Monday, March 29, 2010

Dead mule sourdough biscuits, part 2

Continued from yesterday ...

I'll let Stella continue the story in her own words:

"Rowdy was directly behind Preacher John, a cantankerous jack who brayed loud and often, when a rock squirrel skittered onto the trail, saw the mules, became confused and foolishly darted between Rowdy's feet.

"That did it! The little mule climbed right on top of Preacher John's back. The Preacher humped up and let fly with both hind feet, catching Rowdy under the chin with one shod hoof.

"That hurt! Rowdy spun half around, collided with Little Orphan Annie behind him, and in the melee fell off the trail and tumbled end over end a hundred yards down the mountain. The pack came loose, and pots and pans, knives and forks fell like metallic rain among the chollas and rocks."

It was immediately evident to Jeff and Herman that Rowdy was dead, laying at the bottom of the canyon with "his head ... twisted sharply under his shoulder ..." The pair set about that task of salvaging what they could from the wreck and moving the pack train up to the camp.

Each reacted differently to the accident. Jeff seems to have had a soft spot in his heart for the cantankerous mule. "Jess felt bad about loosing the spunky old mule," wrote Stella.

Herman seems to have channeled his grief toward his precious starter, now plastered all over the canyon. Stella continued, "Old Herman was beside himself with grief over loosing his sourdough starter."

Not one to mourn the loss of Rowdy, Herman jumped into action while Jeff tended to the surviving animals. His immediate concern turned to recovering as much of the starter as he could.

No cook, regardless of his reputation, wanted to serve flat biscuits, those devoid of any life. Even rough and tumble cowboys had a hart time devouring biscuits that have more value as a weapon than sustenance.

Next comes my favorite paragraph in Chuck Wagon Cookin'. It's not a favorite because I relish eating contaminated biscuits.

I enjoy the story because it embodies the character of the Old West. Some cooks did what was necessary to get the job done, even when it meant scooping a working sourdough started from the carcass of a dead mule.

Like Jeff, who watched Herman's sourdough started rescue operation, I would've skipped his biscuits the next morning. Jeff knew from experience that Herman's biscuits were suspect.

What Jeff observed next was enough to sure him of eating Herman's biscuits forever. Let's join Stella as she finishes the story:

"Old Herman was still working around Rowdy's body, busy with a pan and a large ladle he'd managed to salvage. Jeff then relates in wonder the scene he witnessed. For old Herman was scraping sourdough that had spilled onto Rowdy's face, covering the little mule's head with a messy shroud.

"Herman managed to get several spoonfuls of the stuff into his pan and climbed back over the cactus and boulders to his horse, with a triumphant smile on his bearded face.

"Next morning, in camp, old Herman served sourdough biscuits to the crew as usual. All except Jeff, who passed."

This is one of many stories in Chuck Wagon Cookin', a book that celebrates the lore from a bye-gone era, often learned in the "College of Dutch Oven Cookery."

Biscuits anyone?