One of my new Kindle purchases is The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey. It was a recent Kindle Daily Deal and since it has long been on my must-read list, I quickly snatched it up at the one-day-only price of .99 cents.
The opening cowboy poem, “The Ballad of the Brave Cowboy,” immediately caught my ear and eye… and I suspect that sometime down the road I will review it here.
But what really struck me was the beginning of the novel: a description of cooking over an open fire. Reading it I immediately thought of Hemingway’s description of the same thing in “The Big Two Hearted River.”
With Memorial Day and the beginning of summer, memories of campfires and camps are on my mind.
These two passages seem like just the thing on a Memorial Day Weekend.
from The Brave Cowboy, by Edward Abbey
HE WAS SITTING ON HIS HEELS IN THE COLD LIGHT of the dawn, drawing pale flames through a handful of twigs and dry crushed grass. Beside him was his source of fuel: a degenerate juniper tree, shriveled and twisted, cringing over its bed of lava rock and sand. An under-privileged juniper tree, living not on water and soil but on memory and hope. And almost alone. To the north across the rolling mesa of lava there was a broad scattering of junipers, perhaps two or three to an acre, but here where the man squatted before his fire there was only the one, and south and west of the five volcanoes there were none at all, nothing organic but a rudimentary form of bunch grass and the tough spiny yucca.
The man coaxing his tinder into flame was not much interested in the burnt-out wasteland around him. Occasionally he would glance to the southeast and toward the city several miles away, stretched out like a long gray shadow on the other side of the river, or would take a look at the chestnut mare limping among the black rocks beyond the wash, its forelegs held stiffly together, its iron shoes scraping on the stone. But for the most part he concentrated his attention on his small sprightly fire and when he did look away from it his hands continued their work of breaking and adding sticks of wood.
After a while, when the fire had been built up to about the size of a small fryingpan and a residue of glowing charcoal had accumulated, he lifted a canteen from a branch of the tree, filled a small smoke-blackened pan with water and pushed it lidless halfway into the bed of the fire. He watched it closely for several minutes, waiting for the first globule of superheated air to appear on the bottom of the pan. As he waited he broke a dead stick into short lengths and laid the pieces carefully on the embers.
A cool morning, even in the sunlight. Surfaces exposed to the sun were becoming warm but the air remained chill and sharp, as though the sunlight passed from source to object without heating the intervening medium.
The bubble appeared. The man reached out toward the juniper and pulled a wrinkled beaten old cavalry saddlebag close to his heel, unbuckled its one remaining strap and removed from the interior a black skillet, battered and ancient, then a cylindrical tin labeled Handyman Tube Patching Kit, a can of pork and beans, a punch-type canopener and a slab of salted mutton wrapped in a greasy back copy of the Duke City Journal.
The mare on the other side of the wash was staring toward the river, flexing her soft rubbery nostrils, twitching her ears. There was a dim fragrance of tamarisk in the air, and a tension, an electricity, in the old aching silence.
The man wiped his nose once on his sleeve, sniffing a little, then unwrapped the mutton, opened his jack-knife and sawed several strips of meat into the skillet, which he set directly on the fire. A dimple in the bottom of the skillet reversed its curvature with a sudden ping, like a plucked violin string, making one of the slices jump. He wiped the blade of the knife on his jeans, closed it and put in back in his pocket, while the meat sizzled and smoked in the skillet. He opened the can of beans and poured them over the meat; the gluey mess spread steaming around the mutton strips, spluttering against the hot metal.
By now the water was simmering in the open pan, its surface beginning to vaporize. The man unscrewed the lid from the tube patching kit and emptied a certain amount of a brown granular material into the water, measuring by eye. Instantly the aroma of hot coffee graced the air and an involuntary smile appeared on his hungry, lean face.
Within five minutes everything was ready, or ready enough, and ready almost simultaneously: the coffee cooked and diffused densely through the boiling water, the mutton fried, the beans hot and smoky. The man began to eat, using his fingers for the meat, scooping the beans from the skillet with a sawed-off tablespoon and gulping down the scalding coffee in quick short draughts direct from the pan.
When he was finished he leaned back against the bole of the crouching juniper, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and sighed contentedly. After a moment he pulled at the yellow string dangling from his shirtpocket and drew out a small white cotton sack of tobacco….
Abbey, Edward (2011-08-21). The Brave Cowboy (Edward Abbey Series) (Kindle Locations 94-129). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
From “Big Two-Hearted River,” by Ernest Hemingway
He started a fire with some chunks of pine he got with the ax from a stump. Over the fire he stuck a wire grill, pushing the tour legs down into the ground with his boot. Nick put the frying pan and a can of spaghetti on the grill over the flames. He was hungrier. The beans and spaghetti warmed. Nick stirred them and mixed them together. They began to bubble, making little bubbles that rose with difficulty to the surface. There was a good smell. Nick got out a bottle of tomato ketchup and cut four slices of bread. The little bubbles were coming faster now. Nick sat down beside the fire and lifted the frying pan off. He poured about half the contents out into the tin plate. It spread slowly on the plate. Nick knew it was too hot. He poured on some tomato ketchup. He knew the beans and spaghetti were still too hot. He looked at the fire, then at the tent; he was not going to spoil it all by burning his tongue. For years he had never enjoyed fried bananas because he had never been able to wait for them to cool. His tongue was very sensitive. He was very hungry. Across the river in the swamp, in the almost dark, he saw a mist rising. He looked at the tent once more. All right. He took a full spoonful from the plate. ”Chrise,” Nick said, “Geezus Chrise,” he said happily.
He ate the whole plateful before he remembered the bread. Nick finished the second plateful with the bread, mopping the plate shiny. He had not eaten since a cup of coffee and a ham sandwich in the station restaurant at St. Ignace. It had been a very fine experience. He had been that hungry before, but had not been able to stand it. He could have made camp hours before if he had wanted to. There were plenty of good places to camp on the river. But this was good.
Nick tucked two big chips of pine under the grill. The fire flared up. He had forgotten to get water for the coffee. Out of the pack he got a folding canvas bucket and walked down the hill, across the edge of the meadow, to the stream. The other bank was in the white mist. The grass was wet and cold as he knelt on the bank and dipped the canvas bucket into the stream. It bellied and pulled held in the current. The water was ice cold. Nick rinsed the bucket and carried it full up to the camp. Up away from the stream it was not so cold.
Nick drove another big nail and hung up the bucket full of water. He dipped the coffee pot half full, put some more chips under the grill onto the fire and put the pot oil. He could not remember which way he made coffee. He could remember an argument about it with Hopkins, but not which side he had taken. He decided to bring it to a boil. He remembered now that was Hopkins’s way. He had once argued about everything with Hopkins. While he waited for the coffee to boil, he opened a small can of apricots. He liked to open cans. He emptied the can of apricots out into a tin cup. While he watched the coffee on the fire, he drank the juice syrup of the apricots, carefully at first to keep from spilling, then meditatively, sucking the apricots down. They were better than fresh apricots.
The coffee boiled as he watched. The lid came up and coffee and grounds ran down the side of the pot. Nick took it off the grill. It was a triumph for Hopkins. He put sugar in the empty apricot cup and poured some of the coffee out to cool. It was too hot to pour and he used his hat to hold the handle of the coffee pot. He would not let it steep in the pot at all. Not the first cup. It should be straight. Hopkins deserved that….
…Nick drank the coffee, the coffee according to Hopkins. The coffee was bitter. Nick laughed. It made a good ending to the story. His mind was starting to work. He knew he could choke it because he was tired enough. He spilled the coffee out of the pot and shook the grounds loose into the fire. He lit a cigarette and went inside the tent.