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Railbirds, Cranberries, and Eels: Foods of the New Jersey Pinelands

Men using rakes to gather up cranberries floating on water in a flooded cranberry bog.

Cranberry Harvest at Birches Cranberry Bog, Tabernacle, New Jersey. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, 1982. Pinelands Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress. See the archival scan at the link.

The Pinelands Folklife Project Collection is the result of a three-year ethnographic study of the pine barrens of Southern New Jersey focusing on the interconnection of culture with the environment. There is a great deal to be found in this collection, including music, arts, and the many cultural groups in this region. For this blog I will focus on what seems to me to be the heart of the collection: hunting, gathering, growing, and preparing foods.

A stump with a flat piece of wood for a top.

Henry Webb’s garden Chatsworth, New Jersey. Bees in a hollow stump hive made by Webb. The branch stub seen on the left has a hole in it for the bees to go in and out. Photo by Christina Cartwright, 1983. Pinelands Folklife Project collection, Library of Congress. See the archival scan at the link.

The area studied is the Pinelands National Reserve, the first National Reserve in the United States, created in 1978. Managed by the National Park system, it is different from  a National Park. Farms, towns and scattered homes in the forest and marsh lands are part of this protected area. The families who settled the area, who call themselves “Pineys,” made some or all of their living from the forest and waters of the region. Many also keep extensive gardens to grow food for their households. So the conservation efforts of the Pinelands National Reserve must be balanced with the inhabitants’ use of the land and its resources. The Reserve was still new at the time this study was done and residents were still adapting to the rules concerning land use that came with the establishment of the Reserve.

The woodlands and marshes of the Pinelands provide a rich environment for those who wish to live closely with or to make their living from the land. The folklorists found that people spent time in the woods and marshes gathering plants for decorations, such as cattails, bittersweet, and pine cones, as well as for food, such as wild berries. Some folks with knowledge of fungi gathered edible wild mushrooms. Some native plants, such as cranberries and blueberries, have been cultivated over time so that they are grown commercially and shipped to be sold widely. Though still found in the wild, growing cultivated varieties has become common for both gardeners and commercial farmers. These are perhaps the most familiar products of the Pinelands to people living outside New Jersey. Cranberries are sought after for homemade relishes used at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The fieldworkers documented small family farms as well as a larger farm producing cranberries for autumn feasts.

The researchers sought out local recipes for using cranberries. Where cranberries are plentiful, they found, there are many more ways that the berries are used than the familiar relishes. Recipes for a variety of baked goods and sauces were compiled by fieldworkers to make a booklet from the Pinelands Folklife Project. The result is so popular that it has since been made available online: Cranberries [PDF] So you can download this booklet and try some New Jersey cranberry dishes.

Hunting of deer, pheasant, and duck, such as is found elsewhere on the east coast, are common sports. But the fieldworkers also found a wide variety of game was hunted or trapped for food, including raccoons, opossums, and snapping turtles.

Two men stand in a small flat boat among tall reeds. The man in the front holds a shotgun, while the man in the back pushes the boat with a long pole. Another boat carrying two men can be seen among the reeds behind them.

Railbirding on the Maurice River, New Jersey. Gerald E. Parsons Jr. (left) and Kenneth Camp (right). Photo by Dennis McDonald October 2, 1984. Pinelands Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress. See the archival scan at the link.

Rails or railbirds are a group of bird species plentiful in the wetlands of New Jersey, though it takes some skill to find them. The sora rail is the one most commonly sought after by hunters in New Jersey. While hunters of ducks and other waterfowl wonder why rails are worth the extra effort, hunters who seek them out know that the breast of the sora rail makes tasty dishes and consider it well worth the hunt. Some of the most interesting documentation of hunting in the project is on the practices around hunting these birds. Folklorist Gerald E. “Gerry” Parsons (1940-1995), who was the head of reference in the Folklife Reading Room, was an expert on east coast railbirding traditions. Fieldwork on railbirding in the Maryland marshes as well as in New Jersey is included in this collection. The fieldworkers documented the flat-bottomed skiffs designed for railbirding. These are narrow enough to move through the marsh reeds with minimal disturbance, yet stable enough to allow a hunter to stand in the boat with a shotgun to hunt while companion takes the role of a “pusher” and poles the boat through the marsh. The sides of the boat are low, helping to make them hard to see. In the reeds they become almost invisible in the grasses, and so help the hunters to sneak up on the rails. The hunters may also sit and row the boats to move more quickly over open water.

Participant observation is a research technique where a researcher does what the people in a community do, participating in activities in order to experience what they do as well as to develop better questions for the experts in the community.  It also helps to build trust with the community being studied. Because Gerry Parsons already had experience as a hunter and specifically with railbirding, he was able to stand in a boat and hunt along with groups of hunters to learn more about their particular practices. In the photograph at the top of this blog, folklorist Gerry Parsons can be seen in the front of the boat with his gun, with Kenneth Camp pushing the boat. If you look just beyond the front of the boat you can see the front of another boat in the reeds. The boat and the two hunters in the boat behind the one Gerry stands in, you can see how the boat and the hunters become hard to see in the marsh.

In the recording above, Kenneth Camp, who is pushing a boat, can be heard directing hunters. Gerry Parsons can be heard asking questions. Pushers are leading the hunt and directing the action, as they are not focused on the game and so can watch those who are shooting and tell the hunters when it is safe to shoot without endangering anyone else. Hunters may be from outside the area and may not be experienced at railbird shooting. The pushers are the most experienced. If not employed as pushers for the duration of a hunt, as in this case, local hunters may switch roles and take turns pushing and shooting.

A man holds a fish and fishing pole. Water can be seen behind him

Melvin Greenhowe holds a fish he caught in Kirby’s Millpond, Medford, New Jersey. Detail of a photo by Christine Cartwright, 1983. Pinelands Folklife Project collection, Library of Congress. See the archival scan at the link.

The marshes, oceans, and freshwater ways of the pine barrens provide a wealth of food for those inclined to go after it. Access to water is often nearby people’s homes or on their land. The research team focused on the traditional ways of fishing and trapping food in the waters the region, both sport and small commercial operations. Sport fishing is naturally a common activity for putting food on the table, as it requires only basic fishing poles and lines. The team documented some of these fishermen enjoying catching bluefish and other fish for their own fish fries. In the photo to the left, Melvin Greenhowe displays a fish he caught.

The mix of salt, brackish, and fresh waters as well as open waters and marshes in the area also provide a variety of more unusual aquatic creatures for those who have a taste for them as well as the knowledge and ability to go after them.

 

Eels spend much of their lives in the open ocean but return to the marshes where they were born in order to lay their eggs.  The migrations of eels provide opportunities for fishermen.

A box trap holding live eels is pulled from the water.

Live-box full of eels. Visit to Lynwood R Veach’s eeling dock on West Creek, Eldora, New Jersey. Detail of a photo by Jens Lund, 1983. Pinelands Folklife Project collection, Library of Congress. See the archival scan at the link.

Eels may be caught in the marshes and along the shore. Eels were once considered poor people’s food in the United States but more recently have become a delicacy well worth the effort to fish for. Because of concerns about over-fishing as the trade in eels began to respond for a growing gourmet market at the time this study was done, the laws regulating eel fishing in the Reserve and in different New Jersey counties varied. Researchers asked residents about the rules to learn how people perceived and responded to the restrictions. Eels in some jurisdictions could only be line caught, while closer to the sea they could be trapped. So commercial eeling was done in areas where trapping was allowed while sport fishers using lines and poles could catch eels for the dinner table in any location where eels could be found.

Snapping turtles live in the New Jersey marshes and are a local delicacy. Trapping and handling snapping turtles requires specialized knowledge, so the  research team sought out an expert who could tell them about catching and marketing snappers. They found one in Herbert Misner.

A man looks at a large turtle in a wire trap.

Herbert Misner with a snapping turtle in a fyke (a type of trap). Near Medford, New Jersey. Photo by Dennis McDonald, 1984. Pinelands Folklife Project collection, Library of Congress. See the archival scan at the link.

In this interview Herbert Misner talks at length about trapping turtles with Mary Hufford and Rita Moonsammy. He sells them at the fish market and to restaurants where they are used for making snapper soup. They are usually sold alive so he keeps them in bathtubs until they are sold. He talks about how a turtle is trapped, kept live, and butchered. Once the snapper is killed, the meat is best used to make soup right away or  the soup may be frozen. Snapper soup shared among friends at a dinner party was one way to use the turtle meat quickly and enjoy it at its freshest. According to Misner and other people interviewed, snapper soup parties were once common gatherings at people’s homes in the pinelands, but had become less popular at the time of this interview. A few local restaurants still serve snapper soup, Misner says, but he sells most of his snappers to dealers outside the region. At 10 minutes into this recording Herbert Misner (trapper) and Betty Gravinese talk about making snapper soup:

The people of the Pinelands fish for a variety of shellfish both commercially and, on a smaller scale, for their family tables. These include oysters, crabs, and clams. The fieldworkers documented various aspects of commercial clamming, including a ride on a clamming boat with Charles “Cholly” DeStefano, in Rumson, New Jersey. They also visited a shucking house and looked into the making of clamming tools.

A man using a large clam rake to bring clams into his boat.

Clamming, Rumson, New Jersey. Photo by Joseph P. Czarnecki, 1983. Pinelands Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress. See the archival scan at the link.

A woman adds dumpling dough to a pot of stew on her stove.

Mrs. Betty West making “clam pop pie” (clam stew with dumplings). In this picture she is adding the dumpling dough to the pot of clam stew. Detail of a photo by Elaine Thatcher, 1983. Pinelands Folklife Project collection, Library of Congress. See the archival scan at the link.

With clams so plentiful, people had various ways of preparing them. Fieldworker Elaine Thatcher documented Betty West in New Gretna, New Jersey, making a local dish she called “clam pop pie” which is not pie, but a stew prepared with large dumplings added to the pot of clams and vegetables. The “pops” are the dumplings. The photographs show the preparation step by step. Mrs. West also made cole slaw as a side dish. It sounds like a recipe worth trying!

A woman with gray hair slices vegetables.

Mrs. Helen Zimmer cutting an onion for chow chow. Photo by Elaine Thatcher, 1983. Pinelands Folklife Project collection, Library of Congress. See the archival scan at the link.

Other residents of the Pinelands National Reserve shared their cooking traditions with the fieldwork team. Sue Samuelson (1958-1991) interviewed Helen and George Zimmer as they were making chow chow (mixed vegetable pickles) to can. In this recording they talk about making dandelion and wild cherry wine, holiday breads, canning, and sharing these foods among family and neighbors. Some of the foods they make are related to their German heritage, such as the chow chow, fasnachts (a type of doughnut), and stollen. George also talks about his garden, which provides a variety of vegetables both for their own table and to share with family and neighbors.

 

At the end of the recording the Zimmers take Sue into the cellar to see the produce the couple has canned, mainly from their own garden. Foraged dandelions are used to make their dandelion wine, a special treat brought out as a desert wine for holidays and to welcome guests.

The interview with the Zimmers illustrates of the kinds of sharing and gifting of home made foods and wine that is a strong tradition in the Pinelands. Community dinners were also found to be an important part of this spirit of sharing expressed in food. Benefit events such as church suppers and firehouse dinners were documented by the research team.

Two women stand by a large shelf of canned fruits and vegetables. One woman holds a wine bottle.

Folklorist Sue Samuelson (left) holds a bottle of Mrs. Zimmer’s dandelion wine as she and Mrs. Zimmer (right) explore her shelves of home canned goods. Photo by Elaine Thatcher. Pinelands Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress. See the archival scan at the link.

There is a great deal more to explore in the Pinelands Folklife Project collection. Take a look and be inspired by the people of the New Jersey Pinelands and their diverse food traditions.

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