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Oh Susannah, or Going West in the Kitchen

Desparato.....why don't you come to your senses.......

We all have dreams and fantasies. One of my oldest and favorites is that one day, I am going to pack up my bags and my three sons and head for the Big Sky. I don't know why exactly this appeals. Reckon I saw Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Oklahoma on tv too often in my formative years. Whatever. Surbanite that I am, I get this 'time to claim the frontier' fantasy each year just as the spring peeks around the corner. It coincides with the Canadian wild geese as they wing homeward - eager to start their spring and summer sojourn in the wilds they love. Something about their flight triggers some similar quest for adventure and freedom in me, for my mind follows suit and my spirit similarly takes off for higher ground.

Real moms are thinking baseball tryouts, camp registration, and gearing up the Weber for the first of a host of outdoor grill nights to follow, but not me. I heed a different call. Something in the spring air puts me in mind of western trails – yet unforged by the railways' jackhammers or a Gordon Lightfoot song. I smell that smell - the ghost of winter-finally-passed and the dewy scent of a mellow May, new salmon, budding daffodils.

Thing is, it is so real, that some days, as I trot out on my sunrise run, I can almost smell the beckoning aromas of the smokehouse chuck wagon fire; scalding and brutishly hot, strong coffee hang thick in the air. Café latte? Mocha Java Mochichino Lite? Hey, like let's not make me and the trail boss snicker. The boss man don't hold with no sissy coffee, hear? I can hear bacon sizzling and the floury, honest, simple fragrance of fresh baked bannock (yes, bannock - keep your olive-studded foccaccio!) puffing up on a cast iron skillet. Heady, hearty stuff - so real, I can taste it.

This western fantasy is so long in my mind that I can even remember when it did not include my boys, but now it does, so I have made adjustments. In lieu of a covered wagon, I will rent a big, hunter green American van. We will be packed to the hilt with 'just the bare essentials" to start our new life in the frontier. My goal is Butte or Cedar Creek or some unknown, undiscovered place like Somewhere, Colorado. Wherever. A place where cowboy boots means horses, not fashion. A place where people say 'good morning' and look you straight in the eye. A place where they eat beef unapologetically, play way too much Bonnie Raitt and Garth Brooks, and even know who Jerry Jeffries is and go to bed early. A place where Oh Susanna is not a jazz folk group on CBC and where The Gap is that ravine on the outskirts of town. A place where people dress up for a Saturday night dance. A place where sarcasm is suspect.

The first leg of the trip will be junk food city, silly car games, and counting fast food shops on the interstates. By mid trip, I figure we will be in some sort of heartland place - 'pends where that westerly wind blows us. The van will be quieter, the scenery will have changed. Game Boy will be long forgotten and travel games like I Spy and Count-the-Cows will rule. Holiday Inn will have given way to No Name Motel to Bed-and-Breakfast to Camping Out. Each time the horizon comes close, it gets far again and we know it is not yet time to settle.

As the days roll by, the season and landscape will be unrolling and transforming before our eyes. After years of living in the 'burbs, the boys will be fascinated. Awed a bit. "Are we in Kansas?" "No, sweethearts, this is Iowa"

Well, early one dewy morning we pull in to our dream berg. The town is barely stirring - the mist is steaming off the pavement. Sunlight streams in on Main Street like a slick of melted butter. There are maple trees, willow and oak trees, with their competing hues of hunter and heather green, and gold. Someone is burning hickory and maple wood. A quick reconnaissance drive reveals that there are some good looking schools, some prime baseball diamonds, a newly built Fine Arts Center and a billboard saying a very off Broadway production of The Fantastiks and Rent is coming soon. I see another sign saying Ballroom Dance Lessons. This is it. Perfect. We pass a diner advertising, Baker Wanted. I stop - go in to chat and faster than you can say, "Butter my biscuits!”, Momma's got work. "I start tomorrow!" I triumphantly tell the guys who squeal so loud a couple of fellows peer out the barbershop window.

In a short while, we settle. The boys find friends, catfish, frogs, girls and spring fairs. My chocolate chip cookie recipe is sought after at the bake sale table at the Saturday flea market. I get a deal on an almost new Mac and spend some June nights writing my screenplay that I started back east.

Within weeks, the diner's business has picked up immensely. Everyone says, 'Heck, I dunno where the new baker girl is from - some ways East, I expect, but darn, if she does not make the best biscuits! Soon, we start selling muffins and scones too. Hell, she even makes fried dough. Man-O-man."

One day I surprise my boss and make real chicken and dumplings. "Geez, she cooks too!". The day I make fried dough and sugar and he says I am the best thing that ever happened to the diner and gives me a fond wink that reminds me of my dad, the thought of whom still can bring tears but this time, it makes me grin back in turn. As a reward, I get a night off and see that off-Broadway production of Rent. I think I see Bill Pullman in the audience only it turns out it is not but someone better, more handsome, more real. Next day, I hear my screenplay has been optioned. I share the news at my ballroom dance class where I now teaching tango once a week. Strains of Astor Pizzailoa tango music floats from the dance hall room into the canyons and the coyotes strain their ears, puzzled, then croon back.

Jonathan teaches his new friends the finer points of street hockey. Gideon finds someone to star gaze and launch his homemade rocket with. Benjamin spends each and every minute at that little stream or swinging on a giant tire beside our neighbor's barn. He comes home with new brown eggs every other day. We send back oversized oatmeal raisin cookies. One night, he tries to sneak a baby chick into his bed. Life is good.

Oh? And that man-that-looks-like-Bill Pullman-only-better? Turns out - he is a dot.com guy that has packed it in after the bust and opted for a do-over in our little town. He does a little online trading but mostly, is finally building his own dream log cabin he designed ages ago, with its huge, skylight lit kitchen, wheat colored tiles he found in an old bakery in Tuscany, beams garnered from some old gold miners site (well, you know, wood with with history in 'em), his own novel and courtin' me.

He says, my buttermilk biscuits first made him smitten but it is the way I dance tango in cowboy boots, and the way I touch Ben's still-baby fine hair that makes him linger.

Ah - dreams. Can't always live them, can't let 'em go. Best to hold 'em, you'd be nuts to fold 'em.

Some days, life a food writer's test kitchen can be real grueling. I get to thinking I am George Bailey from It's A Wonderful Life. I think I may never leave Bedford Falls or even the suburbs of the big city. So, I go west in my head. One day, I will get to that place that sits side saddle on far side of my horizon. But until then, I bring the cowboy spirit to the cook. I bake up biscuits and chili, big fat apple rhubarb pies, and country fried chicken.

It celebrates the cowboy that lives in me - a decidedly denim mindset - the only one that can properly collide with a new age headspace and come up smiling.

The food at my table is homespun and heartwarming. It is seasoned with that uncorralled spirit that says never say die, and never give up the chance of something new and adventurous around the bend. Never make camp too far before the horizon. 

In spring, the sun sets a little later but compensates with extra early, sunrises, crisp and scarlet with promise. It reminds me that dreams never quit or settle, just the dreamer.

Oh right.
Almost forgot.
A Recipe for you all

Taller 'N Trees Buttermilk Biscuits

2 ½ cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
touch sugar
a touch more teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, in small bits
1 cup cold buttermilk, scant

Melted butter for brushing

Get your fire hot, then bank wood to side.

Mix up flour baking powder, soda, salt and sugar in a wood dough bowl. Cut in butter until mixture is coarse and grainy. Sprinkle buttermilk over mixture and stir lightly with a fork to blend. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead (8-10 times) until mixture is just right. Roll out and cut in generous sized biscuits. Do not twist or biscuits will topple during bakin'. Brush tops with melted butter and bake in a nicely seasoned cast iron skillet raised up a bit, over hot fire. Bake til golden and take care you do not burn bottoms. Try and think good thoughts as you bake - it'll only make everything taste that much more of alright.

Serve with more butter, egg shell 'n coffee that does not come from Starbucks and jam you put by last summer. Somethin' red and sweet. Share all biscuits so there's no left overs - better than cold ones no one wants anyhow.

Makes lots but somehow never enuff. Bon appetit, and happy trails, The Baker At Oh Susannah Diner

© Copyright 2000 Marcy Goldman


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