May 06, 2009
Smoke in my Eyes
Stephen Bly’s column brought it to mind, particularly the picture of the chuck-wagon and the ranch cook. Then Deeanne Gist talked about adding flavor with food. It can add so much to writing historical and western in particular when we have experiences that can put us there, actually let us see and feel what we are trying to write about. This is one of those times.
I used to love to go to Cowboy Campfire Cookoff. I went every year. There is one associated now with the National Cowboy Symposium in Lubbock Texas, and I’ve been there a number of times. Many years ago it was in Abilene Texas, and anybody could enter, but to be in the professional division you had to be a working ranch cook, the real deal. Seeing those chuck-wagons roll in (on trailers) and set up was great. The rules were simple, you could cook whatever you wanted, but it had to be cooked from scratch, and it had to be cooked on an open fire just as you would have had to do on the trail.
Abilene is where I met Richard Bolt, a second generation ranch cook who had cooked on a number of spreads including the XIT Ranch and the 6666 Ranch. Richard was one fine cook. He told me that a camp cook had to make great coffee, red beans, and sourdough biscuits and whatever they could cook after that was just frosting on the pie. His coffee was ambrosia. I discovered the key was he made it overnight in cold water in the chuck-wagon (like sun tea if you have ever made that). The next day he hung it on the rod over the fire and heated it piping hot but never allowed it to boil. He claimed boiling was what gave it that tinge of bitterness that campfire coffee usually has. Also if it never boiled, the grounds never came up off the bottom no trick like throwing in egg shells was needed to settle the grounds back to the bottom. Man, did that ever work.
But the neatest trick was making beans that didn’t give the cowboys gas. They could have used him in the movie “Blazing Saddles” if you’ve ever seen that. In true Richard Bolt style the solution to the problem was so very simple. He put his beans in a Dutch Oven, nested it on some coals next to the fire and brought them to a rolling boil. He boiled them until they started to soften, then poured off the water.
“Whatever it is that causes the gas, most of it is in that water,” he explained.
He put fresh water on the beans and returned it to the fire, this time lowering the fire so it wouldn’t boil by reducing the number of coals under the pot. He also tossed in a couple of raw carrots. “I don’t know or care what it is that causes the gas, but whatever it is, if there’s any left the carrots will absorb it.” He added salt, some chili powder and some diced jalapeno peppers and let the beans cook. The results were wonderful and I’d rate a big bowl of his beans with a big sourdough biscuit right up there with any meal I ever ate.
But I asked, “What do you do with the carrots?”
“If some cowboy has been riding me too hard I give him some. If not I given them to my mule, Tobe, he loves them. Then I stake him out a good ways away from the campsite.”
It isn’t at all uncommon for me to use a little campfire cooking in one of my stories, because I love it. And I can just picture it when I do, actually I can practically taste it. That’s the kind of experience that adds flavor to writing if you’ll excuse the pun, the kind of experience I look for all the time. No amount of research or reading or interviewing people with first hand experience can compete with actually getting a little smoke in your eyes.