Whipping up recipes from a fictional 1930’s creek picnic.
Ivan Doig’s characters take their food seriously. Doig (1939–2015), a canonical writer of the American West, was shaped by the effects of the Great Depression. His family were Scottish farmer-settlers. In his 1978 memoir, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, Doig recounts his ancestors’ struggle to ranch the poor, high-altitude land of the Tierney Basin. It was a “peculiar” and “maybe treacherous” country where instead of homesteads, the land “turned out to be landing sites, quarters to hold people until they were able to scramble away to somewhere else.” In English Creek, the first novel in Doig’s acclaimed McCaskill trilogy, the 1930s landscape is littered with abandoned farms. The thirteen-year-old narrator, Jick, cursed with a teenage boy’s appetite in a rural environment of relative scarcity, is always on the lookout for his next meal.
I find reading and rereading Doig’s work to be a moral tonic. It’s soothing to encounter a writer who values small communities, stewardship of the land, and the merits of human endeavor. He extracts meaning from the simplest things—a teenage boy’s appetite, for example—and when pleasure comes along for his characters, he celebrates it fully. Cooking to keep up with Doig’s women, though, is a challenge. Here’s a description, through Jick’s hungry eyes, of a Fourth of July creek picnic prepared by his mother and a friend: