It’s that special day in June again. No, not that solstice thing. No, forget graduation. No, not the wedding thing. It’s Paul Bunyan Day! A day to celebrate an absolute idiot who blundered through the north woods, wearing plaid flannel, leading a cow named Babe, and wielding an ax with all sorts of symbolism.
(Okay, I’ll stop…)
Truly though, 28 June is Paul Bunyan Day. Which for those of us with ties to Up Nort means it’s time to eat pancakes — or rather, flapjacks — but there is no International House of Flapjacks, so I’ll stick to calling them pancakes. I have this recipe. But for summer, I like using fresh seasonal fruit on top. I also like adding chopped nuts and oatmeal to the batter at any time of the year. So feel free to experiment.
Of course, I think strawberries are perfect. And here’s a recipe for No-cook Strawberry Syrup.
Chop a quart or so of ripe berries as fine or thick as you like. Smaller makes for more surface area to interact with the sugars though.
Place berries in a bowl and drizzle with a quarter cup of pure maple syrup. Add 2 TBS caster sugar. Mix well.
Let this stand for up to an hour. Or longer, though in that case, cover it and put it into the fridge.
It should weep into a light and lovely pink syrup. If you don’t like the consistency, you can cook some of the water out. But that means more heat in the kitchen, and right now I doubt we need that.
You could do this with plums, apricots, peaches and nectarines, though honey might better complement these fruits. And you’ll want to slightly mash the fruit to get it to weep out the sugars. Cherries would go really well with maple syrup, but also try molasses (reduce to an 1/8th cup). Later in the summer you can use blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries and currants. For these pulpy fruits, you might not even need the syrup base. Just smash them up well and then use 4 TBS sugar. Maybe brown sugar.
This syrup will keep in the fridge for several weeks, if it lasts that long…
Now back to the lumberjack.
Paul Bunyan is a North American folk legend. He was outsized and famed for superhuman strength. His name may derive from the Québécois expression bon yenne! expressing surprise or astonishment, though some folklorists believe that Bunyan is an Anglicized version of Bon Jean, an historical Canadian lumberman of similarly outsized exploits. Jean was a leader in the Papineau Rebellion of 1837, when loggers from St Eustache, Canada, revolted against the British regime of the young Queen Victoria.
Bunyan-esque tales passed between loggers from camp to camp, often in fragments and brief allusions. He was credited with felling trees and hauling logs in the old growth forests that no ten men together could tackle. He gouged the Grand Canyon by dragging his ax after a long day. He dug the St Lawrence and the Great Lakes to expedite delivery of boatloads of maple syrup for his pancakes. (But of course.) He was a giant with a giant cow — which was blue, for reasons that are opaque to me. Some folklorists claim that Bunyan was never an actual folklore character, but rather he was created by literature mostly of an advertising and promotional nature. However, like many characters in folktales, it’s possible that the tales existed long before agglomerating onto a much later central character. In any case, Paul Bunyan doesn’t appear in print until the late 19th century, many decades after most logging camps were abandoned.
There are several places that claim to be Paul Bunyan’s birthplace. Bangor, Maine, might have the biggest statue commemorating the lumberjack’s birth — 31 feet of red flannel and fearsome logging tools. But Bemidji, Minnesota, has the oldest. Dating from 1937, it was built in the dawn years of car culture when roadside attractions sprouted up all over to lure travelers off the beaten path (or indeed off any kind of path at all). Many other Upper Midwest towns claim Bunyan as a native son. But Minocqua, Wisconsin, has Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty, boasting yet another statue, authentic flapjacks, biscuits and gravy that can clog arteries from ten feet away, and some positively divine warm buttermilk donuts that just materialize in mounds on the table the whole time you’re eating. (I believe there’s another of these breakfast joints in the Wisconsin Dells, but I’ve only been to the northern one.)
In the lore of the lumberjack there are quite a few auxiliary characters, apart from the blue cow. Bunyan worked with the Seven Lumberjacks, all of whom were enormous, hairy, and named Elmer — so Paul didn’t have to remember any other names. He had an accountant named Johnny Inkslinger who mostly kept records of cow feed. Then there was also Sourdough Sam who made everything — except coffee — from his sourdough culture. Of course, this is the true hero of the tales.
Here’s a very short but blessedly cold tale from Bunyan lore. Modified somewhat.
In the year of the two winters, the year when snow fell on the 4th of July, the snow was so deep Paul had to dig down to the trees to log them. It became so cold that the Elmers all grew out their beards. In a week, they could wrap themselves up in this luxuriant facial hair like fuzzy swaddling. Babe grew so cold, he froze into a blue lump. Paul put the frozen ox by the campfire to thaw, but Babe remained blue. It was so cold that boiling coffee froze so fast it was still hot when frozen, and when the lumberjacks talked their words froze in the winter air. When it finally thawed in the second spring, there was nattering hanging around the campfire for weeks. But the Elmers wrapped their long beards around their heads to muffle the noise. After the chattering melted away, Paul cut off their beards and sold them off as mattresses.
Have a grand Paul Bunyan Day, my friends!
©Elizabeth Anker 2022