The Secret of Cowboy Cuisine

It took a herd of horses to teach me the secret of good cooking, although that wasn't their intention, or mine.

My college roommate's father had a friend who owned a dude ranch. In the spring he needed some extra hands to move his horses to higher pasture. We had a three-day weekend coming up, and riding horses sounded a lot more appealing than studying for finals. So we packed up Julie's old Volvo and headed for Wyoming.

We arrived just before dinner time, and Mitch immediately put us to work in the kitchen. He introduced us to his wife, Gail, and two sons as he bustled around the large kitchen organizing us and the food.

I fried up enough hamburgers to feed an army of ranch hands. Julie heated up the beans as the boys hauled dishes and potato chips through the swinging door to the dining hall. We carried the last of the food into the hall, and Julie and I both stared in puzzlement at the empty room. It was big enough for 30 or 40 people, but only the six of us were there for dinner.

Mitch explained that "dude season" didn't start for a few weeks yet. Then the place would quickly fill with guests and staff.

After dinner, we all pitched in to clean up. Twenty hamburgers were left, and Mitch threw them all, along with a bunch of buns, into plastic bags that he dumped into the refrigerator. He sent us to bed with a warning that we would be up early. He was right.

He banged on our door as the sky barely began to lose its deepest blackness. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and toast, we prepared for work. Mitch grabbed the plastic bags from the fridge and stuffed them in a gunnysack. "Lunch," he said with a smile. I thought he was joking.

Julie and I and the boys piled in the back of the pickup with the saddles and waved to Gail through the sharp morning air as we drove down the dirt road to the pasture. First we had to catch and saddle the horses we would ride. Dusty walked right up to Mitch, ready to go to work, but the others gave us a good walk around the field before we cornered them and got them saddled. The sun was long up by the time we were ready to ride.

We had 40 horses to move a few miles through mountain pastures, up to the fields where snow had recently melted and new grass now grew tall. The boys took the rear. Julie and I worked the sides of the herd, moving off to catch stragglers and keep the stream of horses contained. Mitch was everywhere, giving directions, steering the lead horses down a path barely visible after winter's disuse. One loud whistle from him brought every horse into obedience.

I tried one loud whistle the way my brother had taught me, with two fingers from each hand stuffed in my mouth. The horses responded, but after handling horses and reins all morning, my fingers left a lingering taste in my mouth that wasn't worth revisiting. I resorted to a loud and effective "Whoop!" to keep my charges in line.

IN early afternoon we reached high pasture and sat down, starving, to lunch. We filled our canteens with fresh spring water, and Mitch brought out the gunnysack. We each took a turn grabbing a piece of meat and two buns from the plastic bag and reassembling a hamburger. The night before, I had added ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and cheese. This time we all took them straight.

They were the best hamburgers I've ever eaten. Right there in the mountain meadow, I got my most valuable cooking lesson. Nothing improves food more than fresh air and an enormous appetite. The five of us finished off 20 cold, stale hamburgers and a sack of apples and felt as if we had feasted royally.

There's nothing really wrong with my cooking. It's just ordinary. But if I want to hear a few compliments on my culinary accomplishments, I've found it best to plan a picnic, start off with a few lively games, then serve the food late. Nothing improves my cooking more than good friends and well-constructed hunger.

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