Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dead mule sourdough biscuits

I've always held a special place in my heart for those with whom I share a birthday. Among those is camp cook and celebrated horsewoman Stella Hughes.

Unfortunately, I didn't learn of our association until 15 months after her death. Stella died at 92 in her adapted state of Arizona on December 16, 2008.

"Stella could feed 100 hungry people as easily as she could a small dinner party," wrote writer Suzie Cox in the Eastern Arizona Courier.

"She worked hard right alongside [husband and stockman] Mack [Hughes], many times helping to drive the cattle on long drives down the Nantac Rim to Calva, always packing a camera along to document the day."

I first learned of Stella over 10 years ago when I found a copy of Chuck Wagon Cookin’ in a Placerville used book store. The University of Arizona Press first published the book in 1974.

More than a collection of 112 recipes, many of which come from an era of down-home cooking, are the stories of chuckwagon cooking on the range. Like Ramon F. Adams' Come and Get It: The Story of the Old Cowboy Cook, Chuck Wagon Cookin’ is a must-read for anyone interested in the lore of Old West wagon cooking.

Belated news of Stella’s passing gave me a chance to take a fresh look at her story of the range cook that "rescued" a few drops of sourdough starter from the carcass of a mule named Rowdy. The story "points out most vividly to what great lengths a cook would go in order to perpetrate his precious starter," said Stella.

Sometime in the late-1920s, the JF Ranch, located in the Superstition Mountains east of the Phoenix metropolitan area, moved the roundup kitchen throughout the rugged range via pack train. The train packed the "cook’s kitchen, cowboy’s bedrolls, horse feed, the whole works."

Like all cowboy cooks of the day, JF's cook, a less than clean character only identified as "Herman, an old Dutchman," kept his sourdough starter in a large earthen crock, "tucked carefully in a corner of one pack box" on Rowdy’s back. The lid to Herman’s crock was tied on with a "less than clean towel."

As the primary leavening agent for biscuits, pancakes and bread, the cook guarded his precious keg of sourdough. "The loss of a starter was classified as a major calamity."

Rowdy was one of a number of "'characters,' mostly bad," from among the mules owned by the JF. For months, Rowdy would act the part of a perfect pack mule. Once the mule-skinner relaxed, said Stella, "Rowdy would pull his caper."

On this day, Herman accompanied cowboy Jeff Lauderdale, one of the hired hands of the JF. Jeff told the story to Stella sometime in the intervening years.

Several hours out of the ranch, the pack string approached an "extremely narrow and steep" section of the trail. One slip of the hoof would send the pack animals hurling down to the rocky canyon below, a fall of several hundred feet.

To be continued ...

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