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Section 799.2 - A Taste of Partridge Pie


Laurie Bogart Wiles

Welcome to Hardscrabble. To those of you who are visiting for the first time, pleased you’re here. If you’ve been to Hardscrabble in the pages of Corey Ford’s “Minutes of the Lower Forty” stories, welcome back. Hardscrabble is just down the road apiece, in rural northern New England, the last town on the border before you get into the neighboring state. Don’t look for it on a map; it’s on no map I know of. So, when you get lost, as you invariably will, don’t worry when you ask for directions and are told, “You can’t get there from here.”

Because that’s right. You can’t.

Hardscrabble is the home of the Lower Forty Shooting, Angling, and Inside Straight Club. The antics and misadventures of that band of eccentric hunters and anglers have warmed the cockles of sportsmen’s hearts the world over since 1952. That’s the year Ford finally obliged his good friend and hunting buddy, Ray Holland, celebrated editor-inchief of Field & Stream, with a monthly column he’d write for his magazine. “Minutes of the Lower Forty” appeared in every issue until Ford’s death in 1969, at the age of 67.

Hardscrabble’s thick-skinned, soft-hearted Yankee townsfolk were embraced by countless numbers of readers and Lower Forty Charter Clubs were founded by kindred sportsmen all over the world. There waseven a South Saigon Chapter, founded by a group of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. If you ever cast a line at a rising trout that spit out your fly, or missed a clean shot at a ruffed grouse, then you could be a member of The Lower Forty, too.

“A Taste of Partridge Pie” was published in October 1963, a decade into The Lower Forty’s 16-year run. Mister MacNab is featured in this story. A Scotsman by birth (hence the “accent” and no, “the old family homestead” was merely a bad investment he’d made years before but wouldn’t own up to), he’s the owner and operator of Hardscrabble’s funeral parlor and the Lower Forty’s designated driver, since his hearse serves as The Lower Forty’s official club car when it’s otherwise not in use. You’ll meet Judge Parker, the county magistrate, who wears waders under his judiciary robes to avoid missing a mayfly hatch early in the season. Cousin Sid does all the cooking, and the members meet at his camp on the lake whenever there’s fish to fry or birds to baste because he’s the only member who can cook. Otherwise, The Lower Forty meets in the back of Uncle Perk’s Store, ’round the woodstove. You buy your groceries at Uncle Perk’s unless you want to drive to town, which is a ways away. You can get pretty much everything you need there — your groceries, fresh and canned, boiled wool hunting pants, guns and fishing rods and oh, yes — next to the ground beef in the glass-domed meat counter you’ll find worms in little white boxes, if you’re going fishing for smallmouth bass. (‘Uncle Perk’s jug’ refers to the gin he famously distills himself.) And of course, there’s Doc Hall, Hardscrabble’s, one and only doctor, who’s knowledgeable on some things and wise on most. The other members of the Lower Forty are all surely there, though not mentioned in this story. So is the club’s nemesis, Deacon Godfrey.

Now, if you really want to know whether Hardscrabble is real, then I’m here to tell you — it is. It’s true, as true as I can make it, and I should know. I lived there for 40 years.

A Taste of Partridge Pie

The afternoon shadows had lengthened and there was an October chill in the air as the members of the Lower Forty piled their bird-dogs into Mister MacNab’s hearse and headed for the final cover of the day. They bounded and jolted in contented silence over the rutted back road, bound for their favorite alder swale on the other side of Moose Mountain. Mister MacNab pointed to an abandoned farmhouse, set in a weed-grown clearing, and heaved a sigh as he passed. “Forgive this sentimental tear-r-r,” he apologized, dabbing his eye. “’Tis the original MacNab homestead.”

Uncle Perk peered through a side window at the dilapidated building, the roof sagging and the barn already collapsed in a dismal pile of rotting timbers. “Didn’ know your folks was fr’m aroun’ these pa’ts.”

“Aye, we’re old pioneer stock,” Mister MacNab assured him. “It accounts for my pr-r-ronounced Yonkee accent.” He added with pride: “My great-greatgrandfeyther Remember MacNab came across with the Mayflower.”

“That’s the only time a MacNab ever came across with anything,” Doc Hall commented.

Mister MacNab ignored him. “He settled here in Hardscrabble and founded the family fortune making horsehair scalplocks and selling them to the Indians. His son Dutiful MacNab went into the wooden nutmeg business, and his son, my grandfeyther Mordecai, studied chemistry at Harvard and operated a successful still. All their savings wee invested in the ancestral monsion ye’ve just passed.” His voice choked with emotion. “It breaks my hair-r-rt to luik at it now.”

Cousin Sid nodded sympathetically. “You mean the thought of all the hard labor that went into it?” “No,” Mister MacNab corrected, a note of bitterness in his voice, “I mean the thought of all the taxes I’ve paid on that guid-for-nothing wairthless hunk of real estate.”

“Why don’t you get rid of the old place?” Colonel Cob asked.

“There’s naebody foolish enough to buy it,” Mister MacNab muttered, bending over the wheel. “The land’s so puir that you have to put green goggles on the cows and feed them excelsior.” The hearse followed the winding road around the base of Moose Mountain. “The only thing tht’s ever been raised on that farm is the town assessment—”

Judge Parker, in the front seat beside him, uttered a grunt of surprise and pointed ahead. A state Highway Department truck was parked beside their bird-cover, and a surveying crew was hammering down stakes with red flags along the roadside. Jim Dunne, the chief surveyor, crouched behind a tripod and dangling plumb line, sighting through his transit at a blackand- white pole in the distance. Judge Parker leapt out of the hearse and hurried toward him. “Wotinell’s going on, Jim?”

“State highway’s coming through here,” Jim Dunne replied. “I’m not supposed to mention it, but the secret’s already out. Deacon Godfrey got wind of it somehow.”

A muscle hopped in the Judge’s jaw. “What’s he been up to?”

“Haven’t you heard? He’s put in a bid for this whole tract of land where you’re going to hunt. Says it’s a perfect site for a motel, with the new road running right by.”

The members of the Lower Forty exchanged stricken glances. “Well, that means goodbye to the best grouse and woodcock cover in Hardscrabble,” Doc Hall muttered. “He’ll cut down all the alders, and post the rest of it just for spite.” He beckoned to the others. “Come on, let’s have one last farewell hunt.”

Jim Dunne watched them enviously as they took their dogs and guns from the hearse. “Wish I could knock off work and come with you,” he sighed. “Haven’t gunned for years. “I’d do anything to taste a partridge again.”

Mister MacNab paused, and a curiously thoughtful expression came over his face. “Would ye, noo, Shamus?” he cooed. “Weel, that gives me an idea.” His eye had a crafty glint. “Have ye ever tasted on of Cousin Sid’s par-r-rtridge pies? Ye dinna ken what eating is like till ye try it. Tell him how ye make it, Sidney.”

“Well, first you parboil the birds,” Cousin Sid explained, “and use the gravy to make a cream sauce, and add onions and sliced hard-boiled eggs and butter and ground pepper and just a pinch of oregano and a little sherry to taste—”

“Pairhops half a bottle,” Mister MacNab interrupted. “I tell ye, mon, ‘tis even better than haggis.” He stole a quick glance at the surveyor’s drooling lips. “Why don’t ye drop over to Cousin Sid’s camp tomorrow night and share it with us?”

Jim Dunne beamed. “Sure appreciate the invitation,” he said gratefully. “If there’s any little favor you fellows ever want—”

“As a matter of fact, Shamus,” Mister MacNab said innocently, “it just so happens there’s one wee thing ye could do for us.”

“Name it.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday, and yere crew willna be wor-r-rking. Take them over to my old farm on the back road, and have them drive some stakes with red flags in the front yard. Ye might set up yere tr-r-ripod and be taking some measurements,” he added, “just in case Deacon Godfrey drops by…”

The succulent aroma of partridge pie wafted from the kitchen of Cousin Sid’s camp, and his fellow members relaxed in comfortable chairs before the fireplace, sipping Uncle Perk’s jug while their host prepared the evening repast. They looked up with interest as Mister McNab strode through the door, cackling with glee. “My little ruse wair-r-rked like a charm,” he reported, reaching for the jug. “Old Godfrey fell for it huik-line-and-sinker.”

He collapsed in a paroxysm of mirth at the recollection, and the other members waited impatiently. “What happened?” Judge Parker prompted.

“I managed to drop a hint to the Deacon that they were planning to re-locate the new highway on the other side of Moose Mountain, right past my farm,” Mister MacNab continued when he was able to control himself. “He jumped into his jalopy anddrove out to see for himself. They surveying crew was working there, sure enough, and he raced back to town and canceled his bid for our alder cover, and then he rushed over to my mor-r-rtuary parlor and tole me he was willing to buy the old homestead and take it off my honds.”

Mister MacNab choked with laughter, and had to take another swing of Old Stump Blower to regain his voice.

“Fiar-r-rst he offered me five hundred, and then six, and finally eight, and I was fearful he might quit at that, so I told him I was entertaining several other bids, and he settled for a gr-r-rond. Paid me cash, and I signed the deed this afternoon.” The State Highway Department truck pulled up in front of the camp, and he greeted Jim Dunne with a broad smile. “Shamus, I’ll ne’er be able to thank ye enough.”

“You fellows’ve got more to thank me for than this,” Jim Dunne said mysteriously. He watched Cousin Sid bring the partridge pie from the kitchen, its crust a flaky golden brown, and waited till everyone was seated around the oilcloth-covered table. “I’ve got some good news for you,” he announced, helping himself to a steaming portion. “You don’t have to worry any more about the state highway going past your pet bird-cover.”

Mister MacNab borrowed the spoon and transferred a generous helping of pie to his own plate. “Shamus, ye’re a mon after my own hair-r-rt,” he chuckled, poising a forkful at his lips. “How did ye ever monoge it?”

“Well, I got to looking over that back road while I was out there today,” Jim Dunne replied, and it’s a much better route. Cuts out some bad grades and saves a couple of miles. We’re putting the highway right through that old property of yours.”

The fork landed on Mister MacNab’s plate with a dull clank.

“Of course, the Deacon will probably hold up the state for a healthy sum,” Jim Dunne admitted. “He’s got us over a barrel. I hear he’s planning to ask ten grand.”

He took a mouthful of pie, swallowed it reverently, and smacked his lips. “Best partridge pie I ever tasted,” he said, nudging Mister MacNab. “Wait till you try it.”

Mister MacNab shoved back his plate untouched. His face was a sickly grey. “I seem to have lost my appetite,” he murmured.

Section 799.2 is the area in a library that houses hunting literature. Please join us here each issue for more of the same.

Corey Ford