew, steering and driving the pack-train. When the camping ground is reached, towards the end of the day, the cook shoulders his axe and sails off to discover the fuel for his fire. With the shovel be makes a slight excavation, levels the ground, and banks up two superimposed green logs with earth to form a backing to an impromptu roasting Are. By the time the train has been unpacked the evening meal is ready, and an hour is whiled away in its discussion. Then the cook has to hurry forward with such preparations as are possible for the morrow, including the preparation of a small stock of that indigestible staff of life of the trail known as bannocks a concoction of flour, water, baking powder, and bacon fat—cooked in the frying pan like a thick pancake, or roasted in the portable small reflector. If the elements are kind, the substitute for bread will be light and fairly appetizing, but if it is raining hard the mixture will settle into a lump of semi-cement consistency, often about as heavy, which plays sad havoc with the strongest digestive organs.

When the camp shakes down at one spot for a day or two and the cook is able to take things a little easier, then by the aid of a few “spuds” light, wholesome bread may be anticipated, which comes as a welcome relief to the eternal bannock. The yeast is brewed from the potatoes, and therewith an expert will produce a loaf which, in regard to lightness and flavour, could never be found in a city to tickle a palate.

Considering the exacting character of the work the cook on the trail does not receive a princely wage. It averages from 8s. to 12s. a day, with all found; but the roving spirit does not cavil about a wage which is not to be compared with that obtainable in an established centre, because he is continually on the move, seeing new country, and encountering new sensations. In fact, if the man is at all of a roaming disposition, it is difficult to persuade him to renounce the trail.

It appears absurdly simple to prepare such plain fare as the trail demands, but when one has grappled with the problem, and has been brought up against its difficulties in grim earnest, as was my fate on one occasion, one soon realizes that even the most apparently simple of tasks demands a certain amount of experience and practice. The packer is an agreeable fellow, taken on the whole, so long as he in well fed. If you wish to provoke him to extreme wrath, present him with an indifferently cooked meal; then he becomes a fiend untied. Maledictions galore were hurled at my inoffensive head in the most virile term when I essayed to upset the balance of a packer’s steel digestion with amateurishly prepared meals.

In an established centre, such as a mining, railway, or some other frontier industrial camp, the lot of the cook is easier and more attractive, while the wages rule much higher. Among the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway constructional camps I found the cook a most amiable and accomplished young fellow. The contractors have realized only too well that if two or three hundred men are provided with a first-class cook, especially adept in the preparation of pie, then peace will prevail. The workman in the West is a rough individual, but flaky pastry, natty cakes, and food tastily prepared to him are Elysium. He looks forward to his meals with as much zest as a company promoter welcomes the hooking of his gulls. The prowess of the cook, if he is up to his work, becomes noised far and wide, and there is a certain feeling of rivalry between the camps.

In this case the cook is provided with a small stove, stoked with wood, and the extent of his labours fluctuates according to his ability to charm the savage breast with good cooking. If he is a peer in his craft, the men will wait upon him hand and foot, splitting his cord-wood, and packing or carrying his water, for he must be kept in the most amiable of tempers or he will, got back upon his subjects. If he is indifferent, then the grunting and grumbling is loud and long, he is compelled to perform every duty pertaining to his office with his own pair of hands, and the men will spare no effort to bring about his abdication or deposition.

The cook is arbitrary to a superlative degree. When the meal is ready, he sounds his gong vigorously, warning all and sundry. First come first served is the rule at the frontier table. The laggards must put up with what they get, and must not mutter a word in protest, otherwise the despot is down on them heavily. In the morning an extra ten minutes in bed carries with it the risk of losing breakfast, because the autocrat of the table waits for no man. On the other hand, if a man is kept from his meal by sheer force of circumstances, then the cook is his best friend, for he will see that the late one does not suffer, and will keep back a share of the tastiest dishes.

Among the railway camps east of the mountains, Where the majority of the cooks were British boys, general contentment prevailed. The wages were good—£12 a month with everything found, the maximum comfort the bush would permit, and a general bonhomie. What more could a man desire? On the Skeena River construction works the contractors were experiencing greater difficulty in acquiring good men. The inaccessibility of the situation was an adverse factor. The offer of £16 a month clear did not bring the supply up to the level of the demand.

Yet the cook does not work the whole time from morning to night. He has his intervals of leisure. I met one who hailed from the West of England. He had developed into an enthusiastic big-game limiter in his spare time. He had accumulated a collection of bear skins which would have made a furrier envious. Every hour he could spare, found him out scouring the wilds with his “automatic” for a brown, black, or grizzly bear, wolf, or what not. Sunday was his favourite day for gratifying this whim. The other boys being off duty, a day’s sport generally was arranged, and the little party invariably secured a fine bag.

But even the bush grows monotonous. Three years with the same faces day after day, maybe 200 miles from the nearest town, and with only a stranger to brighten up things on rare occasions, palls in time; then the spirit becomes restless, and a craving for the dubious gaiety of the city becomes manifest. Two or three of the cooks whose camps were pitched in the shadows cast by the sun setting behind the Rockies, were in such a plight. One had not been to Edmonton for over three years. Each had a big wad of notes, representing thirty to forty months’ wages, snug and tight. They decided to go out for a time; to juggle with the glitter and merriment of the boulevarda of the city for a while and then, with the rewards of their toil, to launch out in another field of human endeavour. “How can we get back to Edmonton cheaply?” That was a teasing question. Their camps were pitched deep in the wilderness, on the banks of the Athabasca, which swings along at a merry six or eight miles an hour. Suddenly the brilliant idea occurred to one mind that they should build a raft, float down to Athabasca Crossing, two or three hundred miles to the east, and thence trail south to Edmonton.

The scheme was no sooner suggested than it was decided to adopt it. No other route was so cheap, and look at the fan of the trip! Consequently the next few days saw those boys mighty busy pulling dead logs out of the forest and pitching them into the river to be attached together by means of wooden piers and cross pieces. It was a trim little craft when completed, with a floor as firm as a liner’s deck. The weather was perfect, and an ideal trip was anticipated.

Amid many good-byes the craft was unhitched and poled into the stream, whore, bring caught up by the current, it was soon floating along merrily. The sun being somewhat hot, and the heavy clothing which each wore being somewhat stifling, coats and waistcoats, together with boots and socks were soon discarded, and the trio enjoyed themselves hugely, backing in the sun-shine on the raft, leaving the river current to supply the propelling effort.

But they did not reckon on the fickleness of the Athabasca. They were winging at the top of their voices, and having a rare old time, when—oouch! one and all were nearly knocked off their feet by the jar. The blarmed old raft had run into a submerged sandbar, and before you could blink your eyes it was foundering. One end of the raft was stuck fast in the sand, and the remainder was being sucked down by the force of the current. There was no time to deliberate. The trio sprang into the glacial waters as one man, and struck out boldly for the shore. Gaining the bank they saw the raft break up, and the logs drift downstream. Suddenly there was a wail, “What about our clothes?” Gee! one and all gave a shiver and vent to a healthy curse. They had forgotten them in their excitement. Yet the anxiety was not in regard to the garments, but in the pockets was their money the twinkling of an eye. They stared at one another for a few seconds, held a short council of war, and then started trudging back towards the camps they had left. Edmonton had suddenly lost all its attractions for them, as the city without money is worse than imprisonment in a refrigerator to such men as these. They got an hilarious reception from their camp colleagues when the adventure was related. I met one of the trio. He laughed hugely over the episode, but “guessed it would be a full two years or more, before he had got a big enough wad to think about Edmonton again, and the next time he’d walk.” The mention of “raft” to him was worse than the word “honesty” to an habitual criminal.

If the cook pulls well with the rough-and-ready boys with whom he is associated, and to whose peculiar tastes he is called upon to minister, he controls the balance of power between employers and employees. Moro than once the summary dismissal of a cook, deft with pasties and a masterhand at. pie, has precipits ted an unexpected contretemps. The camp, as one man, has risen in rebellion, and work has been brought to a complete standstill until the chef has been restored to his post. One employer out in the West, somewhat new to the ways of navies, had a few 'words with the cook over the amount of food consumed. He point-blank stated that there was “considerable waste” somewhere. The cook resented vigorously this aspersion on his integrity and ability; high words followed, and there and then the employer paid off the menial.

The boys trudged into camp after their hard day’s work, as hungry as hunters, but found no tasty supper awaiting thorn. What was the matter ? Cook had been given the “sack” and was in his shack ready to look for another job. The men rallied round him, and the employer at once was surrounded in his office by an angry, clamouring mob, who peremptorily told him that unless he gave them back their cook they would see him to blazes before they would do another stroke of 'work. The employer stood his ground ; he would be boss on his own job. But- he changed his tone when an hour later the men presented themselves once more at his shack and demanded their wages up to date. Every man jack had thrown down his tools. Labour was difficult to recruit, and the contractor had visions ot a desperate struggle to fill the places of the men who otherwise were perfectly content. He took the wisest course. He sent for the cook, gave him a mild reprimand in the secrecy of his office, which the chef received with his tongue in his cheek, and an hour later he was back among his pots and pans hurriedly getting the supper ready for his hungry pals.

The stranger cannot fail to be impressed with one curious circumstance which will strike him forcibly when for the first time he hits a largo camp during a meal. Complete silence prevails ; there is no conversation whatever. Not one man of fifty, hundred, or two hundred men ventures to say a word. It is not that conversational powers have been lost, that the men are too hungry, or have too little time in which to discuss their fare to talk. They are observing the unwritten law of the camp; the etiquette of the frontier table. The cook, possibly assisted by one or two chore boys, has to act as waiter, and if a buzzing conversation were maintained among the company he would be unable to hear the calls of the hungry ones. Woe betide the one who endeavours to break the rule; he meets with an unceremonious reproval for his breach of frontier table amenities.

While often the cook in time reverts to the city, having grown tired of the melancholy monotony of the wilderness, many, on the other hand, bury themselves still more completely by launching out on their own account. They become hotel proprietors, their hostelries being known as “stopping places.” As a rule they get ahead of development, securing a convenient site near a stream —to facilitate the drawing of water —and here they run up a rude building. It may be one of logs or possibly only of canvas. The stopping place is located on the highroad which the teamsters, freighters, and packers frequent in passing. If the enterprising proprietor gets ahead of civilization, he has to sit down and wait the coming of the setting forces. This is the most astute move, as one invariably reaps the reward of foresight.

It seems somewhat odd to strike an hotel no larger than a cricket tent in the bush, or if it should be a shack, barely large enough to seat twenty men; but even a canvas covering is better than the canopy of clouds on a wet night, or when the elements are in torment. The price for the meal is invariably the same—50 cents. And what a meal! There is no hotel in any city or town which provides such a menu as does the bush hotel for 2s. You start off with a steaming plate of tasty soup, followed by fish, if any can be caught in the vicinity, with an appetizing steak or cut from the joint and an adequacy of vegetables on top; then comes the frontier boys’ delight—pie in a variety of forms, which meets with such wholesale demolition as only a bush appetite can accomplish. The whole is washed down with copious draughts of tea or coffee, according to taste, and if the host be kind, there may be cheese to follow, while the bread would make the diet reformers stare owing to its purity and nourishing qualities.

Two shillings appears a ridioulously low price for an Epicurean meal in the heart of the wilderness, and when you have swallowed it, you cannot refrain from asking how it can be done for the money. With flour possibly ranging about 6d. per pound, and having to be hauled perhaps 100 or 200 miles from the nearest town, it seems a such huge appetites as are created in the wilds. But it is the old, old story. The individual meal is a loss, but when perhaps one hundred or more men sit down to the table three times a day, when the stables are chock full of horses during the night, when all the sleeping bunks are occupied— which is more often the case than not—then a comfortable £40 or £50 a day in receipts may be anticipated without any deducting forces of rents, rates, and taxes.

Ad a matter of fact, a stopping place is an excellent investment so long as the owner displays initiative and ability. The point is to be on the spot first, even if it entails living from hand to mouth for a few weeks. With these attributes must be associated a certain proportion of the capacity to work hard and long; then success is certain. The fame of the skill of a bush hotel proprietor boon becomes noised far and wide, and then he can rely upon whole-hearted support.

The only drawback to such an existence is that the hotel owner must be continually on the move. If he is identified with the end of-steel-town which indicates the railhead, and from which point the freighters, packers, and teamsters push out to the practically unknown beyond he must advance with the steel nose of the highway. If he is in advance of the constructing forces, then he must maintain his position. It entails terrible isolation, such as only perhaps a Scotsman, this race figures prominently among the bush hotel proprietors—can tolerate, but it brings its own reward, and in the form of a constantly swelling banking account.

A "bush inn," or stopping-place, where meals are served at two shillings per time.


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