Thursday, August 11, 2005

Eating Well Out West

At first I noticed the trend in the Cowboy Art magazines, then it popped up in comic strips, but it had already invaded books. I’m talking about foodism, both commercial places to eat and fancy cookery at home. Around Valier, judging from the local newspaper, people are still whomping up stuff from Jello and biscuit mix, but we do have one rather nice restaurant where there was actually an “intern chef” from a university program. That would be the “Lighthouse,” a lakeside restaurant which is not really by a lighthouse at all, but rather -- as my mother’s cousin’s husband the pilot instantly recognized -- a WWII airport beacon. Anyway, it flashes and it is not a cell phone relay tower with a strobe on top -- though I suppose some people would like to use it for that since our cell phone reception here will often not get you any contact with rescuers, unlike the wilderness.

Back to the point. In “Art of the West” and “Southwest Art” paintings of the interior of cafes and restaurants both up and downscale began to show up in the advertising and VERY occasionally as part of an entire article. So far no artist has been willing to identify his or her self as a “tablecloth” or “booth” artist. They are very engaging paintings: some fauvist depictions of femmes with their heads together, clearly up to something; dark and dramatic face-offs between what appear to be lovers, often poised in the doorway, one to leave and one to prevent leaving; and sunstruck still-lives of table set-ups, with reflecting flatware and possibly wineglasses or maybe less classy sugar dispenser and ketchup bottle. If there is a bar, there is often neon.

Then there is Pena, who gets a wonderful Southwest flavor in his beautiful girls in shawls and aprons, often exhausted from waiting tables. He gets more sexuality out of tired and fully clothed girls than many painters can achieve with nudes.

So far I’ve seen no restaurant paintings from Russell Chatham, who actually owns and runs one in Livingston, Montana. In the Eighties someone is said to have written a novel while sitting in the Union Cafe -- now THERE was a restaurant that ought to have been captured in oil -- on the second floor of Bozeman’s main street with tall balconied windows, Victorian wallpaper, and a grand piano.

I have a friend who sends me comic strips clipped from the Chicago papers (I respond with Montana jokes) and one of my favorites, among the most artful, is a strip called “Grilled Cheese” which happens in a diner. We “overhear” conversations and interior dialogues from booth to booth, so that they form a kind of texture of theme: ironic, surprising, or just as we suspected.

Books have been padding out their stories with recipes for quite a while and we all know “Water as Chocolat.” Only recently I nabbed a video of “Dinner Rush” where the action swirls around Danny Aiello’s formerly authentic Italian restaurant with plenty of irony for everyone.

A vigorous recipe book industry thrives out there, they tell me. In the Seventies the Cowboy Artists of America, who have never managed to assimilate lady cowboy artists, decided that it would be a great idea for the “ladies,” in other words the wives who generally did most of the work anyway. They asked Bob Scriver to make me send a recipe. So I did.

“Cut a roast into squares. Throw them in a ziplock with marinade of your choice. Put ziplock into a larger ziplock full of ice cubes. Stick in saddle bag. When you come to a place with a good view, or if the ice is melted, build a small campfire with sticks, cut long green nonpoisonous sticks, thread the meat onto the sticks and roast it. Take along some good stout bread to fold the meat into as a handle while eating. Salted Nut Rolls for dessert. Never chocolate or bananas.”

They didn’t print it. In fact, they acted offended. But in those days that really was often the way we ate.

Most recently the Montana Arts Council has produced a cookbook. (Google “Montana Arts Council.”) To go with it, they are producing an entire body of food-related materials to send on tour around the state. They solicited recipes that had been part of books by Montana writers, maybe not realizing that much of the writing is about frontier life or rock-bottom scraping-through agriculture. Remember the winter Laura Ingalls ate nothing but cracked wheat mush?

But I could recommend Natawista’s favorite, which she was witnessed eating by an unenthusiastic greenhorn. (You’ll remember that Natawista was the wife of Culbertson, the fur buyer who plied his steamboat up and down the Missouri.) The greenhorn had gone along on a buffalo hunt. A nice fat cow was dropped.

Natawista hurried forward with her butcher knife and sliced the beast open, drawing out a big chunk of the raw hot liver and the gall bladder. Squeezing the gall on the liver, she tore off and ate a mouthful with great relish. The greenhorn was offered a share but declined. They say gall looks a bit like mustard. He didn’t say.

Prairie sushi.

Oldtime Blackft don’t eat fish.

I wonder how many Jello recipes made it into that MAC cookbook. They say a proper Montana meal is not complete without “green stuff,” a sort of pudding/salad that might include pineapple or marshmallows. Two schools of thought: those who start with pistachio Jello and those who stick to the classic Lime. After all, that’s the only green food true Montana cowboys will eat.

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