If you’ve ever visited a small-town bookstore, you’ve seen one version or another of this: a soft-cover, self-published book that is the memoir of a local person. Some are a combination of memoir and recipes; others are history written in the context of the families that lived it. All of them provide a clear glimpse of food and memory.
I particularly enjoy the memoir-and-recipes format. My cardiologist would balk at the ingredient lists in most memoirs, but the recipes are a reflection of the lifestyle the book recounts. The best of this genre I’ve read is "Bacon & Beans: Ranch-Country Recipes," by Stella Hughes, and published by Western Horseman Inc., in 1997. It’s out of print, but available through Abe Books.
Mrs. Hughes was considered an expert in the world of chuck wagon cooking. This renown was based on her experiences working with her husband Mack Hughes on cattle drives on the Apache Indian Reservation in the 1940s and 1950s. If you’ve ever tried to cook using a Dutch oven, then her third chapter, “Campfires and Dutch Ovens” is worth the price of the book.
The secret to her success is burning hardwoods, preferably oak or mesquite, for coals. She also adds, “The Apaches are past masters at using hot coals for cooking in Dutch ovens. Mighty little cooking is done on the fire, but instead shovelfuls of coals are placed off to one side and pots and Dutch ovens are placed on these. When roasting meat or baking bread, they dig a shallow hole slightly larger than the Dutch oven, place hot coals in the hole, place the oven on the coals, cover with lid, and pile hot coals over all. If the wind is blowing, they tone down the hot coals by adding ashes.”
It seems odd today, I suppose, for any of us to consider writing such a book. Who might write a book of vegan chuckwagon recipes for an alpaca-herd drive to a wool and fiber festival?
Still, let’s have faith in the value of our experiences and our memories. We all have plenty to write about our families and our homes and our gardens. We should try to capture what we can remember because we all have felt that sense of loss when we realize the person is gone who knew the answer to that question about Uncle Roy and the bent anvil.
In her memoir, "The Lunch Tree," published in 1969, Irene Cornwall Cofer wrote about life on the Big Sandy River in Mohave County in the early years of the 20th century. She made this observation that rings true today.
“Our busy young folks of today, no doubt, feel that it is time wasted to write our autobiographies, or leave a record of the past. I was that busy once. Too busy to listen when my father told of driving cattle across the desert from Ventura County, California, to Arizona in the year 1875, crossing at Hardyville on the Colorado River, swimming the cattle and crossing the wagons on the ferry... I wish that I had taken the time to listen and write down some of the things that Father told us.”
Let’s be grateful that there are people who do.