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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

No. 36 Loke & Lemmis — stewed loon & tied-up chickens



A little to the east of us, just past the Guthries, was a large flock of Willises. As usual, some other family names also were represented — Guthrie, Moore, and Lewis — but it was mainly made up of Willises who were distantly related to the Willises of our neighborhood. One of the Willises from down the shore, Lemmis, was gone long before I came of age, but he was mentioned so often that I felt that I knew him. A little farther to the eastard, on Ferry Dock Road, were several families of Roses. Tom, Danny, & Joseph all had families in the same neighborhood. But it was their brother “Loke” (John William Rose b. 1879) whose life and “loves” became the stuff of legend.

Loke Willis — “lover of loon”

When I was a boy I learned that other folks downeast, and especially people from “town,” referred to people from the Island as “loon eaters.” This came as no great surprise because I knew how that name got started (see post no. 1). Before I even learned that shooting loons was illegal, I was aware that many people in our neighborhood enjoyed eating ‘em.

Among those was my father. Because of the pungent smell, Mama usually cooked loon outside in a large pot and over an open fire. She preferred the younger birds, what she called “eel trikkers,” because, she maintained, the meat was milder and more tender. But Daddy made no such distinction. All he cared about was that there also be dumplings and gravy in the pot.

Not everyone shared a fancy for this bird, especially my sisters who still grimace when asked to explain what eating it was like. But many folks considered it a delicacy, and some even demanded that it be served on special occasions. One of those was Mama’s cousin, Bertie Clyde Willis (b. 1918), whom all of us called “Uncle Bert.”

He had a long career in the Army that kept him away for more than two decades. After he retired he settled his family in Kinston, almost a hundred miles west of the Island on Hwy 70. But every time he returned for a visit, his sisters made sure he had at least a portion of “stewed loon” to make him feel welcome. Once, while watching him savor a bowl of loon prepared in his honor, I mentioned to him that he “... loved loon more than anyone I’d ever heard of.”

“I love it,” he responded, “oh, I do love it, but not as much as Loke did!” He went on to tell about an this same old-timer that I had heard my father mention so often, who loved it even more than he did. “How,” I asked, “could anyone love it more than you?”

“Well,” he explained, “Loke was partially blind and depended on his sense of touch and feel to compensate for what his eyes couldn’t tell him. He wouldn’t just eat the loon and dumplings. When that was gone, he would lift the pot to his mouth and drink the gravy. But even that wasn’t all,” Uncle Bert added. “Once he had drunk all the gravy, he would wipe his hands inside the pot and moisten them with what was left. Then he would run his hands and fingers through his hair.”

Hearing that, I agreed that, “Loke loved loon more than anybody I’ve ever hear of,” including my Uncle Bert.

Lemmis Willis and his chickens

Loke’s cousin, Lemmis Willis, worked the water with his extended family and the other men of the neighborhood. He was one of those who was called a “progger.” He didn’t have his own boat, but instead worked in the crew of someone who did. Between the fishing seasons, and even during them, he and others like him would, on their own, rake & sign for clams, bend over for oysters, scoop for scallops, pot for hard crabs, or shed for soft crabs. They progged the sound to make a living. Like so many others, his everyday life was tied closely to the season, the tide, and especially the wind. Those three things, taken together, told a progger what he would do on any given day.

For Lemmis, and others like him, life was simple, and fortunately did not require much in terms of money. Food and shelter weren’t just the beginning of their concerns, to a large extend, they were the end as well. After visiting and coming to know people on the Island at the turn of the 20th century, a Mormon missionary characterized this group of Islanders as “... good, humble, but very poor people. All they lived on was a few fish they would catch, then sell them, and not worry any more until all the money was gone.” A later observer would question and take exception to this characterization, but it did apply to some of the Island people, even when I was a boy.

In spite of anyone's relative poverty, because their home was surrounded by fish & shellfish and an abundance of both domestic & water fowl, and because they lived in the midst of a large extended family, real hunger was seldom a concern. Yet, shelter sometimes was. This was true even though almost all Island people and families are and were sedentary in a way that remains surprising to most visitors. Still, there were a few families that, although they always remained within the confines of the Island, never really had a place of their own.

Even the poorest of families, including that of Lemmis Willis, maintained a small flock of laying hens (see post no. 33). On those occasions when a family was obliged to pull up stakes, the accepted way to transport the chickens was to tie their legs with a soft string, lay them on the backs, and place them in a wooden fish box until they could be “cut loose” at their new home. After a while, Lemmis had moved his stuff so many times that even his hens grew sensitive to how often it occurred. So sensitive, in fact, it was said that when his chickens saw him coming, “ they rolled over on their back, and crossed their legs!”

To this day, when we hear of someone who has frequently changed locations, it is common for someone to ask if it has reached the point that, “his chickens have crossed their legs?”

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