A Culinary Delight
In the fall of 1968 I was 20 years old, had been in and out of college without much to show for it, and was at eminent risk of being drafted to be cannon fodder for the war in Viet Nam. With my brother Wendell’s help I found an open slot in the Michigan National Guard’s Lansing organizational maintenance unit just in time. He had found a slot for himself in an Owosso Military Police unit not many months earlier. Wendell was a barber at the time and the MNG adjutant general was one of his regular customers. Whew! . . .we were at least temporarily safe while still fulfilling our national service responsibilities.
After basic training at Fort Bragg in the wet, cold, red clay of Fayetteville, North Carolina they shipped me to Aberdeen Proving Grounds at the northern tip of the Chesapeake Bay where bitterly cold winter winds blew off the bay daily. From a culinary viewpoint (the way I remember many experiences of my oft-misspent youth) I recall the food in basic training being great, but we never had enough of it, or enough time to enjoy it. At the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where my specialty training took a full 16 weeks (twice as long as some basic mechanics programs), the food was plentiful and we had lots of time to eat, but it was dismally plain, uninspired and of marginal quality.
With training in fuel and electrical systems repair (63G20, as it was known in military-speak) I came back to spend one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer for the next six years fixing jeeps and Army trucks and being ready to be called up in an emergency. Within the first year of my Guard experience Wendell transferred to the MP unit in Lansing to be motor sergeant running the motor pool and he was able to facilitate my transfer to his unit to work with him. We accomplished much in our time in the MP motorpool, including the resurrection of a backwoods “tactical driving” course at Camp Grayling. We ran an efficient, low-key motor pool, being mercifully spared from the regimentation and unpleasantness inherent in most military environments because of our MP connection.
One summer, about half way through that six-year stint, one of our company’s cooks was unable to go to camp – a medical issue, as I recall. Somehow the bosses knew I had cooking experience – at a DQ and a regionally-famous fine restaurant (Win Shuler’s) in high school, a large dorm cafeteria in college and a Howard Johnsons Restaurant later – so I was assigned to fill that vacant job in the kitchen.
As it turned out my kitchen job was to come in around 4 AM to do all the baking for the day – pies, cakes, biscuits and even sometimes breads. I was fairly independent and was usually done with my day’s work by mid morning.
We had a senior non-com in our MP unit, staff sergeant Bob Mayo from Owosso, who was an avid fly fisherman and not overburdened with responsibilities at camp. He would take a jeep every morning out to the far western reaches of the camp just about dawn to fish the cold headwaters of the Au Sable River where it wound through dense northern pine and cedar swamps.
Camp Grayling situated in northern Lower Michigan, like many military reservations, covered tens of thousands of acres of pristine, forested wilderness. Two-track trails wind extensively through the forests keeping to the sandy high ground.
The Au Sable runs fast in the north woods fed by the surrounding wetlands and springs gushing from the loose riverbed. As you may know, trout just love fast, cold water where they face upstream with mouths open, swishing their tails just enough to hold a position, and gobble up anything that floats by while always being prepared to slurp up any bug that happens to touch the surface of the stream a well.
Sergeant Mayo, with his amazing fly-fishing skills, caught a nice mess of beautiful brook trout, perhaps 10 to 12-inches, just about every morning. He cleaned them by the river and brought them in to the mess hall just after everyone else finished breakfast.
As soon as I heard his jeep outside I would fire up the grille to just about 400-degrees. He would be inside by the time it was up to temp. I then slathered the grille generously with butter, lightly dusted the trout in corn meal and flour and quickly fried those tender, tasty little brookies until they were just cooked with a nice crispy skin. They sizzled and browned in just a couple of minutes leaving a wonderful fishy, buttery residue on the grill. As soon as the fish came off the eggs went on, deglazing the surface of the grill adding that distinct trout flavor to our over-easy eggs. Along with fresh hot biscuits just coming out of the oven, I could not imagine a more tasty and simple breakfast.
Throughout the intervening years, and there have been too many of those, I’ve made fish and eggs for breakfast using bluegills, other pan fish and a variety of store-bought fish, including trout. Occasionally, I’ve even found a restaurants that serves fish and eggs, but those are rare and usually disappointing with flavorless, often deep-fried mild fish.
Though the pan fish came close, nothing has ever tasted as good as Sergeant Mayo’s beautiful brookies served with biscuits and eggs.
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