from Fine Cooking #111, pp. 34-35
Essay by Rowan Jacobsen
The summer after grad school, I scored a job as the cook at the T Cross dude ranch in Dubois, Wyoming. I was an unlikely candidate. I could make a solid omelet, a nice pasta caprese, and a paradigm-shattering bowl of hummus. Based on that résumé, my friend, who had worked at the T Cross the previous summer, had convinced the ranch owners that I was the second coming of James Beard. In truth, I was coming out of a creative writing program with no job prospects and a long-simmering desire to see the West. I jumped at the chance. I had never cooked for more than four people, but the season was only a hundred days long. How hard could it be?
I drove the 24 hours from North Carolina to Wyoming, marveling as the landscape turned Martian. At Dubois, I snaked up a dirt road deep into the mountains, came around a corner, and beheld the manifestation of all my western daydreams. A rustic lodge and a dozen log cabins shining golden in the afternoon sun, encircled by 11,000-foot peaks. Dun horses kicked up dirt in the corral.
I tracked down Ken, the ranch owner. “Good, you’re here,” he said. “We eat at six sharp.”
“When does my training start?” I asked.
He looked at me funny. “I’ll show you the kitchen,” he said. “Just staff tonight. Eight of us, counting you.”
Left alone in the kitchen with two hours until dinner for eight, I felt the first tendrils of panic. I found a couple of pounds of ground beef in the walk-in and some cans of beans. I managed to put together a half-decent pot of chili. The crew showed up and devoured it without comment. Afterward, Ken stepped into the kitchen.
“How was it?” I asked.
“OK,” he said, “but what were those green things?”
“Herbs?” I ventured.
“Don’t use them anymore. They give me indigestion. Also, when guests are here, it’s OK to serve chili for lunch, but dinner has to be real food.”
Eventually, I determined that “real food” meant slabs of protein unmarred by pseudofoods such as beans or, God forbid, herbs. My entire repertoire was out the window. Then Ken dropped the real bomb on me. “The Marlboro Men are shooting some ads here tomorrow,” he said. “There’s a side of buffalo in the walk-in. We need buffalo stew for 30 at lunch.”
Yes, this was where Marlboro shot many of its ads. The T Cross was that perfect. If you’ve seen an ad of a weathered Marlboro Man sitting on his horse in front of a rustic pole barn with a mitten-shaped butte in the background, you’ve probably seen the T Cross. It’s even possible that that Marlboro Man was looking so ornery because he was battling a stomach full of my nearly indigestible buffalo stew, since it would be years before I’d discover the tenderizing effect of long simmering. But it’s also possible that the look of existential resignation on his craggy face was the result of my first course.
I’d wanted to impress those cowboys, honest I did. And the most interesting thing I could find in the walk-in was a big bag of frozen blueberries. I remembered once hearing about a blueberry soup, which to me, sounded like elegance itself. I went to work, winging it, and the next day, when the Marlboro Men finally broke from their hard morning of photography and walked into the lodge, doffing their hats and dusters, they were each presented with a bowl of cool, vivid indigo soup, garnished with sour cream and a single mint leaf (except for Ken’s).
Let it be said that the Marlboro Men, being real cowboys plucked off the rodeo circuit, are extraordinarily polite. If you set boiled boots before them, they would begin sawing away with their forks and knives. They stared at my soup. Then they stared at each other. Then they ate the soup in silence, and the buffalo stew, too, and tromped back to work. Ken shot me a Clint Eastwood glare, turned, and strode after them.
One meal down, I thought to myself. Only 99 days to go.
Rowan Jacobsen is a James Beard Award winning author. His most recent book is Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey Through Our Last Great Wetland.