Monday, September 18, 2006

Cowpoke Beans?

Before this Molly Ivins link slips irrevocably into periodical oblivion I want to use it as a hook for a rant: How can we trust folks that don't know beans?

The most amazing part of cow college was meeting the cow whisperer. Think of everything you know about moving cattle from one place to another -- for shots, round-up or loading into trucks for market -- just physically moving a lot of cattle. GEE, GIT ON, GO DOGIE, whistle, whip crack, move 'em out, chase 'em down. Turns out all these years we've been doing it wrong.

What happens when you scare a cow by making a lot of noise and chasing it down and forcing it to move where it doesn't want to go is the cow responds by relieving itself. And since a cow has three stomachs, it can unload up to 20 percent of its total weight at one go, the last thing you want just before you take it to market to sell.
Westerns are less hegemonic today than in my youth. Then the greats, the Waynes, Ladds, Coopers, Carillos, Autrys, Rogers, Reynaldos, and others, with Pavlovian efficacy, instilled the images of the West in our mushy brains.
The vast herd -- sole prop of the widow back at the ranch -- pushed and chivvied through the chaparral desserts by a bunch of handsome *white* galoots, more or less colorfully dressed in hats and chaps and spurs, astride their Appaloosa paints, with Gabby Hayes grumbling at the reins of the chuck wagon in the exact middle of the dust cloud following the last heifer.

At some point in my putative adult existence I began to seriously deprogram myself. Working with Utah Phillips, the Utah Folk Thrush, had something to do with it, though he is to blame for other stuff, not what happens here.

§ § §

Cattle drive hands existed as a serious job description for less than 40 years. This was the time it took for the railroads to complete the exploitation of the prairie between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Nobody moved a herd of cattle because they felt like it. It was the only way to get the herd from the ranch to the nearest railhead. Just as soon as a railroad siding showed up nearby the cattle drive ended. Drives also needed unrestricted open range. The "range wars" were lost as the ranchers gave way to the farmers who insisted on fencing their fields.

Punching cows was not a glamour job the way the films would have you believe. It required long hours in the saddle and months of camping rough in all weathers. Believe me the prairie can hand out some weather. All this came at the meagerest of wages and all found. "All found" meant whatever ground you could throw your blankets on and whatever food could be preserved to last the length of the ride. That's mostly dried beans and bacon. Most hands were Black, Mexican, Indian or mixes. Only the boss was White. Hence "cowboys". Ten or fifteen years was the usual career, which frequently ended in a violent death or crippled. The smart ones -- the lucky ones -- soon found other work. The very few fit for nothing else -- who happen to cook well enough to attract the best hands -- became the "old woman" -- the Gabby Hayes part.

The herd needed grazing. The herd needed water. Push the herd too fast and all the meat turns to string, tough string. So the herd moves slowly through river valleys where sweet grass is plentiful and covers maybe 12 to 15 miles in a day. Maybe a mile per hour. That's why it took 70 to 90 days to traverse the Goodnight-Loving trail from Young County Texas southwest to the Pecos (to avoid the Comanches) and then north through Ft Sumner, New Mexico, to Greeley, Colorado. It ran over a thousand miles including at least 80 miles of the Llano Estacado dessert where the Pecos flows from Texas into New Mexico.

Think about that wagon. Its an open box covered with canvas stretched on ribs but more or less open at both ends. Much of the food hangs free or is loosely covered in coarse cloth. Who would put it at the end of the parade? Riding drag at the end of the herd was the joy of the greenhorns. Nobody who cared about their food was going to bathe it in dust twelve hours a day for three months and call it a treat.

§ § §

Then there's the beans.

They weren't in a can. They were dried. They were in a bag.

Most modern cookbooks will tell you to soak the beans in water overnight. A second option is to cover with water and bring the pot to a boil then let them set for an hour. Drain and cover with fresh water to begin cooking them. The wagon is not traveling on the Interstate. It is traveling a trail. "Trail" is by courtesy. "Trail" means that somebody in the outfit knows the landmarks that show the way. It has nothing to do with any sort of road. So let's set a pot of beans covered in water in the wagon and go for a nice cross country ride of twelve miles. How much water and beans do you expect to find in the pot at journey's end? Enough to feed eighteen hungry people? Not likely.

So I deduce that the chuck wagon moved around the herd. First there was breakfast of biscuits, bacon and beans (Left over from the night before), with coffee. The Old Woman hands everybody extra biscuits, pemmican or jerky for lunch. The hands move the herd off while cookie cleans up the camp, his pots and pans, etc. With the mules hitched the chuck wagon leaves to find the herd. As soon as found, the herd is passed. The mules can do three miles an hour easily, so by lunch time the wagon arrives at the campsite. Hobble the mules to graze, gather firewood, draw water, start the fire, then the beans go on the fire. Two or three hours later they are fully cooked and ready for flavoring.

Now that's another topic. Likely the actual cowpokes were used to what we now call Tex-Mex with its spicy heat. On the other hand a bit of molasses or cone sugar made those beans tastier to the energy starved, just as doughnuts taste good to cops on the night shift. Possible that the boss has roots back east that call for moderation of the spiciness with a nod to the baked beans of New England? Maybe there was a fusion? Flavorings were also influenced by what the cook found.

So I took the needful about three hours upriver into the Mt Baker National Forest and set to work about 3pm with a cast iron Dutch oven and some charcoal. By 6pm when the other campers rolled in there were some beans ready for them. Didn't hear any complaints that night.

Goodnight Loving Beans

Wash and pick over 1 pound of pinto beans. Place in a 4 qt. Dutch dutch oven with water to cover. Place in fire pit with 6 briquets beneath and 12 briquettes on top. When the pot boils remove 3 briquettes from beneath and 4 from the top. This should maintain a simmer fast enough to cook the beans. After an hour, or so, the skin should peel when you blow on a bean. Now add 1 tsp baking soda (softens the beans[?]), ¼ cup sweetener (honey, molasses, cone sugar etc.) a spice bag -- containing allspice, anise seed, cloves, cinnamon stick, cumin seeds, celery seeds, mustard seed and pepper corns -- dried tomatoes, and ½ pound salt pork. Simmer another hour. Add a rabbit or duck, disjointed if necessary, and a spring onion & pasilla pepper chopped. Simmer another hour or 'til done.
Mix 1 cup flour with 2 teaspoons baking powder and a pinch of salt. Work a ¼ cup butter in to flour mixture. Add enough milk to make a soft dough. Drop spoonsfull on top of the beans. Bake ½ hour, or until done.
§ § §

The Flatulence Question
Lino told me that adding baking soda would prevent gas.
I have not found it to be so. What seems to make the difference is how much I eat and how fast.

2. Soak most beans in three times their volume of cold water for six hours before cooking. (You can cook beans without soaking, but it takes longer, and some people think the beans taste better when soaked.)

To Discard Soak Water or Not Some people are more susceptible than others to the discomforts of the gas, or flatulence, sometimes caused by eating beans. Flatulence occurs when bacteria normally found in the digestive tract reacts on certain chemical compounds in beans. Some are water-soluble and will be partially removed when the bean soak water is discarded. Small amounts of water-soluble vitamins and minerals are also removed by discarding the soak water. Therefore, many cooks believe it is nutritionally important to use the soak water for cooking the beans. Current research shows that only small amounts of nutrients are lost. For many people, the discomfort avoided by discarding the soak water is more important than the small amount of nutritional benefits from using it.

Consumers do not soak the beans, because it changes the flavor and the aspect of the cooked beans and they do not add salt at the beginning of the cooking process due to the same reason. Organoleptic studies conducted in the laboratory confirmed that soaking of beans or addition of salts in the soaking water or at the beginning of the cooking process negatively affected acceptability of cooked beans by panelists.
Your experience will very. When it is good stick with it. Else, try this and see if its any good for you.

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  1. The short duration was something I had never thought about.

    We have a strange motif here in Australia in which the horse handlers and cattle drovers are glamorous partly because we are picking up on the American movie thang.

    But I think in truth that droving was much more deeply embedded here, and went on for much longer. The railways never spread in the same way.

    - barista

  2. I enjoyed the read and I copied and saved the recipe. It sounds like something my husband's Boy Scout troop could cook on a campout (probably with some purchased meat instead of the rabbit.)

  3. Genevieve:
    I purchased the duck that went in my version. But your scouts could do it without as an accompaniment to hot dogs, hamburgers or whatever. Hope you all have fun!

    barista: Might the difference also be how much land is fenced? If there is easy passage to a rail head, droving works. Opening fences is a bear and a half.

    Sara at CorrenteWire has more to add. AND a recipe for trail chili.