Monday, November 10, 2014

The Pot of Beans

November 3, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

When I first hired on at the Quarter Circle U Ranch I had no idea what to expect. All I wanted was to be a cowboy. It wasn’t long before I learned that being a cowboy didn’t necessarily mean sitting on a horse and rounding up little doggies.

I had envisioned the more romantic things I had observed on the silver screen at the old Rex Theater in Hayden, Arizona. Each Friday night my father had taken me to the Rex. We lived in Christmas, Ariz. and it was a ten-mile drive to Hayden on a rough and dangerous road.

My cowboy heroes on the silver screen developed my knowledge of cowboys in general. To this day I don’t know why William Thomas Barkley hired me to take care of the Quarter Circle U Ranch in those days.

Barkley was always short on patience with new employees. He told me to feed the cattle and horses and to repair the corrals and gates. He provided me with a hand-drill, some stove bolts and some rough 2”X 6” X 10’ planks. He told me there was food in the cabinets and the Serval gas refrigerator. He never once said what kind of food there was to prepare or who would prepare it. I soon realized I was the new ranch cook and ranch hand. As Barkley drove away I still wasn’t that concerned about my survival on this isolated cow ranch some eighteen miles from Apache Junction.

Barkley pulled out about 10 a.m. after driving me out to the ranch and giving me some instructions. He told me he would pay me $75.00 per month. This would include my room and board. There I stood in the dust of his truck wondering what my future might be. At first I was thrilled that I had finally found a job on a cow ranch. Then reality sank in.

First, I examined the planks and bolts and wondered how I was going to built a gate ten feet long that would hang properly. I laid out my work on the ground and then decided I had better survey the kitchen at the bunkhouse and see what I had in the way of food.

Looking in the kitchen cabinets I found some pinto beans, dried chili, and some rice. I checked out the fridge and found lots of beef. I knew I wouldn’t starve, but I also didn’t know much about cooking food from scratch. I knew beans required a considerable amount of time to cook. So I decided my first dinner would consist of fried eggs. We had about eight laying hens down at the barn and a couple of roosters.

After dinner that evening I began to prepare the beans for the next day. I remember my mother cooking Pinto beans when she made chili. I poured out a pound or so of beans on the big boarding house table at the ranch. I spread the beans out and carefully sorted through them looking for stones and debris. I then crumbled up some of the chili. I mixed the chili and beans in a large pot of water and let them soak for the night.

The next morning I turned on the propane stove and put the pot of beans on the stove. I planned on checking the pot of beans periodically to see if they needed water added. I carefully placed a strong lid on top of the beans and then put a large rock on the bean pot lid. I knew beans were gassy, but gassy enough to blow the lid off the pot while they cooked? No, the rock on the bean pot lid was the keep the rats out of our beans. My boss, Bill Barkley told me never to leave anything in the way of food out or the rats would get into it. Bill said, once as a youngster he left the rock off the lid on the pot of beans and that evening when he lifted the bean pot lid to get a bowl of beans he was staring a dead rat in the eye. There are two ways of looking at that situation. You can go hungry or eat the protein-enriched pot of beans. Bill never told us which he did.

Every other day or so that summer I prepared a pot of beans with chili, beef, garlic, and ranch seasoning in it. Each time I cooked a pot of beans the taste would improve. I wasn’t certain if I was improving as a cook or just preventing starvation.  Yes, my diet did vary a little while I worked on the Quarter Circle U. Barkley occasionally would bring me café prepared food such as Chicken.  In those days there were no fast food places in Apache Junction so when Barkley was at Bostwick’s for lunch he would bring me a basket of chicken. This was quite a change from my regular diet on the ranch. An old friend of mine named Manuel Zapeda down in La Paloma, Sonora told me beans and chili were the best food for longevity. He said his grandfather lived to be 110 eating chili and beans almost every day of his life.  The Zapeda family has been ranching in Northern Sonora for almost 150 years. As each year passes I think of what Manuel told me about beans and chili so many years ago.

You might say a pot of beans and chili became my legacy at the old Quarter Circle U Ranch. Yes, I learned to rope, use a horse properly, brand, dehorn, cut young bull calves, move cattle from pasture to pasture, check and work on windmills, maintain water holes, pack salt and feed, and many other jobs. I even learned how to maintain leather gear such as my saddle, bridle, headstall, chaps, and many other items essential to a cowboy’s life.

For a few years I had found my utopia, then I realized that not owning a ranch didn’t have much of future. Fate guided me on to another profession after I married the love of my life.