Sam McManis

Discoveries: Get your fill of vittles and lore at the Samoa Cookhouse

SAMOA – Big trees invite – nay, demand – big appetites.

Something about the towering presence of redwoods, those hulking and massive trunks, along the Avenue of the Giants can make a guy hungry. Then again, this is Humboldt County, where the munchies are said to be an affliction.

So, on the trip into this spit of land seven miles west of Eureka, once home to the country's largest logging operation, the invitation to go all Paul Bunyan and eat like a lumberjack is too tempting to pass up.

The Samoa Cookhouse, 119 years old and virtually unchanged since that pungent mill made this a happening place, provides road-weary travelers a chance to roll up their sleeves, loosen a notch or two from their belts and dine at a place saturated in history and gravy in equal measure.

Judging from the packed parking lot, others had the same idea to strap on the ol' feedbag and indulge in caloric, sclerotic offerings delivered family-style in bowls and platters to customers at long wooden tables.

Family-style? Must be the 19-child Duggar family, such were the Brobdingnagian portions.

But then, lumberjacks worked long, hard days burning carbs and building sinew, so they needed to bulk up.

We modern Americans? Uh, not so much.

Still, if you find yourself anywhere near the Arcata-Eureka metroplex, dig in. This is eating-as-entertainment. As history, too. You can make up for it by eating cottage cheese and celery the rest of the week.

One recent morning, despite the crowded lot, the place was not even half full. That's because the Cookhouse is a massive structure, built for 500 flannel-shirted, sawdust-begrimed men who worked for modest wages, a cot in the bunkhouse and three squares a day. Serving them were single women who toiled 11 hours a day and then were locked upstairs in a dormitory, safe from the lascivious looks and covetous advances of the loggers.

Today, waitress Pam Angelo – who lives in a yellow, former company-owned house visible from the Cookhouse front window – sits diners down and gives them silverware from the old coffee cans on the table. But no menu. Here, you eat what they give ya, pal, and you like it, OK?

In no time, a big, white bowl of scrambled eggs is set down, along with a platter of French toast and sausage links, biscuits and gravy, a pitcher of orange juice and pot of coffee.

This is no haute cuisine. But it is hot. And plentiful. Lunch and dinner is no different – literally a meat-and-potatoes diet.

Remember, you aren't here to excite your palate. Take a look around at the remnants of the town's logging past, put yourself in the place of the saw-wielding strongmen or the aproned women who lived in that time.

Pamphlets and plaques on the walls make it seem a hard life, bereft of succor. But as Angelo tells it, romance did bloom.

"There was a woodbox built in the back here where the girls used to sneak in and out," she said. "They were all single then and maybe they were coming to look for a mate. But (the owners) tried to lock the women in at night and lock the men out."

As a mating ritual, perhaps, the lumberjacks used to jokingly untie the waitresses' apron strings or furtively hook gravy ladles to their backs. The men were not big on manners, according to local historian Evelyn McCormick quoted in a pamphlet. They often brawled over the best spots to sit and, McCormick noted, "ate ravenously, as if the food might disappear before their very eyes."

Looking around on a Sunday morning, diners appeared more civilized. The Cookhouse is not a place for the asocial or those seeking a private conversation as they dine. It's communal. Hey, pass the eggs, will ya, bub?

The great thing is, you overhear some pointed conversations, such as the jocular banter about cars among three old friends from the Humbugs VW Club in Eureka, Manny Pabalate, Bill Taylor and Phillip Hooker. The men eat here often.

"Pretty much the same menu every day," Taylor said.

"Yeah," said Pabalate "Eat and eat and keep eating until you can't do it anymore."

"When I discovered this place," Hooker, a portly man, said, "I was 6-foot-2, 120 pounds. Look at me now."

Soon, the group is joined by manager Jeff Brustman, who over his 13 years at the helm has the lore of the Cookhouse down pat.

"Everything here was for practicality in 1893," he said. "Instead of mopping the floor, there are eight holes drilled down directly below with a grate and they'd squeegee the water and let it drain down. At one point, there was a teepee burner (pre-smokestack days) at the far end of the building. It would catch the building on fire sometimes. Remember, it was a gigantic burner going 24 hours a day.

"Instead of moving the teepee or moving the cookhouse, which would've been monumental, they just installed sprinklers on the roof, and when the winds would kick up out of the south and there'd be a fire potential, they'd turn on the sprinklers and soak the thing."

Sated by this surfeit of victuals, diners waddle out just as more hungry folks waft in. It's a ritual going on 120 years now. Here's hoping the Cookhouse lasts as long as those big trees off Highway 101.