Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
A howl of agony split the darkness. I cringed deeper down into my sleeping bag. The agonized cry sent goose bumps galloping up and down my spine like tiny racehorses.
The night was as dark as it was cold. A steady, drizzling rain beat down on our pup tents. An occasional flash of lightning strobe-lit the dreary river-bottom mud flats, casting eerie shapes among the bedraggled, wind-swept willows. The Mississippi oozed nearby, leaden gray in the night. All the while mournful wails and moans echoed close by, and the occasional sudden cry of pain split the darkness.
At least we knew the source of the horrible cries. Albert Hedley was suffering the aftereffects of Jon Hooper’s infamous Mystery Stew.
Not Fit for Human Consumption
Jon’s camp cookery consisted of about one part whatever local critter found its way into the cook pot, one part whatever canned goods Jon was able to get out of his mother’s pantry without her notice, one part whatever fell in the pot during the preparation, and at least three parts wishful thinking. His Mystery Stew was known for causing indigestion in people who walked within fifty feet of the stew pot; his pancakes would have adequately patched holes in a corrugated iron roof. Worst of all were his main courses; usually fine dining in Jon’s Mississippi river fishing camps consisted of whatever Jon was able to run down and place on a skewer over the fire. Possums, muskrats, squirrels, bullheads, even carp found their ways onto spits strung over Jon’s cook fires. In a series of hunting and fishing camps, Jon produced a never-failing succession of greasy stews, lumpy gravies, rock-hard steaks, burnt sausages, and runny eggs.
On this ill-fated evening, several of us were celebrating our recent high school graduation with a long weekend camping and fishing on the islands that dot the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge. Earlier that same afternoon, a small flotilla of sputtering john boats had left the Waukon Junction boat ramp, bearing us with fishing and camping gear into the great wet wilderness of the upper Mississippi. Jon’s green-painted boat led the armada, with a 16-gallon beer keg riding proudly in the prow. Weaving through the bayous and backwaters, Jon led the fleet to a large island, with one side bordering the main channel and a high, dry sand beach for camping. Our plan was to string trotlines between a couple of islands, baited for catfish; then we would retire to our camp, eat heartily from our supplies of grub, and attack Jon’s beer keg. Come morning, we would haul in our lines, collect our catch of sleek channel and weird, primordial flathead catfish, and begin rod and reel fishing for the day. The following evening the process would be repeated, for as many nights as the beer keg and ice held out.
Jon was proud of his culinary skills, in fact he considered himself one of The World’s Great Chefs. All the while bragging that he could turn any breathing critter into a banquet fit for royalty, Jon probably did more single-handedly to ensure the future success of the manufacturers of antacids and indigestion remedies than any other person living. On this occasion Jon had promised that on one evening, he would prepare a meal to remember.
Fortunately, the Mystery Stew wasn’t that meal. Whatever Jon had in store for us was yet to come.
As his boat hit the beach that first afternoon, Jon let out a whoop and went immediately bounding into the trees. As the rest of us pulled boats up on the sand and began unloading gear, the sounds of breaking branches and crashing brush echoed behind us. Albert looked at me with some apprehension.
“Jon’s out there after something for supper, isn’t he?” Albert’s voice was filled with dread. He knew Jon a little too well.
“I bet he is – and it sounds like he’s found something, too.”
The crashing noises stopped, and a hoot of triumph arose from the middle of the island. Several members of the party called encouragement to Jon; they hadn’t eaten Jon’s camp cookery before. Albert and I remained silent as Jon reappeared, grinning like an ape.
“What did you get after, Jon?” one of the others asked.
“You’ll find out at supper,” Jon grinned back at him. “It’s a…” he looked at me, his eyes wide, his smile growing maniacal, “mystery!” I groaned in foreknowledge of the evening to come. I’d eaten a few of Jon’s mysteries.
The Mystery Stewpot played an integral part in making Jon’s stews what they were. An ancient, black, three-legged cauldron of Shakespearean dimensions, the pot had supposedly belonged to Jon’s great-grandmother, who used it to stew mules, whole. This pot weighed roughly one hundred pounds and would bubble away many gallons of stew over a good bed of coals for most of a weekend. One could easily imagine a convocation of hags gathered around, stirring the giant pot with evil cackles. This evening, Jon had placed the stewpot, half-filled with water, right in the middle of our campfire, since burned down to a bed of coals. Proceeding to place a variety of substances into the pot, at least one of which ingredients required a trip into the woods to retrieve something that was evidently buried there, Jon prepared a pot of Mystery Stew that would feed an army.
And feed an army it very nearly did. At least, it fed a group of about ten eighteen-year old boys after a hard day of fishing. Some of the comments that accompanied the stew were enlightening.
“What is this lump in the stew? I think it has wings!”
“Is this a bean, or a beetle? Beans don’t have legs, do they?”
“Jon, how long did you say this critter’s been dead?”
“Hey, isn’t that a badger skin Jon’s got drying over there?”
Even with those observations, the level of Jon’s stewpot dropped appreciably that night. I managed to consume a helping myself; as Jon’s cooking went, it wasn’t too bad. It’s true, certainly, that these things are all relative; even so, I managed to eat my portion of stew with only a few dry heaves.
Albert wasn’t so lucky. He’d been affected by the exertion and the early –summer heat more then the rest of us and required liquid refreshment on our return to camp. After several visits to the beer keg, now ensconced in a large wooden box full of ice sheltered in the trees, Albert was feeling adventurous.
“Hey, Jon, this isn’t bad stuff!” Albert shouted. “Dish me up another helping!”
Jon beamed; he wasn’t accustomed to his culinary skills receiving that sort of acclaim. I shuddered in certain foreknowledge of what was, inevitably, to follow. Albert, fueled by beer, hunger, and dehydration, ate four helpings of Mystery Stew.
Later that night, the effects became known.
It started around ten o’clock, as the groups sat around the fire, laughing over the days’ events. Albert laughed as loud as anyone at the start; but as the night wore on, he adopted a strange, rather contemplative expression. While the rest of us suffered the odd twinge of indigestion, Albert was building up a world-class case; indeed, the H-Bomb of digestive ailments was about to strike Albert’s tract. A loud groan distracted us all from our jokes; Albert suddenly sprang to life with a shouted, “Ooohhhhhnnnooo!” He leaped away from the fire, dashing into the woods.
To describe the sounds that emanated from the woods the next few minutes would require pages of colorful expression. To describe the words that emanated from Albert would likewise require pages, although if you edited the words unsuitable for small children and those of gentle dispositions, it would cut the list down to about one short paragraph.
Eventually, Albert returned to the fire, looking somewhat green. The indigestion had hit him like a sledgehammer at both ends, as his digestive tract wisely chose to rid itself of every remnant of mystery stew. His suffering, however, was to go on, and in fact to keep the rest of us awake for most of the night, despite several boots tossed at his tent with varying degrees of accuracy.
The Next Day
The next morning, Jon was first up, stirring about in the soggy remnants of the fire pit, hoping to find a coal. I poked my head out of my pup tent to see him drop his stick and begin setting up a propane camp stove; I decided the day had best get under way and climbed into my jeans and out of the tent.
The storm had passed over in the night, and left a sunny, cool morning. As the camp began to wake up, Jon motioned me to silence, and pointed to his camp trunk. Ensconced therein were a number ten can of red beans, another of jalapenos, two pounds of bacon, several huge sausages, a pound of flour, two dozen eggs, and a five-pound bag of rice. There was also a big Mason jar of some mysterious reddish-brown sauce, the source of which Jon would not reveal.
“Wait until tonight!” Jon grinned. “We get some catfish, and I’ll make up a gumbo that will knock everyone’s socks off!”
That was exactly what I was afraid of.
We pulled in the trotline, which yielded four big channel cats and one flathead. Jon whooped with glee. So did several of the others, who hadn’t yet shared a successful catfishing outing with Jon. It’s certainly true that, properly prepared, catfish can be a meal fit for the most discriminating palate. Trouble was that Jon lacked both a discriminating palate and the barest rudiments of proper catfish preparation.
By evening Jon had confiscated at least three large catfish and had the cauldron bubbling. Amazingly enough, the gumbo smelled pretty good; good enough, in fact, to draw the main body of the group away from the beer keg. Jon busied himself tasting, adding a little salt here, a little pepper there, and placing several pans of dinner rolls near the fire to warm. As the sun was setting, I perched on an upturned piece of driftwood to set and watch.
“Well, that keg ain’t gonna last much longer,” Dick Meechum approached the fire, cup in hand. Dick could estimate the remaining level of a beer keg by the angle of the barrel.
“Save some for the gumbo!” Jon advised him. “You’ll need it! This here’s a hot Cajun gumbo, I got the recipe out of a magazine.”
Even while hoping against hope that the magazine was Good Housekeeping and not Roadkill Weekly, I had to admit the gumbo smelled pretty good. The savory odors from the stewpot were beginning to make my mouth water. Could it be that Jon had finally mastered the art of camp cooking? Could we have an actual chef in the making? My entire understanding of the world was tottering on its foundations.
I had forgotten about the jar of mystery sauce.
And Then This Happened
Finally, the moment came; Jon turned to the group and hollered, “It’s ready!” After thirty minutes of smelling the savory gumbo, I was first in line. I filled my tin plate with Jon’s concoction, grabbed three warm rolls, and seated myself on the driftwood as the rest of the group filled their plates.
This was the moment of truth. I took a sip of cold beer, looked around; deep breath, spoon full, here we go; I took a large bite.
The gumbo was incredible for the first one tenth of a second. Rich, savory, the catfish, beans and rice set off just right by the tangy spices and peppers. A faint tingling sensation began on my tongue; I thought it to be just a side effect of the peppers and took another large bite of stew.
Across from me, I noticed Dick Meechum’s face growing red. Odder still, his eyes were beginning to protrude strangely, and beads of sweat were popping out on his forehead. The tingling sensation on my tongue was beginning to turn into a burning feeling.
Then the gumbo really started to hit. It was as though someone had poured a cocktail of nuclear reactor coolant, sulfuric acid, and lava fresh from a Hawaiian volcano directly on my tongue. I could feel sweat pouring from my face like water squeezed from a sponge. My face flushed to incandescence, my vision blurred, I couldn’t see but I could hear choking and spluttering from around the fire.
Albert’s stomach had not completely recovered from the previous night’s overindulgence, and so he was the first to break from the campfire. He ran for a five-gallon jug of water, which he grabbed and dumped over his upturned face. The jug gone, he looked at Jon with flushed face and wild eyes, shouted, “AAYOOHWWAAHHH!!!” or some such, and disappeared into the woods. Several others followed suit within seconds; the beach of this small island was soon filled with leaping, gesticulating, shouting, swearing, sweating, teary-eyed eighteen-year olds, frantically grabbing for anything that might extinguish the flames.
A struggle broke out at the beer keg, as several gumbo victims tried to run the tap’s flow out directly on their tongues. I dove for my small cooler, which contained a quart jug of milk; I swallowed the milk at a gulp and ran for the beer tap myself.
Jon sat on his campstool with some bemusement as he watched our antics. His huge bowl of gumbo untasted, he watched us run to and fro, seizing and swallowing anything cool we could find. Several young men drank copious quantities of brown Mississippi water, trading immediate relief for certain consequences in another day or so. I inhaled at least one entire pan of dinner rolls, trying to quench the flames; Albert was unaccounted for until sometime the next morning, when we found him stuffing box-elder leaves in his mouth, groaning about third-degree burns to various portions of his digestive tract.
After about thirty minutes, we all regained our composure. A group of angry, sweating, red-faced youths gathered around Jon as he sat calmly on his stool.
“What is the matter with you guys, anyway?” Jon asked the sweating, swearing throng. “Can’t take a little pepper?”
“Let’s see YOU eat some of that sludge, Hooper!” Dick Meechum challenged.
Jon grinned at him, casually picked up an old Army surplus spoon the size of a snow shovel, stirred his gumbo up a little bit, popped the spoonful in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. He looked up at us all and smiled.
“You know, it’s a little bland, isn’t it? Maybe a few more jalapenos next time?”
Calm, clear-faced, not a drop of sweat visible; Jon took another mammoth bite, chased it with a sip of beer, and then proceeded to empty the bowl. The group fell silent, whether in awe or in shock, I couldn’t say. Speculation on the subject was certainly the topic of conversation the following morning as we broke camp.
“Oo kno,” Albert observed, “I ‘ink e’ ony go’ bu’ one tas’ bud lef’.”
“Is’ ton’ go’ oo be lie, ‘on-rete or som’in.” Dick added.
“May’ee ‘e jus’ don’ ha’ no ner’ en-ins in ‘is ton’ no mo.” I wondered.
“I be’ he’ jus’ ‘oo use’ ‘o eatin’ ‘at stuff.”
Whatever the reason, Jon’s cast-iron constitution had seen him through nicely; that was apparent just from watching him whistle happily as he loaded his boat.
Since I lacked a boat, I rode with Jon back to the ramp where we’d left our various cars and trucks.
“Ma’,” I observed to Jon, “I don’ know ‘ow ‘oo do it.”
“What’s the big deal?” Jon wanted to know. “I make the best stew of my whole life, and you guys just got no stomach for it. You ought to learn to handle a little spice on your food, bud.”
Jon’s experiment in Cajun cooking wasn’t a total waste, though. The remaining gumbo turned out to be admirably suited for burning holes in sheet steel, acid-etching car windows in creative patterns, and stripping paint.
Ironically, three years later found me in an Army Basic Training Company. The evening of our arrival, a cadre of shouting, swearing Drill Sergeants herded us into a mess hall for our first taste of Army chow, served up red-faced, sweating cooks.
“Uuughh” the recruit next to me at the table complained. “I’ve never seen meat loaf this color before – and what are these, beans or cockroaches?”
My memory took me back to a cool summer evening on the Mississippi. A sense of perspective took hold; I looked at the gray Army meatloaf and lumpy gravy in a new light.
“Oh,” I grinned at the complainer, “this ain’t so bad.”