The many facets of Wampanoag Chief Flying Eagle, Earl H. Mills Sr., sparkle like sun off the flashing Mashpee herring run in April.
One side of Mills, now 85, is the simple kid who grew up in Mashpee on Cape Cod at a time when mayflowers in the woods signaled spring’s start, and meant money in kids’ pockets when they sold the small fragrant bouquets for 15 cents by the side of the road. He talks about this in both his cookbook, “The Cape Cod Wampanoag Cookbook” and in his memoir, “Son of Mashpee, Reflections of Chief Flying Eagle, a Wampanoag.”
It was a time when a morning in the trout streams and ponds meant smallmouth bass, yellow perch, and pickerel for dinner. Cape Cod herring were corned or marinated; its roe was sauteed in bacon fat and served with parsleyed potatoes and creamed-style corn. (Today only the Wampanoag are allowed to fish for herring.) Mills’ father knew it was time to smoke the herring by the arrival of the sweet fern in the woods.
Scallop season came in the fall with cranberry picking; young Mills’ hands would be cut and bleeding after an afternoon of shucking the day’s harvest with friends, although camaraderie and ceviche sampling came with that shucking. “The Scallop Man” passed by every night during the season to collect that day’s harvest, a 10-bushel non-commercial limit. Mills says that in those days – even hand harvesting – almost everyone got their limit.
“From the time we were 8 nor 9 years old my brother Elwood and I led fishing and hunting expeditions. Like our father, grandfather and uncles before us, we prepared the boats, baited the hooks, rowed for the better part of the day, and cleaned the fish for the men who hired us as Indian guides. Our father taught us how to fly cast as well as to use a rod and reel, the clamming rake and the eel spear. He taught us how to carry a gun safely and how to clean it. He taught us how to use an ax and a bucksaw and showed us the proper way to clean and cook game. He taught us skills exactly the way his own father had taught him.”
The Cape Cod woods were flush with quail, partridge, rabbit and deer.
There’s the Cape Cod boy, and there is Mills, the high school star athlete, who went into the Army after finishing high school, and from there went to Arnold College to play football and run track. He was later athletic director at Falmouth High.
In the Army, Mills first honestly connected with his Wampanoag heritage; one night at Fort Dix, a group of soldiers were sitting around, and a young Iroquois from New York state started a tribal dance. A Chippewa from Montana joined him; it was that moment, far from Mashpee, that Mills first recognized his Indian background as something to be celebrated. When he returned to Mashpee 15 months later, he went directly to the tribal leaders, and said “teach me.”
In 1956, in the Old Indian Church at Mashpee, the Rev. C.C. Wilson and Supreme Sachem Ousa Mequin — Yellow Feather — declared Mills chief: “You receive the name Flying Eagle, and, as such you are in charge of all Council Meetings held by the Indians of Mashpee, Massachusetts, and none is above you in any office.”
When I visited Mills in his warm cottage the other day, he made us lunch — corn chowder and lobster salad on a toasted roll. He was taking a pot of chowder to his daughter who wasn’t feeling well. Photographs of the recent snow and of grandchildren lay in ordered piles on the kitchen table, ready to be put into weekly letters to friends. The phone rang a lot — more friends calling to chat. Mills still corresponds with high school and Arnold College classmates, if not almost everyone else who has had the fortune to know him. He has five children, many grandchildren, and some great ones. He even gets along well with his two ex-wives; some would say that alone describes a chiefly character.
While respect for the land that nurtured his people, for his ancestors, and for the generations of family that lovingly surround him grace almost everything he does, Chief Flying Eagle is no grave Indian. A meltingly lovely tenor, Mills slides in and out of show tunes when he cooks — “Shoefly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy! – Makes your heart light and your tummy rowdy!”
Dance moves are necessary to explain exactly why lobster salad (with a little extra lemon) on a toasted hotdog bun express culinary perfection. (Cool sweet lobster. Acid of lemon. Warm, crisp outside of roll. Soft, sweet inside of roll.) Dance moves — and the guy can dance — are just another verb in the Mills vocabulary.
“My name as a kid was Path Finder,” Mills told me after a flurry of hip shimmies, “I never felt like I was a Flying Eagle,” he admitted, those eyes sparkling like waters running with jumping herring.
In 1972 he opened his own restaurant, The Flume, “near the herring run” in Mashpee. From 1972 to 2004, The Flume was considered the best place to taste beautifully prepared, honest Cape Cod foods. Mills learned to cook from his parents, who made feathery fish cakes and a fish stew as complex and flavorful as a soupe de poisson, and working in the best Cape Cod kitchens: The Coonomesset Inn, Wimpy’s and The Pompenesset Inn. Far ahead of its time really, The Flume combined the best of traditional restaurant dining with supreme respect for local ingredients. Herring was on the menu, served with cucumbers.
Three of Mills’ five children live in a development he built around the old family homestead; the street, Edna Oakley Mills Way, is named after his mother. There are homes on Edna Oakley Mills Way for sisters and nieces, too. Grandchildren seem to be everywhere. At the circle, where the road rounds, is a memorial to Ferdinand Wilson Mills and Edna Oakley Mills, his parents, thanking them for their full lives of dedication to the town of Mashpee.
Cooking for Mills is love, art, and heritage. “My ancestors are with me as I prepare or enjoy favorite foods. I never make fish cakes and beans without feeling my father is back in the kitchen with me.”
He spent over an hour explaining the fine points of breading shellfish: never use anything finely ground with clams or oysters; a finely ground meal such as flour will absorb too much liquid and turn quickly to mush, not giving the shellfish the delicious “crunch.” Unsalted saltines are oyster’s ideal breading.
Hold shucked clams in your hands, in a shallow bowl of a little water and the clam liquid. Gently feel for broken shells, cupping your hands in the liquid beneath the clams. Lift the clams, again with your hands, gently out of the liquid and into the breading.
“As you want to get the breading on, you want to get it right off again!” As soon as the clams land in the breading lift them out and shake them a bit to get any excess breading off. That would be the “too moist” breading that will again make the crust too mushy.
Baked or broiled scallops need only a dusting of bread crumbs on top because they will take a shorter time to cook. Oysters and clams need a thicker cover of bread crumbs, basically to protect them from the heat in the time it takes to cook them.
The “milk,” the white liquid that bay scallops release when heated, is lots of flavor, and needs to be saved. Broiling scallops is tricky, because that “milk” just runs right out.
Mills understands more about what grows, swims, and moves on Cape Cod than most naturalists. (He told me that wild blueberry bushes are still alive under the ground, but the overgrowth is too thick to let the plants through; a controlled burn would open up this land to those kinds of Cape Cod plants again.) He says in “Son of Mashpee,” “In many ways Mashpee (the development there, the struggles of the native people to retain their heritage) is a microcosm of this country. To understand Mashpee is to understand our society better.”
There isn’t much that subdues that sparkle in Mills’ eye; mention of the current Wampanoag issues is one.
“My tribe is my family; I deal only with my family now. Those people (current Wampanoag leaders) don’t understand who we are or what we represent.”
And yet, in “Son of Mashpee” Chief Flying Eagle makes the plea, “In spite of the pain we had had to endure in the past, the Wampanoags ought to participate in shaping the future of this town, so that coming generations will inherit Mashpee with deep imprints of our heritage, our culture and our vision.”
Mills also told me this: “I don’t know anyone who has had as wonderful a life as I have.”
Earl Mills’ Corn Chowder
serves 10 to 12
Mills says you can use fresh corn or corn “niblets” for this; if you use fresh corn, add the cobs in with the potatoes for added flavor. He used Delmonte canned corn for our chowder; it was one of the best corn chowders I’ve tasted.
4 teaspoons salt
3 to 4 potatoes, diced
2 medium onions, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil, butter, or margarine
4 tablespoons butter or margarine
4 tablespoons flour
4 cups chicken stock
4 cups corn
3 cups milk, whole or skimmed or 2 cans evaporated milk
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 green pepper seeded and sliced
1. Place potatoes and 2 teaspoons of salt in a saucepan with enough water to barely cover the potatoes. Simmer until tender. Don’t strain the water. Set aside.
2. Saute onions in 2 tablespoons of olive oil butter or margarine. Cook until soft. Add to the potatoes and water.
3. Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter or margarine in a large saucepan. Add flour and stir over medium heat until mixture (roux) reaches the consistency of corn meal. Add the chicken stock and the water from the potatoes. Cook until thickened, whipping continually. Add the corn and the milk.
4. Gradually add the potatoes and onions to the thickened mixture. Continue to simmer and add the additional 2 teaspoons of salt (to taste). Simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add fresh ground pepper to taste now or when serving.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to email@example.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.