I wrote this little vignette when I was doing my fieldwork in the Altar Valley in the summer of 2011. It never made it into any official type of writing, but it was one of those happy fieldwork moments for me, sitting alone, being somewhere at once familiar and strange, eating steak, listening, watching.
I am sitting in a restaurant that is dimly lit, with stone-carved walls and cowboy paraphernalia hanging from the ceiling. Chandeliers made from wagon wheels, that sort of thing. As it is with most restaurants in rural Arizona cattle country, things aren’t entirely old-fashioned here, nor are things entirely new. This building was constructed at the turn of the 20th century and was used by early cattle traders as a watering hole, yet the fancy stereo system tacked up in the corner playing Top 40 hits points towards the establishment's modernity. This restaurant, though self-aware of its uniqueness, is far from a tourist trap. The people eating here tonight don’t seem to be gawking at the cow heads stuffed and mounted on the wall. There is no one snapping photos of the extensive pancake griddle collection that is displayed in the entryway with as much care as any museum exhibit. I seem to be the only non-local here, sitting at the Cow Palace on a Tuesday at 7:30 pm in late June.
The family next to me – grandma, grandpa, and two small grandkids, boys about the age of 5 and 7 – have just spent the last ten minutes discussing potatoes. Grandpa’s face is wrinkled and weathered. He is wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, and his white collared shirt looks freshly pressed. Grandma, heavy set and red cheeked, has her hair pinned up ornately with a silver clip, turquoise inlay. The family is situated in the middle of the restaurant, with paper napkins in all four of their laps. Their conversation about potatoes ranges from the tuber’s merits to its flaws. The boys claim they hate mashed potatoes, but are excited for their order of French Fries. “Your dad doesn’t like mashed potatoes either,” grandpa chuckles. “He used to say the same thing as you just did.” Hearing this, I think that traditions out here don’t just form around work practices and ideologies, but around more inane, daily things. Like food.
“I like potatoes every way I’ve ever tried them,” Grandma says. “Except the way Mindy used to make them.” Grandpa snickers, but the boys press for more. They jump on this detail about the former woman in their dad’s life, supposedly the woman he was married to before the boys’ mom came along.
“Why Mindy’s?” The youngest asked.
“What was wrong with her potatoes?”
They crave this information intently, as if it would unlock some mystery about the woman that means enough to be brought up at a family meal but not enough to have stuck around. I think back to when I was about these boys’ age, learning about the former woman in my own dad’s life. Back then, hearing about her was the first time I saw my parents not just as amorphous figures of ‘dad’ and ‘mom,’ but as people who made choices, people who have flaws and merits just like potatoes do. I lean forward, wanting to know more about Mindy, too.
The waitress emerges from the kitchen with a tray, three orders of chicken fried steak in tow – two orders with mashed potatoes, one order, split in two, with French Fries. As the steaks are being set down on their table, grandpa removes his cowboy hat. He picks up his fork and his knife, but Grandma shoots him a look. He sets them back down. Grandma, reaching over the table to cut the boys’ steak, puts an end to the subject so they can say grace.
“Mindy was a nice woman,” She says.
“A kind woman,” Grandpa echoes.
“She was a nice woman,” Grandma repeats. “She just couldn’t cook.”
Talk of potatoes and Mindy cease. The four of them say grace, heads bowed, and then they dig in. As they eat, from the speakers of the new stereo system in the corner of the Cow Palace on a Tuesday evening in June, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” begins to play.