Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Miners of Shaft 17

French, Welsh, Cornish, English … Here’s a little of each from The Curious Autobiography:

The evidence that James was as good a lunchtime cook as he claimed was noticeable in the miners themselves, for within two years’ time, not a single miner at Shaft 17 packed his lunch, all preferring to buy it from James Jakes’s vending cart. . . .

Further evidence that James was a good cook could be found not only in the fact that the miners stopped bringing their lunches—which engendered not a little friction between those husbands and their wives, particularly among the younger couples—but also in the miners themselves, whose appearance was surprisingly different than the other miners fed at the mouths of the other mine shafts, who brought with them their typical lunch of a pasty (pronounced with a short –ă-, as in “has” not “paste”), the origin of which lunch item is of course not really Welsh but Cornish. The Cornish called these pasties “hoggan.” When the Welsh miners (or, more specifically, when their wives) got hold of that particular food, however, to make it their own, they seemed to have employed the now widely disseminated word “pasta,” which by that time, even in Italy, had begun to serve as an all-purpose word for various different kinds of food. Suddenly, the Cornish “hoggan” was the Welsh “pasty,” with no credit whatsoever given to the Cornish at the time; the pages of history were corrected only later in cookbooks published by honorable Welsh chefs, who felt guilty about the theft of one of the most common lunches prepared by the hands of honest, hardworking Welsh wives. But it was most certainly not pasties that James Jakes made as his specialty, for while a pasty will put meat on the miner’s bones, it won’t thicken him up the way James’s cooking clearly did. James’s specialty was ragoût de veau, a delicious veal stew, the recipe for which had been handed down to him by his father, Charles, who did some of the cooking—especially on special occasions—in the Jacques household, over the not-occasional objections (but to the epicurean delight) of Charles’s wife, Ruth (née Priestman), James’s mother. She was a woman of great faith but of ordinary culinary skill; her specialty was “Missouri” (also known as “Missouri Casserole”), a dish that became my personal specialty dinner, as I had about as much a knack for cooking as my great-grandmother Ruth—edible, quite; delectable, not quite, but rugged, rustic, and good. Missouri consists of ground beef (at bottom), precisely cut slices of peeled potatoes, equally precisely cut onions, and diced tomatoes. James Jakes, however, inherited his father’s unique culinary knack. Accordingly, James expanded his repertoire to include noix de veau Brillat-Savarin, which involved much more than warming some flavorful veal joints. Rather, add to that ample foie gras (which, beyond its use in Strasbourg pie, can be an excellent flavor enhancer for a number of dishes), bacon strips, morel mushrooms, and other various vegetables (chief among them carrots), all in savory béchamel sauce, with a few shallots added at the last minute, to taste—one should always be careful with onion products; perhaps, he added them a bit earlier than the last minute. Of course, the vital ingredient that he added—the key ingredient of any true French chef—was butter. All this on three substantial saucepans cooking on three portable Soyer (which he pronounced in the French fashion, “soy-yeah”) stoves, all at once, with sizable chunks of real French bread—surprisingly, the Welsh miners loved the French bread, for the supply of which my grandfather found a young baker who had a small bakery in Kingston at 334 Pierce Street—put on the side of each plateful served. And these were only two of his numerous French feasts. Among others, one could also find poularde Talleyrand Escoffier (a French dish paradoxically coming from London, a new dish at the time of my grandfather’s culinary apex). On top of all this, even during the dark years of prohibition he discreetly provided for his best customers a small glass of red wine, gratis—small because they had to go back to work, of course. The miners’ wives had no way to compete with these hot dishes, the French bread, or the occasional glass of vin rouge. Although Grandfather James Jakes’s business admittedly never made a great deal of profit—for the overhead for such a miner’s lunch was, one can imagine, high—he did feed the miners well, so well, as I was saying above, that the miners of Shaft 17 had a different appearance from the other miners. That difference could be measured in terms of their size, for they were slowly but surely becoming more and more corpulent. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that the miners of Shaft 17 gained, on average, a solid three inches around their waist per year, stuffed as they were with my grandfather’s scrumptious French cuisine. This led to upheaval because Shaft 17 was the only functioning mine shaft in the history of the Wyoming Valley that had to be recut to accommodate its workers. Furthermore, a greater number of the miners of that shaft had to see their church rectors for marriage counseling than any other shaft. Such was the depth to which my grandfather’s cooking led the miners to descend. Fortunately, I learned from that side of the family not the way of cooking à la française but only the Missouri recipe of James’s good wife, Ann, who was also not Welsh.

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