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Voices Fall-Winter 2004:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Foodways column, “The Thousand Islands Shore Dinner” by Lynn Case Ekfelt here.
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Volume 30

The Thousand Islands Shore Dinner by Lynn Case Ekfelt

“Wind from the east, fishing’s the least,” Jim Brabant intones. He should know—for more than thirty years he’s been guiding fishermen, working out of Clayton in the Thousand Islands. Tourism has long played a large role in the economy of the river towns, and many residents have made a living for themselves and their families by guiding visitors to the area’s best fishing spots. But taking fishermen to the fish and helping them to land a big one is only part of the responsibilities of a member of the Clayton Guides Association. A guide also has to be a chef par excellence, able to prepare a traditional shore dinner for his clients, hungry from a day on the water. Although we know that shore dinners have been part of these fishing excursions since early in the 1900s, we are a little concerned by Jim’s prophecy. Since the wind is definitely from the east, we have visions of a vegetarian fish dinner.

As we fish, we ply Jim with questions. His experienced hands have no trouble taking over the mechanical tasks, leaving him free to tell us about his life growing up on Grindstone Island, one of the biggest of the Thousand Islands. During much of the year, he hires out as a pipe fitter wherever there is work so that he can spend two months in the summer “having a good time and getting paid for it” three days a week. It was his former father-in-law who got him started fishing, and the old guides, then in their late seventies, who showed him the best spots. He shows us proudly how much of his boat and cooking equipment have been passed down to him from these mentors. Softly he says that he enjoys thinking about the old guides while he uses their things. When we ask whether he is in turn passing on secrets to younger men, he replies that times have changed. There’s only one young guide in the association now, because everyone wants to work only part-time on weekends.

The live well slowly fills up with our “keepers”—seven perch and eight bass, enough to feed our group of six despite the east wind. We head for land to a wooded spot rented by the guides and outfitted with a large grill, a woodpile, and two picnic tables. Before we even leave the boat, Jim plugs in an electric knife, and in minutes he has cleaned the fish so deftly that not a trace of skin remains on the fillets. The whole idea of filleting—especially with an electric knife—is one the old guides scorned, preferring to slice the fish into serving pieces, then pull the skin off with pliers, leaving the backbone to anchor the meat so it wouldn’t break apart during the cooking.

The shore dinner menu never varies, and its creation is almost balletlike—not a single wasted motion. Each of us grabs a box or cooler to carry up to the picnic area, then our work is done. Jim starts the meal by chopping kindling and building two fires. On one he starts water boiling for the potatoes; on the other he fills a skillet with fatback. While the fatback cooks down over a very hot fire, Jim slices tomatoes and onions, cleans corn on the cob, and breaks up lettuce for a salad. Once the fatback has all melted, there are a few crisp little bits of bacon meat floating in the pan. These are ladled out and combined with lettuce and tomato between slices of Italian bread to make wonderful appetizer sandwiches. While we munch contentedly, Jim batters the fish fillets and drops them into the fatback oil; takes the potatoes out of their pot and replaces them with the corn; chops peppers, onions, cucumbers and tomatoes; and tosses the salad. He tells us the oil is so hot that the fish sears immediately and stays crisp without absorbing grease. Eventually we are satiated, but somehow we manage to find a space for the French toast Jim has been making while we pigged out on the main course. It is outstanding, and we are amazed that it does not taste at all fishy even though it is cooked in the same fat as our fillets.

Our dinner has taken about three hours from fish cleaning to box repacking. Jim explains that in the old days, life was more relaxed. Fishermen would take many hours to eat—talking, swimming, and maybe even playing a little ball. Now, though, most people are in a hurry to get back to the river for more fishing. A bank of rapidly approaching clouds convinces us that we, too, might retreat—not to further fishing but to the mainland and our car. On the way home we decide to skip dinner.

Shore Dinner French Toast

2 pints heavy cream, divided
4 eggs
Cinnamon to taste
Crusty Italian bread, sliced 1 inch thick
Maple syrup
Grand Marnier, bourbon, or Scotch
Frying pan filled with oil

Whisk together 1 pint heavy cream, the eggs, and the cinnamon. Dip the bread slices into the cream mixture, turning them over so both sides are well soaked. Place the bread slices in the hot fat and cook them, turning occasionally, until they are golden brown and crisp on the outside (about 3-4 minutes.) Serve topped with a drizzle of the remaining heavy cream, then the maple syrup and the liquor to taste.


Adapted with permission from Good Food Served Right: Traditional Recipes and Food Customs from New York’s North Country, by Lynn Case Ekfelt. Traditional Arts of Upstate New York, 2000.

Available from New York Traditions, the on-line gallery shop of the New York Folklore Society.

The shore dinner menu never varies, and its creation is almost balletlike—not a single wasted motion.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 30, Fall-Winter 2004. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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