Cooking for a Stove-Up Cowboy

“Is this a raisin?” my late partner Quentin Hulse asked. Quentin was a retired rancher, hunter, outfitter, and guide. There was a moistened raisin resting on the middle tines of the fork he held over his plate.

Frustrated by a new computer program as secretary at Reserve’s high school, I’d been teetering on a learning curve all day. “At least I can cook,” I thought as I contemplated that evening meal. Someone had given us elk meat. We also had zucchini from the plants Quentin cultivated in old tires sawn in half beside the house. What to do with those ingredients? I found a recipe for spicy Moroccan lamb casserole. Elk could surely substitute for lamb just as zucchini could replace yellow squash. Saffron would not be added, but the other ingredients were on hand. Onion, garlic, flour, bouillon, cinnamon, raisins, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. I would serve it on rice, a staple Quentin liked.

At the age of twelve Quentin had been cooking for a rancher in New Mexico’s southwest—Gila National Forest country with its high mountain pastures, deep canyons, intermittent streams, and gravel roads. His fare no doubt was all “cowboy”—fried potatoes, beans with salt pork, red chili, beef, and sour dough biscuits. During our four-year alliance Quentin stepped up and cooked the signature cowboy classics like beans with salt pork, red chili, posole with hominy and pork, and menudo with pigs’ feet.

That particular evening he contemplated the raisin his Yankee cook had added to the elk but said no more. If Quentin didn’t like something I presented, he simply put red chili on it. He was smart. Cowboys know that complaining about the food results in two possible outcomes. One, the tired hungry hand wouldn’t be fed. Or two, the complaining cowboy would cook.

Cooking for Quentin was a dream. I learned he had no interest in artichokes, nor did he like smoked oysters. When I returned from a western publishers’ meeting in Snowbird, Utah, I brought him a jar of boyson berry jam.

“Have you had this before,” I asked.

“Lots of times,” he replied. “I damn near foundered* on it.”

Raisins with elk notwithstanding, Quentin was pleased with the meals I prepared. Every once in a while he’d ask me to prepare something special. Corned beef and cabbage one St. Patrick’s Day, for instance. The first Thanksgiving we celebrated together he wanted cornbread stuffing for the turkey and reminded me to use sage.

“Man, oh, man,” he said when I placed mashed potatoes, gravy, butternut squash, cranberry sauce, green chili, and the roasted turkey with cornbread stuffing before him. He paused, then said “Betty Crocker would walk a mile,” and reached for the platter of turkey.
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*If a horse eats too much grain, it can lead to founder and become lame. There are other causes as well.

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