Times Past: Cooking with Mum

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

April 21, 2018

High in the Sierra Nevada mountains, winds a highway known as “4” or Ebbetts Pass. From the river valleys carved into the box-canyons of the eastern slopes, this highway connects the California Gold Country with that of the Silver Comstock. A right road of commerce, it now connects logging operations with mills and urban tourists with scenic destinations.

I never really cooked with my mom. More like she instructed me to prepare recipes like enchiladas and beans or sopas (a Portuguese roast served soup-style over crusty French bread, topped with fresh sprigs of mint that grew wild in the creek below our old mining-era house). She did most of the cooking, and I worked the cash register at night in her general store. But I learned enough.

Highway 4 passed her store and wound all the way up over the 8,000-foot mountain pass to where my father had a logging camp in Pacific Valley. He worked this Forest Service project for three or four years. When I was 13, I announced I would go find my own job because I no longer wanted to work in the store where I had stocked shelves, bagged ice, stacked firewood and served shifts as a cashier since I was seven.

Note: I now understand why the county staff often asked if my parents followed the child labor laws. I think they had some sort of good-ol-boy immunity.

Anyhow, my father approved a transfer of my labor from the store to his logging camp. I was dismayed because I had a job offer to ride for the local ranch, pushing stock up the trails to keep the cattle in the summer pastures. We compromised — I’d rise at 3 am and ride in the logging truck up that windy pass to arrive at Pacific Valley by dawn and work until noon. After lunch I’d be allowed a two-hour break until we left with a load of logs at 2 pm, getting home in time to saddle my horse and ride up the Barney Riley to push any strays back up the hill.

That summer, over my two-hour break, I read all the Han Solo series, every comic book I could get my hands on, and the summer reading list of classics for eighth-grade. Every morning I cleaned. Yep, sure as shit, I scoured that valley.

Let me pause a moment and explain the phrase “sure as shit.” Evidently my great-grandmother Clara Irma Kincaid passed down that verbal arrangement. Some people descend from proper biddies, from classy ladies. I come from a woman who said sure as shit so often it’s ingrained in me. When my recently long-lost cousin used the phrase, I realized its reach.

I use it for emphasis and to add a tone of anger. Sure as shit the female goes to work in the logging camp and has to clean the valley. I didn’t get to do any of the exciting logging activities or learn to operate a chainsaw. Nope. I got to clean. Cleaning meant dragging brush and bending over repeatedly to pick up any broken fragments of limbs. I raked and piled slash that my father would later burn.

His job was to reclaim a mountain meadow that had become overgrown with trees after the strip-logging of the mining days. It’s gorgeous now, and I want it known, I cleaned that meadow in a summer when I was 13.

What do Pacific Valley and my parents’ occupations have to do with tea in China or cooking with mum?

On the surface, not much. But deep down, it’s the roots of my cooking influences. My mother, always busy with the store, taught me to cook from a distance to help ease her woman’s work (though laundry was something she never relinquished or explained to me). My father, on the other hand, was a man caught between time. He was born after the mountain men of western culture, and before it was cool for men to be foodies. So, I learned the basics from mom, and creativity over a logging campfire with dad.

And that explains why my children get excited about the phrase “cooking with mum.” To them, it recalls our camping experiences when I prepared menus like this:


  • Sausage Soufflé
  • Strawberries & peaches
  • Cowboy Coffee


  • Salami Rolls
  • Sliced Tomatoes & Pretzels
  • Rice Crispy Bars


  • Jamaican Jerk Burgers
  • Rum-Spiked Grilled Pineapple
  • Watercress & Cranberry Salad

Or the Thanksgivings in which we spend weeks preparing in advanced to stuff ourselves like the turkey on the table. Or the way I use Penzy Spices, answer recipe questions in texts or make healthy vegan food taste decadent.

Cooking with mum is the verbal phrase I passed down, if not the actual activity. Cooking with mum means visiting with me in the kitchen or at the table. It’s about sharing meals and presence.

And it’s a better phrase than the one I received. Sure as shit.


Join Irene Waters with her monthly Times Past memoir prompt that compares the experiences of generation and place.

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  1. Ritu

    Beautiful memories Charli!!!

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Ritu!

  2. Susie

    Charli, I LOVED reading this! You have a way of capturing memories and making them into heartfelt stories. I always enjoy reading these kind of things from you.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Susie! I’m glad you stopped by to read!

  3. syncwithdeep

    Beautiful memories narrated amazingly. The phrase sure as shit is interesting to know.

    • Charli Mills

      Glad I could teach you a bit of buckaroo lingo! Clara was a colorful woman, but I’ll save that for another story. Thanks!

  4. Jennie

    I loved this!

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Jennie!

      • Jennie

        You’re welcome, Charli!

  5. Peregrine Arc

    My hat goes off to you–that workload sounds blistering. The phrase you mentioned is well suited.

    • Charli Mills

      I’m so glad I learned new phrases and the idea that it’s better to work smart. Thanks for reading!

  6. Shallow Reflections

    What a worker you were at a young age. My father’s highest complement for anyone was, ‘She’s a worker.’ My siblings all gave me a ‘raft of shit’ for being the youngest and having a semi-normal childhood. That meant I didn’t work 24 hours/day when I wasn’t in school, but I did work plenty of hours. Part of the time I spent learning to cook with mum. Much plainer fare than your camping meals, Charli. I might have liked camping better with a menu like yours!

  7. Norah

    You did a great job on that meadow, Charli. You do like leaving your mark around the place. “Sure as shit” is a remark I can image coming from the mouths of a few I know. That’s how life is for some. Especially as they see it. Like Molly says, with a menu like yours, camping almost seems a possibility. I wonder how you make vegan taste delectable. “They” taste-tested some vegan Easter eggs on TV a few weeks ago and gave a definite thumbs down. What’s the point of Easter eggs that no one will eat? When I was growing up, Mum cooked, we ate. She was a good, but basic, cook. She had to be with twelve mouths to feed at each meal. Relatives used to call her Marvellous Mary because she seemed able to whisk up something from nothing. I didn’t inherit that skill. I grateful for cafes and take-aways. 🙂

  8. dgkaye

    Well done Charli. And also nice to learn a little about your background. 🙂 x Tell me about Cowboy coffee. 🙂

  9. robbiesinspiration

    What a different childhood you had, Charli. Admittedly, in the past it was common for kids to work. My dad worked at the local drive in from age 12 and my mom assisted her Mother as soon as she was able to. I started working at 15 and have worked ever since.

  10. Annecdotist

    A beautiful landscape to grow up in, Charli, but shit, tough work.
    You’ve got me reflecting on the differences for me too between cooking with dad (camping) and with my mother (press-ganged into assisting with the drudgery of the everyday routine).
    Looks as if you saved the best bits for your kids.

  11. LucciaGray

    Parents teach us by their positive and not so positive actions. Everything can always be Improved. I’m so glad you found a way to make ‘cooking with mum’ live up to its name and real meaning! The menus sound wonderful:)

  12. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Fabulous post Charli. Your connection with country shines through and I can see you as a little kid (well a 13 year old) getting the unexciting jobs but perhaps that paddock wouldn’t have looked like that if it wasn’t for you and it looks great. I love your ending comparing a saying from your childhood with one that of your children had. I think the idea of companionship in the kitchen is a wonderful way of cooking with Mum.

  13. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    “Kid, ya don’t belong here, wrong post.”
    “I sure as shit belong here, Pal, it’s still the ranch. An’ I smelled coffee.”
    “Hmmph. Don’t you have chores ta be doin’?”
    “Cain’t work on an empty stomik, Pal. An’ I’m thinkin’ Shorty needs hep cookin’ over here.”
    “Yer as much hep in a kitchen as a coon in a corncrib. Git.”
    “But, I was hopin’…”
    “..fer some bacon.”
    “I’m gonna give ya a side a somethin’ Kid, and it ain’t gonna be bacon. Now git.”
    “Maybe if Shorty fixed ya some bacon you wouldn’t be so dang ornery.”

  14. Miriam Hurdle

    Wow, Charli, getting up at 3 am to ride in the logging truck must be hard for a 13-year-old. Yet a kid is a kid, just do as told by his/her parents. I guess you didn’t have too much playing time growing up. I didn’t either. I started working when I was 13 or 14. There was no child labor law then. I do remember my dad signed a paper for me to work.

    I’m the second child among the siblings. The first 3 kids didn’t have a chance to learn to ride a bike or other kid things, such as being in the boy scout or girl scout. The next 4 kids did. Yes, 7 kids, actually, my mom gave birth to 13, only 7 live.

    As far as cooking with mom, I learned by watching. We cooked with no recipes, no measurement of spices and just pinched with fingers. I still don’t use measuring spoons for most of the cooking. For eating, I use fork and knife instead of chopsticks though.

    When I was a kid, we celebrated 7 festivals during the year. My mom cooked a feast for each celebration. I helped. She bought a live chicken, slit the neck, then tilted the head back and held the head and legs together to drain the blood, put salt in the blood to solidify it, then cooked the solid blood in the soup with other ingredients. My job was to plug the feathers of the chicken. One time, the chicken was not killed on the spot and was hopping around with the blood splashing in the kitchen. “Running around like the chicken with the head cut off,” but in this case, the head was not cut off.

    Have a wonderful week!

  15. Sherri Matthews

    What a story Charli. California Gold Country tugs at my heartstrings most powerfully, as does California camping (wish I had camped with you with that divine menu!) but I never cleaned a valley or a meadow or rode a cattle train or worked at the age of seven in a shop. ‘Sure as shit’ struck me as familiar, having heard it in CA from different sources. I’ve said it angrily a few times myself, I’m sure of it! I’ve shared my Cooking with Mum memories over at Irene’s Times Past…loved reading yours Charli, fascinating to learn more about your earlier life and how it compares to the wonderful shared meals you have now with your family. It’s the sitting down together that makes it all worth it as you say. Goodness knows, that is certainly when I am at my happiest, when my children are gathered all together around the table 🙂 <3

  16. Charli Mills

    Thanks for sharing!


  1. Times Past: Cooking with Mum – The Militant Negro™ - […] Source: Times Past: Cooking with Mum […]
  2. Cooking With Mum – Childhood Experiences: Times Past | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist) - […] Times Past: Cooking with Mum […]

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