Authors: Betty MacDonald
Tags: #General Fiction
Geoduck, by the way, is pronounced by the Indians gooeyduck.
I had heard all of this about geoducks but like most of the people living in the Pacific Northwest I had not taken the trouble to find out about geoducks for myself, and was therefore shivery with anticipation when Sharkey told me that he had one for me over at his shack, and went over to fetch it. He came back presently and handed me the largest clam I had ever seen. The shell was oblong, about eight inches long and five or six inches wide, squarish and covered with a yellowish skin. The siphon, or what we commonly call the neck, was about two inches in diameter, seven or eight inches long and covered with a heavy wrinkled yellowish skin. The whole thing, including the shell, must have weighed five or six pounds and was definitely unlovely. Sharkey told me to peel the neck and to grind it up for chowder. He said to clean the body part of the stomach and things, cut it into steaks and fry them in butter.
I did as he told me and found that geoduck had been vastly overrated. It was tougher than tire casing and tasted exactly like clams.
I asked Sharkey if he dug it at night by lantern—if he used a hatpin—if geoducks moved fast. He scoffed. "Me dig him low tide this morning. Walk along head down and see big neck in sand. Take shovel and dig like hell and when got big hole I got geoduck. Neck very long and he stick it up to look around and see me comin' and pull it down. He not move, just pull long neck down to where he hidin'. Neck too big to fit in shell, poor thing."
There went all the rumors I had heard—phffffff! There are still people, however, who insist that they have seen geoducks go burrowing into the sand like dredges, ten feet per minute. The Indians all corroborated Sharkey's theory and, as the Indians all got geoducks, it was good enough for me.
Geoducks are protected by game laws and there is a bagging limit on them. One geoduck per person per lifetime would be all right with me. If they were very plentiful, which they are not, and very easy to get, which they are not, geoducks would be very handy for chowder because it would mean cleaning and grinding but one clam and having enough for chowder for an army.
Bob and I, by the way, were of the milk, bacon, green pepper, parsley, potato and onion school of clam chowderers. We never put tomatoes or vegetables in with clams.
Another form of seafood of which we were fond and which we could get for nothing was the oyster. By driving fifty or so miles we could gather both the large soup oysters and the tiny cocktail oysters by the bucketful. The first time we went oystering I was sure there was something wrong and we would all end up in the penitentiary. It didn't seem reasonable to me that oysters, particularly the exquisite little oysters, should be scattered over the countryside free for the picking, and I feared that the shifty-eyed Indian friend of Bob's who was leading the way, would probably next tell us that he knew where there was a great big patch of filet mignon that nobody owned. We drove and drove and drove and took logging roads and cow trails and sometimes seemed to cut right through the brush, but finally we came to a stretch of beach obviously known only to God and that Indian and the oysters were as thick as barnacles. We went there again and again and never saw another soul.
Brook trout could be caught in the irrigation ditches—about ten an hour and from seven to nine inches long. The trout were so thick in the mountain streams that the men in the logging camps caught them with strings, bent pins and hunks of bologna.
The Steelhead salmon came up the irrigation ditches and by trolling near Docktown Bay we caught silvers, king and dog salmon. We also caught sole, cod, red snapper and flounder. Like a true squaw I learned to clean, skin and fillet fish while Bob smoked, looked on and criticized. I really enjoyed it though. I had a knife with a saw edge and a pair of pliers and I could clean, skin and fillet five flounder and two cod while Bob was putting the boat away. It was fun to straddle a log in the warm sunlight, throw the entrails to the gulls and wipe my hands on seaweed. Seaweed reminds me that I suffered one bitter disillusionment in regard to seafood. I had heard for years that clams, freshly dug and steamed in seaweed were the last word in gustatory delight. Accompanied by sweet corn and hot coffee they were too marvellous to bear description. This is a lie. Clams freshly dug and steamed in seaweed are full of sand and unless you are bent on polishing your own fillings there is nothing you can do with them but throw them away. Corn steamed in seaweed is all right if you don't mind boiling juice and seawater oozing up your sleeves. I think that the whole thing should be dispensed with and the food cooked at home. Anyway clams should be soaked over night in fresh water with corn meal in it, so that they can open up and expel the sand.
We had fried chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had chicken roasted, fricasseed, stewed and in soup and salad. We did not tire of it nor of eggs, but we got damn sick of sowbelly, which is the only meat the local stores ever carried. It was white and fat and could be eaten when seasoned with garlic, salt and sage, but to eat it every day, fried with potatoes, boiled with cabbage or lying sluggishly in a heavy milk gravy as did most of the farmers was not within our capabilities.
Our garden, also, produced lavishly. The soil, a deep brown loam, and the continual rain made holding back rather than forcing the problem. It seemed to me that things sprouted, bloomed, bore, withered and died before I could run into the house and get a pan to pick them in.
With all of the natural resources in the way of food and the ease with which you could grow anything and everything, I never in all of the time I lived on the chicken ranch tasted salad in anyone's house but my own; nor did I see meat cooked any way but fried or boiled, nor did I ever catch anyone but the Indians eating fish. Sowbelly, fried potatoes, fried bread, macaroni, cabbage or string beans boiled with sowbelly were the fare day in and day out. They grew heads of lettuce the size of cabbages and fed it to the chickens or the pigs, they grew celery as crisp and white as crusted snow and they sold every single stalk. They grew beets like balloons and rutabagas as big as squashes, but they fed them to the cows. They grew Swiss chard three feet high, so they cut off all of the green part and fed it to the pigs and boiled the white stems with sowbelly for hours and hours and hours, until it was a greasy strangled mass which they relished with fried potatoes and boiled macaroni.
We could have kidneys, sweetbreads or liver for the asking—"We don't eat guts," the farmers said. We did whenever we could get them. Lamb's kidneys or veal kidneys sautéed in butter, then simmered gently with fresh basil, marjoram, and a wineglass or two of sherry didn't taste like guts to us. Sweetbreads creamed with fresh mushroom bore little resemblance to guts either. But sowbelly looked and tasted exactly like its name.
Along with the smooth eating was a definite chuckhole. We had breakfast at five in the morning and dinner at five in the evening. Seven and seven would have been bearable, eight and eight enjoyable and nine and nine divine, but five and five it was and I always felt that those meals were like premature babies and lacked the finishing touches.
Another smooth place, which I came to expect as my just deserts, was the scenery. I watched mornings turn pale green, then saffron, then orange, then flame colored while the sky glittered with stars and a sliver of a golden moon hung quietly. I watched a blazing sun vault over a mountain and leave such a path of glory behind that the windows of mountain homes like ours glowed blood red until dark and even the darkness was tinged and wore a cloak of purple instead of the customary deep blue. Every window of our house framed a vista so magnificent that our ruffled curtains were as inappropriate frames as tatted edges on a Van Gogh. In every direction, wherever we went we came to the blue softly curving Sound with its misty horizons, slow passing freighters and fat waddling ferries. The only ugliness we saw was the devastation left by the logging companies. Whole mountains left naked and embarrassed, their every scar visible for miles. Lovely mountain lakes turned into plain ponds beside a dusty road, their crystal water muddy brown with slashings and rubbish.
I loved the flat pale blue winter sky that followed a frosty night. I loved the early frosty mornings when the roofs of the chicken houses and the woodshed glowed phosphorescently and the smoke of Bob's pipe trailed along behind him and the windows of the house beamed at me from under their eaves and Stove's smoke spiraled thinly against the black hills. I loved those things but there were the others:
Reading by the wick when I forgot to order kerosene.
Hurling myself headlong through the nearest aperture at the sound of a car but never being in time to tell who it might have been.
Telling time by the place where the sun should have been when I forgot to wind the clock.
Knowing that if I forgot to order matches I would darn well have to learn to rub two sticks together or walk four miles on the loneliest road in the world to a neighbor.
Being asked in the same trustful I-know-you-will-do-it way to split shakes, help fell a tree, dissect a dead chicken, help castrate a pig, run and get the .30-.30 or the shotgun or the .22, flush a covey of quail, retrieve a grouse, wind a fish pole, or make another try at the damned lemon pie which I know that neither Bob's nor any other mother ever made.
Knowing that it was stupid but excusable to run out of food, toilet paper, matches, wood, kerosene, soap or water but that there was
no excuse ever
for running out of shotgun shells or chicken feed.
Being lonely all of the time, I used to harbor the idea, as who has not, that I was one of the few very fortunate people who was absolutely self-sufficient and that if I could just find myself a little haunt far from the clawing hands of civilization with its telephones, electric appliances, artificial amusements and people—people more than anything—I would be contented for the rest of my life. Well, someone called my bluff and I found that after nine months spent mostly in the stimulating company of the mountains, trees, the rain, Stove and the chickens, I would have swooned with anticipation at the prospect of a visit from a Mongolian idiot. And if the clawing hands of civilization could only have run a few telephone and light wires in there they could have had my self-sufficient right arm to chop up for insulators.
Feigning pride and delight in Bob's superior marksmanship while the chill night winds whipped my nightgown around my trembling legs, my blood turned to sherbet and my teeth chattered like castanets. This was always preceded by my having to leap from bed and stand without even benefit of a robe, in the open window while Bob pointed out an owl sitting in a snag about twenty-five miles away. As I am so nearsighted I cannot see anything unless it is perched on my shoulder, I endured long painful periods of "There he is on that first limb." "What limb?" "The one on top of that big snag." "What snag?" "The one east of that tallest fir." "What fir?" And on and on until at last I learned to say with my eyes shut and before I had reached the window, "Oh, yes, I see him plainly," and then I'd run for my bathrobe and my coat and my wool socks.
Owls were worse than hawks for killing chickens and it was fortunate for us that Bob was a crack shot with eyes like telescopes, but it was unfortunate for me that I was not imbued with the thrill of the hunt instead of a hatred for night air and loud noises. I suggested that Bob fire a few shots in the air from the bed through the open window just to let the owl know there was a man in the house, like Gammy pounding Daddy's shoes on the floor, but he gave me a withering look and we dropped that subject like a stone.
While I jounced and eased my way along from day to day, Bob sailed along in front of me never once touching the rough spots. He never seemed to be lonely, he enjoyed the work, he didn't make stupid blunders and then, of course, he wasn't pregnant.
hen you make a complete change in your mode of living, as I did, you learn that, along with the strange aspects of the new life which seep in and become part of you, will come others to which you never become accustomed. Some of the things I never got used to were:
The gasoline lantern.
The outhouse at night where I had a horrible choice of either sitting in the dark and not knowing what was crawling on me or bringing a lantern and attracting moths, mosquitoes, night hawks and bats.
Bats hanging upside down in the cellar, flying in the open bedroom windows on summer nights, swooping low over the bed, almost touching my face and making my skin undulate in horror.
Dropping boards and chicken lice.
The inconsistency of a Mother Nature who made winter so wetly, coldly, soggily miserable that I wanted to get back under my stone, and spring so warm, so lush and fragrant that I wanted to roll on my back and whinny.
Rhododendrons being wild. Rhododendrons are expensive shrubs usually grouped in bad color combinations in front of white houses—the ugly purple ones are often banked in front of mustard stucco houses. That is all I knew about the rhododendron until I moved to the mountains. Then I learned that the rhododendron is the native flower of the State of Washington and in the spring and early summer every roadside, every mountainside, every woodsy place on the coast is ablaze with them. They are all pink but range from deep cerise buds to pale pink full-blown blossoms. In the open fields around Docktown Bay, the bushes were about four feet high, rounded in the orthodox bush shape and solid with blooms—the flower heads as big as cabbages—the individual flowerets like single roses. The shiny, dark green foliage, like laurel, was beautiful in its own right. In the thickets and in the woods the long slender rhododendron branches reached as high as twenty feet in an effort to find light and sun and, as they bore their flowers on the uppermost tips of these branches, it was no surprise to walk through the woods, look up and see a lovely cerise bud peering down from the top branches of a small fir or with flushed cheek laid on the cool oily smoothness of a cedar frond. The rhododendrons were so gorgeous, so showy, it was hard for me to believe that they were wild flowers and, as I climbed into trees and scrambled over stumps to get a wonderful armful of buds, I guiltily looked for
signs. There is a law that they cannot be picked within fifty feet of the highway, but no one should object to that as they are far prettier and deeper-colored back in the woods.