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:

BREAKFAST:

  • Sausage Soufflé
  • Strawberries & peaches
  • Cowboy Coffee

LUNCH:

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

DINNER:

  • 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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