The most memorable food for me is the food eaten in someone’s home. The label “home cooking” has an alluring panache, and it seems oxymoronic for some restaurants to claim they serve “home cooking.” Intellectually, restaurant cooking doesn’t interest me as much as home cooking. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great restaurant and I appreciate the novelty, skill, taste and wow factor. However, there is something fundamental and spiritually satisfying about a dish considered archetypical of a culture when prepared with love by the hands of a competent home cook.
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Most of what is new in home cooking in the United States is a result of the incorporation of food magazine ideas, which are heavily influenced by restaurant chefs who wow the food magazine editors. Ask a magazine or newspaper food editor if they would rather have lunch at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant or with my friend who is a good cook and they’ll choose Gordon Ramsay in a heartbeat.
Home cooking is not fancy cooking, but it’s real cooking. I love when someone cooks for me and they say, “Oh it’s really nothing, the recipe is how my grandmother used to do it.” That’s music to my ears.
I remember one marvelous instance in the mid-1970s when I was about to go backpacking in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. My friend Jeff had been a fire ranger that summer and a Vista volunteer earlier and became friendly with a farmer named James Mines whose ranch was nestled below the range northeast of Farson. James’ farm was the last piece of land to be settled in the West under the provisions of the Homestead Act. He and his wife had seven children and raised hay, some cows, quite a few horses and some swine.
Wild West home cooking for an East Coast city boy
I just arrived from New York City and was the living definition of a city slicker. It was dusk when we arrived and it was cold even though it was July. There were no neighbors, nothing but the ranch house and purple mountain majesties above a fruited plain. We had dinner that night of pan-seared mutton shoulder chops and mashed potatoes. I was raving about this meal and still remember it almost 40 years later. I’ve never been able to reproduce it, partly because mutton must be special ordered. Maybe what made it so special was the situation and locale, which is certainly not to be overlooked. But more important there was no nod to modernity or faddishness. This was simply how the Mines family cooked it. The mutton tasted enormously flavorful, as if it had been charcoal-grilled, which it hadn’t. The mashed potatoes were powerfully savory and slightly chunky with bits of well-cooked bacon and butter in them.
The Mines didn’t raise their own sheep. They were raised by big sheep outfits all over Sweetwater County. They could buy inexpensive mutton rather than raise sheep themselves. Jeff believes the mutton we ate that night was from James Magagna, who owned the large sheep operation centered at the robber’s roost of Paddy McCann, an old-time local bushwacker, where Jeff had spent the summers of 1976 and 1978.
“The mutton was freshly slaughtered a few days before and had been hanging in an open-air screened enclosure to cure during those days, since that was how those things were usually done,” Jeff said.
They couldn’t quite believe how excited I was, and frankly, I couldn’t believe it either and had to reassure them I wasn’t just being polite. I had the best sleep ever that night, feeling the cold outside and listening to the coyote howl and the wind whip through the brush.
Mutton Chops With Mashed Potatoes
4 mutton shoulder chops (about 2½ pounds)
Salt to taste
4 russet potatoes (about 2¾ pounds), peeled and quartered
4 strips thick cut bacon (about ¼ pound), cut into small pieces
¼ cup unsalted butter
1. In a large cast iron skillet, over medium-low heat, cook the mutton chops, seasoned with salt, until tender, about 1 hour.
2. Put the potatoes in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until they fall apart, about 25 minutes in all. Remove and mash coarsely.
3. Meanwhile, in another cast iron skillet or a sauté pan, cook the bacon over low heat until crispy, about 10 minutes. Add the mashed potatoes, butter and salt; stir to mix, and cook 2 minutes. Serve hot with the mutton chops.
Mutton chops with mashed potatoes. Credit: Clifford A. Wright