From what I’ve been hearing, it sounds like “Brokeback Mountain” is a pretty good bet to win a few Oscars on Sunday. I’ve got no quarrel with that. It’s a beautiful movie: poignantly told, splendidly acted and gorgeously photographed. It’s got something for everyone.
I, for one, am thinking about nominating it as one of the great food films -- maybe even of all time. That will probably take some of you aback. But then your mouths probably weren’t watering as those rivers of little white lambs defied gravity rolling happily uphill on their way to summer pasture. All of those chops, shanks, saddles and gigots, merrily on the move! Granted, maybe I’m an exception -- though it did seem to me that that image seemed to be repeated throughout the film with intoxicating regularity.
Still, there certainly aren’t a whole lot of what you’d normally think of as standard-issue food scenes in “Brokeback.” It’s no “Big Night” or “Babette’s Feast.” You’re not going to hurry home from a matinee anxious to repeat any of the dishes for dinner, not unless you have an inexplicable affection for canned beans.
But that does not mean that food is not an important part of the movie. Remember, it was directed by Ang Lee, who earlier did the cuisine-rich “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.” He is not a filmmaker blind to the charms of fine cooking.
Rather, I think the lack of good grub was an artistic choice, meant to reflect the narrowed lives of the main characters and their deliberate turning away from comfort, perhaps even joy.
Let’s face it, these are guys who lived on canned beans for weeks before they noticed and even then it took another couple of weeks before they did anything about it. Plainly, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar did not think a whole lot about food.
That’s pretty much true to life, judging from my experience with cowboys and cuisine. I have to say I’m pretty skeptical of the combination right from the get-go. I know that there have been books written about cowboy cooking, but I don’t know of any that were written by actual cowboys.
And I think I’m probably in a position to know. Well before I ever started to think about writing about cooking, I wrote about cowboys. Those are two remarkably different subjects and as far as I know I’m the only one who has done both. It’s a narrow niche, but it’s all mine.
I worked my way through college as a sportswriter on my local paper in New Mexico and for five years one of my beats was covering rodeos. I had the hat and I had the boots -- everything, as they say, but the horse.
Best of all, I got to spend a lot of time hanging around bucking chutes, talking to anyone who looked interesting -- rodeo clowns who bounced from event to event in clapped-out pickups, a bubbly little barrel racer named Reba McIntire, and, most memorably, a charismatic bull rider named Larry Mahan, who had just won a record sixth-straight all-around cowboy title and let me pal around with him whenever he was in town.
I even took a summer off to tend bar at a place that catered almost strictly to cowboys. My jobs there were not so glamorous -- mainly popping the tops on bottles of beer, refereeing the pool table and trying to avoid getting caught in the middle of fistfights.
The purpose of this little canter down memory lane is merely to establish my bona fides when I say that cooking almost never crosses a cowboy’s mind. Eating does, from time to time, but only as a necessary prelude to other, more important activities: working, drinking or dancing, not necessarily in that order.
In all the time I spent hanging around with cowboys, I can remember occasional conversations about whether we should eat, but I never remember anyone once asking what we should eat.
As evidence, consider my cowboy friends’ favorite restaurant, a truck stop named, without a trace of irony, the Terminal Cafe. The specialty was cream gravy that was served on just about everything, especially biscuits and chicken-fried steak. It was a starchy paste that was certainly not creamy and was barely gravy but it was filling and that was good enough for a cowboy.
Years later, as a restaurant critic, I went back to the Terminal with the idea that it might make a funny story. I left halfway through the meal as the man who owned the place was sobbing into the pay phone. It closed soon thereafter -- truly terminal at last.
Seeing “Brokeback” got me thinking about my friends from back then. And inevitably, given my nature, that led to wondering about what I would fix them for dinner if I ever got the chance to see them again.
This is not as easy a decision as it might seem. After years of cooking, I’ve learned that feeding non-foodie friends is a delicate balance. On the one hand, you don’t want to go so basic that they think you’re patronizing them. On the other, it’s pretty easy to freak them out.
I remember once showing off for a good friend, making her a risotto with bitter greens. I loved it: the greens had turned creamy and sweet, perfectly matching the earthy, slightly chewy rice. She said, “I’m sure it was good and I know I would have loved it if I was more sophisticated.”
So let’s see, I managed not only to serve her something she didn’t like, but to make her feel stupid in the process. A Daily Double! That’s not a mistake I ever want to repeat.
So I’d start dinner with something recognizable but a little different, just to get them used to the idea. Broccoli chopped salad is a good example. The form is familiar and so are the ingredients: broccoli, mushrooms, blue cheese, bacon and vinaigrette. It’s just that the bacon is pancetta, which gives it a bit of a black pepper bite, and the vinaigrette is made with tarragon vinegar, which lends a subtle herbal tang to the mixture.
For the main course, as a homage to “Brokeback” it seems like we really would have to have lamb ... and beans. I doubt if many of my old cowboy buddies have ever heard of cassoulet, but I’m sure they’d recognize the idea of meat and beans cooked together until they’re both buttery.
To echo those textures and to add their own sweet flavor, slip in slivers of fennel bulbs so they braise gently and become creamy and melting. I also love Paula Wolfert’s trick of blanching whole garlic cloves to tame them a little before sticking them in among the white beans. You’ll barely taste the garlic, but a hint of it will suffuse the stew. Sage-perfumed bread crumbs sprinkled on top add a complementary fragrance and a contrasting crunch.
For you non-cowpokes, this makes a wonderful meal-in-a-bowl to tuck into on the couch in front of the television on, say, Oscar night.
Sweeten the deal
After a big pot of lamb and beans, dessert ought to be something simple and light. That doesn’t sound like your typical description of a gratin, but it certainly fits this fruit-based version. Granted, if you have a hard time picturing cowboys eating cassoulet, just imagine their reaction to a “light and creamy orange gratin.” But by this point in the meal, you’ve either converted them or lost them forever.
Slice oranges and layer them in a heat-proof dish. Make a sabayon by whisking egg yolks, sugar and juice over heat until they swell and make a pastry cream. Spoon this over the oranges, scatter sliced almonds over the top and run it under the broiler just until it is puffed and light brown -- no more than a few minutes.
There are a couple of tricks to this dish. First, cook the sabayon in a double boiler and whisk constantly to keep the egg from scorching. The water should be simmering, not boiling. Just as important, start with a cold broiler to brown the top. If you preheat it, the oranges will bake and express enough juice to make the dish a little sloppy.
That wouldn’t be a critical mistake, but just the same, this is one meal where you want dessert to be perfect. Remember, the only other thing “Brokeback Mountain” lacked besides good food was a happy ending.