When I agreed to spend a summer caretaking a ranch in Colorado, I never thought to ask about the kitchen. I knew that my family (my partner, Kellie, and our 6-month-old and 2-year-old sons) would be living in a cabin on an 800-acre ranch nestled in the Rocky Mountains, but for some reason, as I packed a box of favorite pans and dishes, I had pictured a full-sized stove, an ample table, and a countertop.
When we arrived, I discovered that the kitchen there was smaller than my bathroom. It had no refrigerator or sink — those required a walk off the back porch, through the tall grass, to a shed that housed a dorm-sized fridge that ran on solar power, and a sink that drew water from a hand-dug spring. What it did have was a hot plate, a mouse-proof cupboard, and a butcher's block.
This would become the summer of cooking with limitations. I was determined to make the best of it, to redefine for myself what it meant to cook for my family, and what it meant to eat well.
At home, I was the kind of cook who kept a sourdough starter going so that I could make bread or pizza dough on a whim. I was the kind of cook who normally, on a Sunday afternoon in July, might be running carrots and cabbage through the Cuisinart for coleslaw, while eggs and potatoes boiled in separate pots on the stove for potato salad, and a tray of hamburger patties sat on a shelf in the refrigerator waiting for the grill. Dinner was always served with at least one salad, and if my older son didn't like what I cooked, I whipped something up just for him on the fly. In short, I was the kind of cook who required gadgets and countertops — the kind of cook who knows how to spread out and made a mess.
During our summer on the ranch I changed. I made meals in one pot or one skillet. Every morning we ate oatmeal topped with milk and canned fruit — applesauce or peaches, blackberries or plum compote. Kellie and I sat at the picnic table on the back porch, drank coffee from china cups, and watched the clouds move through the sky. As we ate the sun warmed away the dampness and the slight chill in the air. When our sons woke, we could hear them through the open window.
During our summer on the ranch I changed.
For dinner, I sliced potatoes and sautéed them with onions and sausage. I served them with tortillas, warmed directly on the burner, and on the side we ate baby carrots from the bag, or snap peas picked from the backyard garden. Every week I soaked a pot of beans and then we would eat them for three evenings in a row. The first evening I'd simply salt them and we'd eat them with slices of avocado. The second evening, to dress them up as something else, I'd stir in ketchup and molasses. The third evening — no apologies — we'd eat the same thing again, always with tortillas, and always with a compulsory side of raw veggies.
Here's the funny thing that happened: We sat together and happily ate dinner, all of us hungry from a day of walking on the trails, or playing in the mud, or hiding from the rain. As we ate, we listened to the elk bugle in the far-away hills and we would try to spot them in the distance as the sun set. Kellie popped open a beer and offered me a sip. My older son wolfed down whatever I served and asked for seconds. The baby poked at his beans with his spoon and then, ready for bed, he climbed in my lap to nurse. No one complained. No one said, "Where is the salad?" or "Can I have grilled cheese instead?" And even me, queen of complicated meals, I didn't pine for anything but what we had.
That summer I learned that, while a well-equipped kitchen is a thing of beauty, so is an excuse to keep mealtimes simple. I learned that if you are not in a rush, you don't need a microwave, and that if your table has a view of the sky and the mountains then all you need is one hot plate and one skillet and whatever you've got in the cupboard. I learned that landscape, like butter or cheese, is an ingredient that can make an easy meal seem decadent.