By Greg Clark, May 28, 1938
“Heigh-ho, heigh-ho,” sang Jimmie Frise, “it’s off to eat we go!”
And he came swinging in the early evening along the water side, a stick with five nice trout on it dangling from his hand.
“Quitting already?” I called from midstream.
“This is all I can eat,” he replied, holding up the trout. They were about the size to fit neatly across a frying pan.
“Why, the evening rise is just about to begin,” I protested, waving my rod and flicking a net cast along the far bank.
“How many have you got?” called Jim.
“I too have five,” I informed him proudly.
“Well, then, let’s go out to the car and eat,” suggested Jim. “Before it gets dark. And we can be back at the cabin before midnight.”
“And miss the best of the evening rise?” I demanded.
“Look,” said Jim. “it’s a warm evening. These trout won’t keep and we’ve got all day tomorrow to catch trout to take home. Let’s go out to the car and have a feed on these.”
I waded ashore in order to consider the question without prejudice. Standing waist deep in a beautiful trout stream is no condition in which to be dispassionate.
“Jim,” I said, propping the fly rod and sinking down on the soft bank, “a man can eat any time. But only once in a while, and for only a little period of his life, can a man go fishing.”
“We’ve had a swell day,” countered Jim, also sagging down on the pleasant bank, “and I’d like to top it off with a nice mess of fried trout.”
“Until he is 30,” I stated, “a man is too young to fish for trout. After 50, a man is too old.”
“To old?” scoffed Jim.
“Yes,” I explained. “Until a man is 30, he has no real appreciation of the finer things of life. He is just a bundle of prime beef and energy. He goes, like a young bull, rampaging at life, with nary a moment’s pause to taste, to savor; to reflect upon the charm and beauty of life. About 30, man starts to be conscious of faint thrills and quivers within him, which are the first premonitions of the increasing beauty and the increasing sadness of life. All during his 30’s and 40’s a man lives in a kind of symphony of feeling, a sort of grand orchestral suite of sensation, with largos and adagios and scherzos …”
“English?” inquired Jim sweetly.
“What I mean,” I corrected, “in his 30’s and 40’s a man balances his energies with his powers of appreciation and gets a feeling of the fullness of life. Around 50, he begins to slow up and get working on a simple formula of life. He starts at 50, to cut his life down to some simple routine that he knows, from experience, will give him the most pleasure for the least effort – because he is beginning to fade.”
An Instant of Beauty
“Look at that river,” interrupted Jim.
And the little river was, indeed some thing more than a picture. It was a mood. An instant of beauty. A sort of living combination of earth rock, water and sky, of time and air and hour, of some subtle combination of all the forces of nature to make an instant of beauty, as though a bell had rung, a magic and mellow bell; and we sat, entranced, looking, hearing, feeling its swift and passing vibration.
“There you are, Jim,” I said quietly, when the mood that touched us both had passed. “When you were 30 you wouldn’t have noticed that instant of beauty. You would merely have seen a river, and charged into it, rod rampant, to bang at the fish.”
“O.K., then,” said Jim, “let us go now out to the car and have supper.”
“I would like merely to add.” I said, defeated, though the plops of trout in the smooth flowing little river were becoming more frequent as the evening rise began. “I would merely like to say that at 50 men reduce their appreciation of life the way great singers reduce their repertoire. Women who have sung the greatest operas, the greatest roles, Isolde, Mimi, who have stood in massive halls before uncounted thousands of ravished listeners, presently feel their powers declining, and at the last, they appear on farewell tours and sing Annie Laurie. It is the same with fishing. In a few years, Jimmie, you and I will not come away out here to fish. We will join fishing clubs and fish in puddles.”
“Let’s eat,” said Jim drily. He is a trifle nearer 50 than I am.
We stood for a little while, gratefully and reverently looking at the stream, its queer quiet purpose, its air of infinity, as though it had always run and always would run forever. And the trees and shrubs seemed to stand guard over it and lean down to embrace it, and the sky appeared to be coloring itself only to be mirrored in the dancing secret water.
“Come on,” said Jim; and we started out.
“As a matter of fact, Jim,” I said, batting mosquitoes, this is the poorest part of a fishing trip, this eating, this coming to the end of a perfect day with canned beans in a frying pan.
“Fried trout, you mean,” amended Jim, swinging up his catch to show me. They had dried somewhat, losing their bluish and jewelled lustre. They had lost their shape, too; lost that dynamic plumpness that so entrances the trout fisherman’s eye. “Ah, Jim.” I sighed. “even fried trout. We have dramatized fried trout, we anglers. It is in memory and in prospect that tried trout taste good. But as a matter of fact, the way we cook them, they either stick to the pan or are as dry as corrugated paper or else half raw.”
“Aw,” said Jim, walking abend on the trail. “Spoil everything, go ahead.”
“I’m sorry, Jim, but face the facts,” I pursued, hurrying to keep up with him. “These trout we’ve got, inside of an hour will be nothing but a brown, burned, crisp, tasteless …”
“Shut up,” said Jim fiercely over his shoulder, and he strode furiously ahead along the trail so that I didn’t bother trying to catch up. Trails are not for arguing, anyway, for at this hour of the day, the hermit thrushes are starting their arpeggios, and maybe if a man is lucky, a rose-breasted grosbeak will sing his baritone robin-song from a tree top in the evening sunlight. When we came out of the trail into the old abandoned field across which we could see our car by the road, Jim was standing waiting for me.
“What’s up?” he asked, pointing.
From beside our car, the smoke of a campfire was curling faint and blue. And beside our car moved the figure of a man, busy with the fire.
“That’s funny,” I said “No other car there.”
We walked together across the field and as we came nearer, we saw that the man beside our car was a most unprepossessing individual.
“A regular hobo,” muttered Jim.
The gent did not see us approaching, but was busily shifting stones, making some sort of a fireplace, and he had gathered quite a pile of dry wood.
“What’s all this?” said Jim, as we came within earshot.
“Ah,” cried the hobo, dramatically. “Here you are.”
“Yes, here we are,” I admitted sourly.
“You got some trout, I hope?” said the hobo, whose voice and manner seemed elaborately polite for such a dilapidated exterior.
“Yes, we got some trout,” agreed Jim, as if to inquire what business it was of his.
“I regret,” said the hobo ceremoniously, that I could not get into your car to extract the luncheon and the cooking utensils.”
He smiled so engagingly from his plump and stubbled face that, to tell the truth, we didn’t know what to say.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “this is nothing new to me but I fear it is new to you. I … am a chef.”
“Hmm,” said I looking at his hands, which were, I am happy to report, clean and trim.
“Yes, sir, a chef,” said the hobo, pulling at his jacket a little elegantly. “And it is my habit, in the summer, to travel roads where sportsmen are likely to be found. And whenever I come upon a car, such as yours, and realizing how hungry the sportsmen are likely to be when they come out, and so weary…”
He paused, lifting his eyebrows dramatically but with a slightly bizarre effect of elegance.
“Well, gentlemen, at any rate with your kind permission, may I prepare your supper? And in return, may I partake of a small portion of what is left?”
Jim nudged me. I nudged back.
“So you’re a chef?” said Jim.
“I have cooked for royalty,” said the hobo.
“I have held the highest rank in some of the greatest hotels in the world, both Europe and America. You may call me Pierre, if you wish.”
“Well, er, ah,” said Jimmie. “I’m afraid we haven’t much for you to go on here in the car…”
“Tttt, ttt, tttt,” cried Pierre, “you have some trout. What more is needed?”
“We’ve got a large can of beans,” said Jim, starting to unlock the car door, “and some bread and a small pickle bottle full of butter, if it hasn’t melted…”
“Ttttt, tttt,” cried Pierre, pinching his thumb and finger together in the ancient and approved gesture of chefs, “please, gentlemen, just give me the freedom of the car and leave all to me. I am accustomed to what is to be found in sportsmen’s cars.”
Jim started to hand out the carton and the packages and parcels, but Pierre politely elbowed Jim aside.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “may I suggest that there is a small brook crossing the road down about 50 yards. If you stroll down there, for a wash and a splash, and take your time …”
So we laid our rods aside and started off. I observing with some rising of the heart, that the fireplace Pierre had constructed with a few rocks, was a very workmanlike job, an improvement, as a matter of fact, on the classic campfire invented and detailed by the famous Nessmuk in his book “Woodcraft.” The stones were skilfully spaced, a large stone for a backlog had been rolled into place and between the sides a hot small fire of solid glowing embers hummed redly.
Golden and Blue
“Jim,” I said low, as we walked down the road, “I kind of like that guy.”
“Did you ever hear of such a trick to get free meal?” asked Jim.
“There’s nothing for him to go on,” I pointed out. “That can of beans, a loaf of bread, some sour pickles, tea, and sugar.”
“And a lemon,” added Jim, “for the tea.”
“Oh, well,” I pointed out, “he can’t cook them any worse than we would.”
With which thought, we reached the little brook passing under a small log bridge, and there in the gin-clear water we washed and splashed our faces, and Jim found a piece of comb in his pocket, which we shared.
“Give him time,” said Jim, as we started back up the road. So instead of turning in by the car, we paced side by side on up the road, while Pierre signalled us eagerly and appreciatively.
“That’s it, gentlemen,” he called, “Walk up and down that delightful road and I will call you when all is prepared.”
“I’ll be jiggered,” breathed Jim. “If this isn’t the strangest thing.”
We strolled slowly up the evening road, amid the tall trees, like two gentlemen strolling on the terrace outside some palace of the Riviera, though our ragged fishing clothes were hardly formal, and no stringed instruments beguiled us but only the reeds and woodwinds of the bush, the birds, the spring peepers and the tree toads. Three times we passed the car, and each time, bent above the fire in a fury, Pierre glanced anxiously up and shook a warning hand at us not to approach.
Then, just as we found a bittern down by that log bridge over the brook, and were listening with perennial astonishment to the “bittern with his bump,” that sound like a squeaky pump, we heard a far hail from Pierre, and all aglow we strode back up the road.
“Forty minutes,” said Jim. “That’s what he’s taken.”
But oh, my friends and oh, my foes, what else had he taken but our very hearts? From a piece of newspaper, Pierre had constructed himself a chef’s hat, or a passable replica thereof. All around him, as he stood proudly beaming, were spread dishes, our frying pan, a covered pot which Pierre had produced from his own dilapidated packsack; a birchbark platter of crisp water cress from the brook.
“Be seated, gentlemen,” said Pierre bowing to the running board of the car. “Or have you, perhaps a toast you wish to name before you sit.”
“Here,” said Jim, “is to … to everything!”
We sat. Pierre handed us each one of our own tin plates. From the frying pan, in which lay our trout, not crisp, not brown, but golden and blue, their native glory showing, all simmering in a sharp brown sauce … rose with an aroma that fairly made his gasp.
From the pot, he ladled out round white objects…
“Potatoes?” I remarked.
“No, sir,” cried Pierre, “the root of the common arrow-head that grows in shallow water along all our ponds and creeks. I make it my habit to gather such delicacies as the wild wood affords, in my travels.”
With glittering eyes, the eyes of the artist, Pierre watched us as we lifted the first bite.
Even his stubble seemed to vanish when we lifted our amazed eyes after that bite.
“Eh?” he asked, breathless. “That little tang is crinkle-root, that I picked right here by the road, and a faint dash of Indian turnip, that you call jack-in-the-pulpit. A little water cress was cooked in that sauce … eh?… and a dash of your lemon. It gives it a…”
“My Greatest Joy”
But even Pierre grew silent as he watched us. This was no occasion for haste. Each lift of the fork, each opening of the mouth, each closing of the jaws had to be done slowly, rhythmically, with rolling eyeballs and deep inhales.
“The last time,” I finally breathed, “was at the coronation, Pierre, at Scott’s, in Piccadilly, and it was Sole a la Scott.”
“This,” said Pierre, “is trout a la Pierre.”
“My dear man,” said Jim, huskily. “I know hotel managers, I know proprietors of summer hotels where I could get you a good job.”
“Tttt, tttt,” cried Pierre, “no, no, gentlemen, do not make that mistake. I was a chef for 30 years. I have been cribbed, cabined and confined most of my life; a happy life, too. But some years ago, deep in the copper-lined bowels of a great hotel, as I stood amidst my masterpieces, I suddenly thought, as Saul must have thought on the road to Damascus … ‘What am I doing here?’ So I just packed a small bag and walked away.”
“We could get you…” I began.
“Nobody,” said Pierre, “can get me anything. That is my greatest joy in the world. Nobody can get me anything. And I can get something for others.”
We resumed our eating. Pierre heaped bunches of crisp cress on our plates and laid fresh trout on top, and poured that indescribable sauce from the pan over them.
“Where will you be,” asked Jim. “a week from to-day, Pierre?”
“Please God,” said Pierre, “five hundred miles from here.”
“We’ll be back here,” I pleaded, “to-morrow.”
“Ah,” smiled Pierre, “to-morrow, a hundred miles from here. No, gentlemen, that is the essence of freedom. To make no plans nor enter into any agreements. It is my delight to walk the roads and find the cars of sportsmen and have a fire ready and their food laid out when they return from the woods. No men are hungrier. No men are more appreciative. What an artist craves is appreciation. You cannot know, gentlemen, what happiness you have given me by eating this food.”
He ladled out another lily root for each of us, and bathed it in the sauce, which he had mysteriously augmented with more butter and a squirt of lemon and tiny dash of mashed herb.
Instead of tea, he had made us coffee out of his own packsack. Coffee that was pure liquid aroma.
“Now, while I eat,” he said, “I suggest you go for another walk on the road.”
It was a command not a request, so we went, and hands behind, and minds bewildered with thoughts of freedom, and bodies all aglow from the power of beautiful food, we paced up and down the twilight road, until the whip-poor-wills began and we heard Pierre cleaning up the pans.
“Let us drive you,” we pleaded, “part of the way you’re going.”
“You can’t go,” said Pierre, gently, “the way I’m going.”
And we all shook hands and he went one way and we went the other.
Editor’s Notes: This story is reprinted in “Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Outdoors” (1979).
Given that this was the Great Depression, hoboes were a common sight.
“Nessmuk” is the pen name of George W. Sears, an early outdoors writer. He wrote “Woodcraft”, a book on camping in 1884.