Hide And Seek

Boiling brains and hunting voles in search of the old-time fur trader's life

In baking circles, learning from experience is called "getting your hands in the dough." In Hastings's case, "getting your hands in the brains" might be more applicable.

Hastings's leathermaking technique, known as brain tanning, is the process of treating raw deerskin in a mixture of brain and water so that it cures into a buttery, almost clothlike material. According to Braintan.com's "A History of Brain Tanning," the earliest recorded instance of this tanning method is Homer's Iliad. Hastings's current method is not much different.

"I use pork brains," he explains, "because it's the most available noncommercial tanning agent. I can buy them at the supermarket." He freely admits that working with brains is not for the squeamish. "I've cooked many a brain and I can't get used to the smell. It's pretty dang funky." During his city-dwelling days he attempted to hide the odoriferous nature of his work from friends and relations with copious amounts of air freshener. In the woods he has no such worries.

Let me feel your bootie: James Hastings with his supple handicraft
Michael Dvorak
Let me feel your bootie: James Hastings with his supple handicraft

"I literally cook up the brains," he continues, "letting them boil for about 15 minutes--not furiously, but a low boil using just enough water to cover. They'll turn from a pinkish to more of a gray. When there's a froth, I know they're done.

"There are tanners who use raw brains and accomplish the same thing," he continues, adding with the tone of a self-satisfied hot-dish champion, "I cook mine. I mash up all the brains so it's like sludge. I then pour the warm--not hot--brain mixture over the rawhide. When it's completely saturated in brainy, sludgy water, I take [the rawhide] out and wring it just like a wet towel. Then I continuously move and stretch the hide while it's coated with the brains until the hide is dry."

The incredible campfirelike smell of the finished leather obviously doesn't owe to the "dang funky" stink of cooked brains. This is accomplished in the final step of smoking. "I take the hide, fold it in half, and sew it like a pillowcase," Hastings explains. "I build a fire and then reduce it down to coals. For the smoking I use pine or cedar." With a grin, he whispers that he bought cedar chips in the form of pet bedding at Kmart during his city days, but in Ely he uses sweet-smelling moss gathered from the woods. In a flourish worthy of a junior high filmstrip, he concludes, "And that's how I take it from a bloody, hairy deer hide to a soft, supple piece of usable leather."

As he says this last piece, he picks up some of his handiwork--a tiny pouch with intricate beadwork and a row of fringe adorned with little tin caps on the end of each string. As the fringe sways, the tin caps clink together, making the most pleasing sound--the sort of sound one might expect to accompany the crackle of feet walking on a gravel road.

"Listen to that," Hastings says, and he jingles the fringe again. "This spring when Calhoun opens up, you've got to go down there and listen, because that sound--that tinkle tinkle of this tin--is as close to the sound of ice breaking in the spring as you're going to get."

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