When Don Wilson’s forebears arrived in what is now St. George and took up residence on Teel Island in 1777, they adopted what he calls a “subsistence” lifestyle that sustained that generation and those that followed until the early 1960s. It was Wilson’s great grandfather’s funeral that N.C. Wyeth depicted in his famous 1939 painting, “Island Funeral.”
“They had sheep, oxen and chickens and relied on the outward islands for duck eggs and gull eggs,” Wilson says, adding with a grin, “Whatever swam by or flew by pretty much was eaten if they could catch it. They came ashore for shoes, molasses, tobacco, salt and that sort of thing, but other than that they lived off the land and sea.”
As with many people with deep roots in St. George, that subsistence approach to putting food on the table—taking advantage of the bounties each season has to offer—has exerted a strong influence on Wilson throughout his life, from boyhood through a career as a commercial fisherman and through a second career in residential construction (he built the house at Seavey’s Cove where he now lives with his wife, Marilyn).
As a boy, Wilson says he spent a lot of time watching his mother, who came from an Italian family, cook. “She made hardy food, but it was different from what everybody else in town ate. At the time, I would have traded anything for a hot dog or something simple,” he laughs. Still, he absorbed a great deal from watching her make minestrone soup, boil bones and pull the marrow out, and make her own pasta. “I had a chance to see it all. She always said recipes are just a suggestion and I sort of maintain that myself.”
From the beginning, Wilson notes, smoked fish was something he particularly enjoyed. “I’ve loved smoked alewives from the time I was a little tiny kid. My dad used to take my brother and me and we’d go over to Warren in early to mid May and we’d watch the alewife run. In those days it was a big run and they didn’t shut the river off and try to trap them—the entire river would be full of alewives for days and days. There was a guy across the street who had a store and he had smoked alewives—they called them “bloaters”—in old soda boxes, big piles of them.”
Eventually, the young Wilson discovered neighbors in St. George were also smoking fish. “I found out there were guys in town who smoked herring and then I got to trying that. By the time I was in my early 20s I was smoking lots of fish.”
Once he began commercial fishing, the scale of Wilson’s smoking activities during his leaves at home increased. “I’d come in from fishing and of course we’d been catching a lot of haddock—we’d catch haddock by the thousands of pounds. I had friends who liked the old finnan haddie, so I’d fillet some haddock on the last day and bring them home and I’d smoke them. It got to be it would take every minute of my time to do all the orders I had. From there I went to smoked herring and it just never stopped. So that’s been a continual thing for me since age 25. I’ve tried smoking deer meat, moose ribs and I’ve tried everything I could try.”
Smoked cheese is a current passion, Wilson says. “I used to try to smoke cheese a little bit because I like smoked cheese, but I couldn’t get the temperature low enough. If you get to 75-80 degrees, it just drips.But just recently I finally built a ‘cold smoker’ from parts I found at the transfer station. The smoke that comes out of the nozzle doesn’t get hotter than 70 degrees at best—it never has a chance to go beyond a smoulder.” This summer, he says, he’ll be putting the finishing touches on a new smokehouse to use with this latest piece of smoking equipment.
Another, “old school” way of preserving a seasonal marine harvest that Wilson has enjoyed doing since his mid-20s is pickling conchs or whelks. “My family used to pickle whelks on the islands and Metinicus people did it. I just happened to come up with a little bit of a recipe with a few alterations that modernized the old recipes a bit.” Today pickled whelks are uncommon, so when Wilson brings them to social gatherings, he notes, they are often the unexpected hit of the party, especially for people from away.
As it was for his ancestors, Wilson’s harvest-to-table schedule is full, but paced.
“I follow the seasons. October 1 we go grouse hunting in northern Maine, it’s venison after that and from venison it usually goes into rabbit hunting and then from rabbit hunting we mix in a little smelt fishing (ice fishing) right here at Turkey Cove and different places. Then in the spring fiddle heads take me through Mother’s Day and by then the striped bass are in. And then I’m into the pickled conchs, followed by picking a little crabmeat.”
In mid July, he adds, he was catching squid for calamari with which he likes to make ceviche (which is also good with fresh scallops or fish, he notes). And as August was approaching he began watching the tides for when it would be optimum for harvesting big quahogs. “I like eating the muscles that close the shells—we always called them sweet meats, like a small scallop.They are to die for! If you cook them, they would be like rubber, but if you eat them raw they’re just tender and sweet, with a briny ocean taste.”
Being retired, Wilson says, has made it possible to follow the seasons more fully than he was able to do during his working life. “Now I have the time to really do it. It’s an inexpensive pleasure. It’s a hobby that costs me only my time.”
Being retired, too, has allowed Wilson to do some culinary exploration—often inspired by chance exposures to different cuisines such as Thai, Mexican, German and Japanese.
“I made salsa there for a while—my wife loves it and then some friends tried it and the next thing I know I’m making mixing bowls of it and passing that around. I’d go down to the General Store and I’d buy tomatoes—the ones they call the “drops” that you could get for $.80 a pound—and I’d get 20 pounds of those and make salsa and pass it around.”
Anyone who knows him, also knows that in recent years Wilson has been making sauerkraut at a nearly commercial scale.
“One evening in the fall of the year, winter was coming on and I had everything I could do done, and I thought about Morse’s sauerkraut and I wondered how do you make sauerkraut? So I started looking at recipes on line and I kept looking and looking and finally I tried it and it came out good. I think I made 20 pounds the first year and the next year it went from 20 to 40 and then 40 to 60, 80, 100, 150, 200 pounds and it just kept going and going. So eventually I bought a kraut slicer because I couldn’t keep up with it. I just couldn’t slice all that cabbage. I give all of it away other than what we eat ourselves.”
Sharing what he prepares from the harvest—or what his culinary experimentation yields—is clearly a big part of the satisfaction Wilson gets from his seasonal and specialty food “hobby.” And that, too, has a lot to do with his heritage.
“I pass what I make around to anyone who likes it, that’s sort of what I do. I do this for myself and my friends. I like to keep it fun. Everything has its season and when you do it that way you get more pleasure. When I grew up, nobody had a lot of things, but when you had extra you always shared it with the neighbors and it was just what you did. Whatever it was, blueberries, deer meat, fish. They dropped them off and you dropped off whatever you had extra in return.” After a reflective pause, he adds, “It’s not a bad way to live.” —JW
PHOTOS: Julie Wortman