Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ranch Food & Lessons...guest post from my husband

Check out my husband's other guest posts here & here

Cattail Soup ... Hey ya'll, this is Bonnie's beau and I'm giving her the day off and filling in where I can. Please know that when I'm telling a tale like this, I tend to put in a LOT of sub-text, but I do so in order for you to know what I'm talking about. So without further ado, here's a totally truthful story about food, served with a Texas-sized heaping of different!

When I was a kid growing up in West Texas on my grandparent's ranch, I had what you might call a "western education". That said, I spent time with the men who helped my granddaddy round up the cattle, brand them, and get them to market. These old men - each ones legends in their own right - taught me a lot about life and how to find my place in it. One of these great men was none other than Bobby Estes, the Rodeo Showman. (Here's a picture of him...)

 Among the many things he's known for is riding and winning awards as a Bareback Bronc and Bull Rider, as a Rodeo producer who took his rodeo show across Europe playing for Kings, Queens, and even the sheiks in the Middle East. And he's worked with the likes of Roy Rogers, Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, and every other great cowboy you can think of from that era. Now picture me as a little 4, 5, 6 year old kid hanging on the cattle pen fence with Bobby, "Indian" (no joke, that's what we all called him and he was Bobby's man, doing whatever he said), and several other men like my granddaddy and my uncles.

On a side note, that reminds me of the story about Grandaddy chasing my uncle with the cattleprod... you see, we were branding the cattle... oh, but I digress...   

Things learned: These men taught me how to stand, how to spit, how to draw and shoot a pistol (it's like throwing a ball underhand), how to shoot a rifle from the hip so you don't hurt your shoulder, how to admit when you made a mistake, how to take the consequences when you owned up to that mistake, how to respect all men regardless of race or color, how to respect all of nature around you - even the critters you were about to eat, and many other things...

But among the things I learned from all these men (especially Grandaddy) was how to cook with a campfire. We made a lot of things on that fire. "Crunchy Coffee" (rough coffee grounds dropped into a pot of water and left to boil in the fire - the coffee tends to get a little crunchy near the bottom of the pot), "Toasted Eggs" (eggs over easy and slapped onto pan-cooked toast with a little butter, or meatfat/grease for flavor), "Beef Slap" (seriously, you take a cow and instead of sending it to market, you slap it in a truss, butcher it, and fry it on the spot), Chili (OH! We made LOTS of chili...) and one of the strangest things we ever made was a little something called "Cattail Soup".

Now before you all go off thinking this is some cruel piece against kitties, know that its referring to the plant instead. And rather than wasting everyone's time telling you things you already know, I'll tell you up front: yes, the recipe is a variation on Stone Soup. While cattails (the plant, not the animal) are edible, I don't recommend it unless you're a vegetarian or you like eating straw. Now, back to the story...

Anyways, it was a cold October day and everyone was in a particularly happy mood. They had all started way before dawn and had eaten a good breakfast of "Tack n' Scratch" (fried meat - usually sausage or "Beef Slap", dry tack bread - commonly made for use on the trail because it could last several days regardless of the storage or conditions, and grease gravy - good old fashioned cream gravy made with grease, flour, spice, and raw milk that came from the cow straight to the pan) and "Crunchy Coffee". I should know because I got there in time to clean up the remains of it all. As they were working the cattle, they were all talking about what they had brought to add to the soup and they were really getting carried away. They talked about adding everything from birds nests to mesquite tree beans and from used chewing tobacco to the very cow poop we were all trying not to step in. (Side Note: the beans from Mesquite trees are not edible in and of themselves, but they can be ground into a serviceable flour and used like that are a good source of fiber.)


As the day progressed, I discovered that they already had the pot a boiling and had already added most of their ingredients. It was hanging on a tripod over a fire so I couldn't get to it to test it... a fact that made me agitated with anticipation and excited at the same time. When it was time to eat, I was more than ready. So imagine my surprise and frustration when Grandaddy said that he and I were going in the house to eat what Grandmother had fixed for us instead. I begged him to let me stay out there with the men, but he just sternly told me no stating that Grandmother had worked hard on our meal and that we should leave the men in peace.

I obediently followed him only because he was stopping every few feet to remind me to keep up with him. If I could have slipped away, I would have, but my Grandaddy was too smart for that. We went inside, washed up, and ate the cold meat-thing-I-have-no-idea-what-it-was-sandwiches my Grandmother had left for us before she went into town. I was in agony. Here we are eating yuck when they're out there eating awesome Cattail Soup!

When it was finally time to get back out there, I was forbidden to ask them to share, After all, that was their lunch and I hadn't brought anything to help with it. For me to take their food like that was nothing less than stealing. So here we are walking back out and all the men are already back at work. They cleaned up and left nothing laying around for me to taste, so I was considerably less enthusiastic at this point. Pretty soon, Bobby had slid up beside me to see what was wrong. I told him I wasn't allowed to talk about it. He just grinned...

"Indian, do we have any soup left?" "Yes, Bobby," came the reply. "Will you please fetch me a cup'o some?" And without a word the indian went and got a small metal coffee cup filling it with my craving. Bobby then took off his leather work gloves saying, "Here, put these on. You're gonna need them to hold that cup." Soon I was holding a small amount of little boy's ambrosia: the soup smelled like comfort, acceptance, and compassion wrapped in bacon.

Up to this point, Grandaddy had been busy handling things on the high pen and hadn't been watching me. But when he saw what I had in my hands, he immediately came down to scold me. As he approached, I could feel the burning sensation of disapproval even without looking in his eyes. I knew I was in trouble. He walked up, took the cup, and began to softly chastise me for what I had done, even after our discussion earlier.

As I tried to defend myself, I felt a weathered hand on my shoulder. Bobby, taking the cup from Grandaddy said, "Kenneth, I gave it to him. He didn't even ask for it. I did so 'cause I wanted to." Next thing I know, the cup is in one of Indian's hands and I'm in the other as I watch my Grandfather and my hero step away and have words. Grandaddy was NOT pleased. Then, without looking at me, Indian turned me away from them and back towards the cattle pen, handed me the cup, and then stood there with his hands on my shoulders. There wasn't much in that soup: beans, potato, wild onion, fresh dill, wild garlic, and some finely chopped salt pork. There were no cats or even any cattails in that soup, but it didn't matter to me... I enjoyed it immensely nonetheless.

Granted, I was a little kid back then, but I still noticed that Bobby and the crew didn't come back to work the cattle with us the next year leaving us to do it alone. Was it because of that incident? Was it because Bobby had something else going on? I'll never know. But I'll never forget that day, the lesson of standing up for what you've done, of how food can bring folks together, or most importantly... how all those things come together to make a man.

I have a wonderful new grandson who's only a few months old right now and one day I'm gonna have him call me Grandaddy. Then, when I think he's ready, I'm gonna build a fire and teach him the importance of Cattail Soup.

Linked at The Better Mom, Time Warp Wife, Growing Home, True Aim Education, We Are That Family, Women Living Well, lowercase letters, Passionate and Creative Homemaking, Consider the Lilies, Raising Homemakers 

images from here & here

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