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.
"I had rented a truck when a previous ranch road dented the undercarriage of my small sedan. I hadn’t requested a truck, per se, but when I drove to my destination for the oral history I had scheduled, I was thankful for the vehicle I was equipped with. The monsoons had started, creating ditches in the eight mile dirt road that would have been impossible to cross otherwise. On the drive, I saw a group of cows wading in one of the larger puddles. The creatures seemed to not come across vehicles often – even creeping by at 5 miles per hour startled them, and they stared at me with wide, brown eyes as I drove past. After crossing a high ridge that provided a view south to the Mexico border and west to Baboquivari peak, I crossed one last cattle guard to find a small bunkhouse nestled in a bank of mesquite trees. When I pulled up to Buck’s house, he had just pulled up in an old pick up truck from the opposite direction. I stepped out of my car to introduce myself, but introductions proved unnecessary. Buck immediately informed me that he had thought about calling and cancelling our interview, but because he had initially agreed, he couldn’t go back on his word. He opened the door to his house and directed me towards the kitchen. The table was set with four place settings, and in the middle of the table sat a big bowl of ruby red apples. There was some sort of chili or stew simmering on the stove, but despite the aroma of the stew and the table prepared to dine, nothing was offered to me except a brief period of time to talk, before Buck had to be back out on the range. As we took our seats across the table from each other, I explained my project with him and gained his consent, only after he heard more about the project and confirmed my intentions. Buck’s insistence on not particularly wanting to talk, though he resolved to do it, was striking if not somewhat refreshing. His reticence belied his vast knowledge of the desert, and the ins and outs of ranching more broadly. He had determined, though, that his role on this ranch was not as a talker but as a worker – a ‘cowboy wrangler’ who took his job seriously, and took it alone."
- An example of the introduction to my little short stories on each of the ranchers and cowboys I interviewed this summer. After this opening paragraph setting the scene, the rest of the story essentially sums up the interview I did with whichever informant, focusing on the aspects they described as making up their daily work and what I consider the making of their social status - how they do things, and what that means for their self worth and value in the ranching community. After I do each of these stories (I picked 13 of the best), I will lay them out in front of me and start making connections. Who mentioned solitude as a key aspect of ranching? Who got what technology (helicopter roundups, ATVs) first, or who eschews technology all together? Who breaks horses, and who does paperwork? How does each aspect of ranch work break down standard notions of class (wealth, education, mobility), or reinforce them? How do these individuals see themselves as workers, as community members, as Arizonans?