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Cedar Plank Cooking

My November Contribution to the NWTC Newsletter is below. The “Legend of the Cedar Tree” was only a foggy memory, which I refreshed from Jim Fox (posted on several websites, like this one here) I paraphrased it from this, and my recollections.

I grill whenever I can because it’s easy. I’m outside with a glass of wine, I don’t have to worry about a mess, and there’s a comfortable margin between well-done and rare, so I rarely get into trouble, unless I’m grilling tuna—then I use my watch. Last month, when I opened the bottom drawer to get the wire brush to scrape away the residue of my previous efforts, an opened pack of cedar planks fell out. I pulled out a plank and held it up to my nose, vaguely remembering a clumsy attempt at grilling salmon on a flaming piece of wood.

The smell of the cedar was faint, but distinct enough that it pushed opened a door in some long darkened hallway of memories, and I remembered Ouga. It’s night. I’m sitting around a campfire with the rest of my Cub Scout den. The park ranger, who is part Cherokee, is telling a story from long ago. He’s standing inside the circle of boys, next to the fire, glancing from the dancing flames to the young faces staring up at him, to the night sky, back to the fire, then to my eyes.

Many moons ago, he said, when the Cherokee people were first upon the earth, they thought it would be better if there was no night, and so they asked the Creator, called Ouga, if he would make it day all the time. Ouga heard their plea, and because he loved them, he made it so. Because the day was unending, without darkness, it became very hot, and the forest grew thick, and it became difficult to tend to the crops, and it was hard to sleep, and the people were not happy. So, the people thought how much better it might be if it were to be night all the time and they pleaded with Ouga to make it so. Because Ouga loved them, he made it so.

The night came. It grew very cold and the crops stopped growing. The people couldn’t see in the darkness to hunt, and without food from hunting or harvesting, there was a great hunger, and many people died. Those that survived gathered together and cried out, “Forgive us, Ouga. We have made a mistake. You had already blessed us with the perfect balance of light and darkness in the beginning. Please make it as it was before, when day and night lived side by side. We beg you.” Because Ouga loved them so, he forgave them, and made it so, returning the sun to the day and the moon and stars to the night.

The people grew strong again, and many in number. There was food to eat, and life was good. Ouga was happy to see his children happy, but he was sorry that so many had perished during the long, cold night; and so he gathered up their spirits and placed them in a newly created tree. He called the tree a-tsi-na-thu-gv, the cedar tree.

The park ranger walks through the ring of boys to a near-by cedar tree and cuts of a small limb with his knife. He walks back inside the circle and holds it up. He says, when you experience the aroma of the cedar tree, you are experiencing the ancient ancestors of the Cherokee people. He passes the branch to the nearest boy who smells it and passes it on. The branch is in my hands. The course, scaly foliage tickles my upper lip and I breathe deeply in. Fresh, sharp, fragrant; let there be light, separate the night from the day, and it was so, life everlasting in the aroma of cedar.

Forty years pass. I’m on my deck holding a dried plank of cedar in my hands, still with the scent of ancient ancestors past. I yell though the screen door to Sue, “I think I’m going to grill salmon tomorrow, on cedar planks.”

“Better soak it this time.”

“Yeah. I think I’ll soak it in wine.”