I’m reading Jeannette Walls’ “Half Broke Horses” right now, and I came across this wonderful passage last night. The main character, based on Walls’ real-life grandmother who was born in 1900. She was a bull-headed mother, teacher and ranchwife out in Arizona who never let anyone tell her what she couldn’t do.
She worked the ranch just like all the other cowboys and didn’t spend any more time in her kitchen than she had to. The empowered Lily Casey was too busy teaching both her kids and her students how to make your own way in an unforgiving world:
Levi’s we didn’t wash at all. They shrank too much, and it weakened the threads. So we wore them and wore them until they were shiny with mud, manure, tallow, cattle slobber, bacon fat, axle grease, and hoof oil — and then we wore them some more. Eventually, the Levi’s reached a point of grime saturation where they couldn’t get any dirtier, where they had the feel of oilskin and had become not just waterproof but briar-proof, and that was when you knew you had really broken them in. When Levi’s reached that degree of conditioning, they were sort of like smoke-cured ham or aged bourbon, and you couldn’t pay a cowboy to let you wash his.
I kept the cooking basic as well. I didn’t make dishes the way fancy eastern housewives did — souffles and sauces and garnished this and stuffed that. I made food. Beans were my specialty. I always had a pot of them on the stove, and that usually lasted two to five days, depending on how many cowboys we had around. My recipe was fairly simple: Boil beans, add salt to taste. What I liked most about beans was that as long as you added water from time to time, you couldn’t overcook them.
When we weren’t having beans, we had steak. My recipe for steak was also fairly simple: Fry on both sides, salt to taste. With the steak came potatoes: Boil unpeeled, salt to taste. For dessert, we’d have canned peaches packed in tasty syrup. I liked to say that what my cooking lacked in variety, it made up for in consistency. “No surprises,” I’d tell the cowboys, “but no disappointments, either.”
One when some milk had spoiled and I was feeling ambitious, I did make cottage cheese the way my mother made it when I was growing up. I boiled the clabbered milk and cut up the curds with a knife. Then I wrapped it in a burlap sugar sack and hung it overnight to let they whey drain out. The next day I chopped it again, salted it, and passed it out at supper. The family loved it so much they wolfed it down in under a minute. I couldn’t believe I’d worked so long over something that was gone so quickly.
“That was the biggest waste of time,” I said. “I’ll never make that mistake again.”
Rosemary was eyeing me.
“Let that be a lesson to you,” I told her.