January 29, 2012

Glooskap and the Giant Frog

A few weeks ago I borrowed a copy of John Hanson Mitchell's 1984 book Ceremonial Time from the library. It's a fascinating book that tries to tell the history of one square mile of Littleton, Massachusetts over 15,000 years. 

Let's face it, 15,000 years is a long long time. Littleton probably only has about 300 years of written history, so Mitchell turns to some unusual methods to unearth what happened in the past. For example, at one point he encounters what he thinks may be the spirit of an ancient Paleo-Indian shaman in the woods near his house. To help him understand this experience he enlists the help of some local American Indians.

One of them, a woman named Tonupasqua, tells him several stories about Glooskap, the mighty culture hero of the New England Algonquins. I've written about Glooskap before. He's a gigantic, super-strong, ancient magician who helped make the world safe for mankind. Sometimes he's a little bit dim, but in other stories, including this one from Ceremonial Time, he's a trickster.

A state of Glooskap in Nova Scotia.

According to the story, a long long time ago when the world was young a gigantic frog lived in New England. He was quite greedy, and built a huge dam to contain all the water in one enormous lake. This lake flooded the land where the humans lived, but they were powerless against the gigantic frog.

Unfortunately, the frog wasn't the only monster people had to deal with. There was also a giant bear whose favorite meal was human flesh.

The humans asked Glooskap to help them with these monsters. Glooskap tried several times to fight the frog, but whenever he got near it it would hide in the lake.

One day while it was sitting underwater the frog devised a sinister plan. Glooskap lived nearby in a large cave - why not hide at the back of Glooskap's cave and eat him when he came home? So it hopped out of the lake and hid at the back of the dark cave.

Glooskap came home from hunting, but hesitated outside his cave. He could sense something was wrong.

"Cave, are you glad to see me?" he said.

The frog said nothing.

Glooskap said, "Magic cave, are you glad to see me? Every evening when I return home you greet me. If you don't greet me I'll know something's wrong."

This was, of course, a lie. His cave never said anything, but the frog didn't know this. Pretending to be a magic cave, the frog croaked out, "Welcome home Glooskap!"

His suspicions confirmed, Glooskap quickly rolled a giant boulder across the entrance and trapped the frog inside.

At this point, the monstrously huge man-eating bear came strolling along. It said, "What's in the cave, Glooskap?"

Glooskap said, "Sweet, tasty humans who are hiding from you. I'll roll back this boulder so you can go inside and eat them. Sound good?"

The bear thought this did indeed sound good, so Glooskap rolled back the boulder.

The bear stuck his head in the cave, and the frog immediately shot out his giant sticky tongue and pulled the bear into the darkness. As the two giant animals began to fight Glooskap once again rolled the boulder across the entrance.

The bear and the frog fought for a long time. They fought so hard that the earth shook violently, which caused the frog's dam burst, releasing all the trapped waters. Finally, the two giant animals died, each mortally wounded in the battle.

When Glooskap told the humans what had happened they rejoiced, and the land once covered by water became fertile land where they could garden and hunt without fear of the giant bear.

There are several different versions of this myth, but I like this one. It definitely provides a different perspective on our landscape! 

January 15, 2012

Chow Mein Sandwich: A Unique Regional Dish

My good friend Ed is from Taunton, Massachusetts, and for Christmas this year he and his friend Bill mailed me a box of Hoo-Mee Chow Mein mix.

You may think this was an odd Christmas gift, but it was related to a discussion we had a few weeks earlier about one of New England's unusual culinary delights: the chow mein sandwich.

I'm from the Merrimack Valley, so I had never heard of chow mein sandwiches until I met Ed. It's a regional specialty that is found only in Southeastern Massachusetts (particularly in Fall River, Taunton and New Bedford) and in parts of Rhode Island (Pawtucket and Woonsocket). You can also order it at Nathan's Famous restaurant in Coney Island, but it arrived there from New England.

A chow mein sandwich is composed of three parts: goopy chow mein, crispy chow mein noodles, and a hamburger bun. Ed was quite explicit about the hamburger bun - nothing else is authentic!

According to Wikipedia, the chow mein sandwich has been delighting New England gourmands since the 1930s. That seems possible, since and chow mein has been eaten in the U.S. since the early 20th century - it's mentioned in Sinclair Lewis' 1920 novel Main Street. Hoo-Mee has been in production 
since 1926.

Usually when I write about New England cuisine I focus on old recipes from the colonial or Puritan eras, like Indian pudding, election cake, or cider pie. But folk culture is always changing and incorporating new things. The Puritans didn't care (or even know) about things like Bigfoot, phantom hitchhikers, or chow mein sandwiches, but they're part of our regional cultural heritage today. So I say, "Celebrate New England and have a chow mein sandwich!"

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

If you don't know how to make one, celebrity chef and Fall River native Emeril Lagasse has a recipe on his website. He instructs the cook to deep fry their own noodles, but for an authentic experience you should just buy a box of pre-fried crispy noodles, like those provided in the Hoo-Mee mix.

January 08, 2012

Rat Magic, or a Letter to Vermin

I'm following up on last week's post about the rats on George's Island. Clearly the poor soldiers stationed there had a vermin problem. If I had rats I'd call an exterminator, but what would our New England ancestors do?

Strangely enough, they would write the rats a letter.

It's true. In the 19th century if someone's house was infested with rats the owner would write the rodents a strongly worded letter, commanding them to leave (and maybe go to a neighbor's house instead). Once the letter was written it would be covered in grease to attract the rats' attention, and then stuck in the cellar wall.

B.A. Botkin's A Treasury of New England Folklore contains the text of actual letters that were found in old houses. For example, a Mrs. Weed of East Sandwich New Hampshire wrote the following missive on May 9th, 1845:

"I have bourn with you till my patience is all gone. I cannot find words bad enough to express what I feel, you black devils you are, gnawing our trace corn while we are asleep! And even when we are awake you have the audacity to set you infernal jaws to going. Now, spirits of the bottomless pit, depart from this place with all speed. Look not back! Begone or you are ruined! ... Unless you want your detested garments dyed in fire and brimstone, you satans, quit here and go to Ike Nute's!...

Mrs. Weed"

A letter found in Maine was written on October 31, 1888, and takes a less fiery approach.

"Messrs. Rats and Co., - Having taken quite a deep interest in your welfare in regard to your winter quarters I thought I would drop you a few lines which might be of considerable benefit to you in the future ... I wish to inform you that you will be very much disturbed during cold winter months as I am expecting to be at work through all parts of the house, shall take down ceilings, take up floors and clean out every substance that would serve to make you comfortable ... I will here here refer you to the farm of (name omitted), No. 6 Incubator Street, where you will find a splendid cellar well filled with vegetations of (all) kinds besides a shed leading to a barn, with a good supply of grain, where you can live snug and happy. Shall do you no harm if you heed to my advice; but if not, shall employ 'Rough on Rats.'"
It's interesting the second letter was written on Halloween. Maybe it's a good night to communicate not just with ghosts, but with rats!

I'm not sure if the hellfire letter or the gently persuasive one was more effective. I suppose a scientific experiment would tell us, but I'll let someone else conduct it. If I get rats I'm just going straight to "Rough on Rats."

January 01, 2012

The Fragrant Haircut of Fort Warren

During November and December I feel compelled to write about the holidays, so my posts are usually about food and festive traditions. I'm sad to see December end, but I do feel liberated to write about weird and creepy things again. Yay!

I acquired a few new folklore books over the holidays, including Jay Schmidt's Fort Warren: New England's Most Historic Civil War Site. Tony gave it to me for Christmas, and when I opened it I immediately found this bizarre tale.

During the Civil War, the First Corps of Cadets was stationed at Fort Warren on George's Island in Boston Harbor. They were relatively isolated out there, but one day a cadet got leave to go into Boston.

Fort Warren today - photo courtesy Tony!

One of the first things he did in the city was get a fresh haircut. The barber gave him the works, and finished off his hair with a fragrant, oily pomade.

When he returned to Fort Warren, the other cadets teased him about how nice his hair smelled. (I guess they were jealous). The cadet ignored them and fell fast asleep in his bunk.

His sleep was not restful, unfortunately. He was tormented by a terrible dream that mosquitoes were buzzing around his head. He tossed and turned, but he couldn't escape the nightmare.

I might have nightmares too if I slept here...

When the cadet finally woke up he was horrified to find that all of his hair was gone! The oily pomade's delightful fragrance had attracted the rats who lived in the fort's walls, and they devoured his delicious smelling hair while he slept. Their gnawing had filled his dream as the buzzing of mosquitoes.

And you know what? To make matters worse, his hair never grew back.

The most famous spooky tale about Fort Warren is the lady in black, but I think this one is pretty good too.

Happy 2012!