A bunch of 11-year-old boys I’m driving to an overnight fishing trip sat down a couple nights ago to plan out their weekend. The top priority, of course, was making sure they’ll have plenty of good food.
A lot of it was what you’d guess: a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches with two sides (tortilla chips and a different flavor of tortilla chips) and for the second day’s breakfast, toaster pastries with two sides (doughnuts and a different flavor of doughnuts).
Their menu did have two surprises, though. First, they’d made room for fruit and vegetables — and more than one type of each. Second, their big dinner plan was to cook hamburger into something called cowboy stew.
Yep, hamburger stew after a day of fishing. Some cowboys.
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I pointed it out later when I noticed what they were about to do, and I was happy to see my son and some of his friends scramble to figure out whether they had time to round up the ingredients they’d need for a good fish fry instead.
Right there was a third surprise: Kids today still have a lively enough sense of adventure to scrap plans for a meal they know they’ll like in exchange for the chance to learn how to gut what they catch so they can tuck into a plate of fish, a meal some of them aren’t so sure about.
The spirit of the cowboy lives on.
The most authentic cowboy I ever knew, my great-uncle Joe, would be proud to see that spirit in his great-great-nephew. Not that he’d let it show, tough hombre that he was.
My memories of Uncle Joe mostly hover around the ways he made something great with what he had, or just made do if he was stuck with a bad hand.
In the “make do” column, there’s the time an elk he was sure he’d killed reared up and broke one of his ribs. Having ridden in for days on horseback, there wasn’t much to do for it until the pain died down enough to ride back out.
Under “make something great,” I’ll never forget the dinner he and his wife were preparing once when my dad pulled the family car into their yard for our first visit in many years.
A kid of the suburbs, I had only rarely seen a meal so early in the preparation stage. In the big tree we parked beside hung one of Uncle Joe’s sheep by its rear legs to drain while Aunt Amelina stoked the old oven in their tiny house. It was a simple meal but delicious, and — until many years later when I savored a lunch of citrus-marinated raw fish on the boat I caught it from — it was far and away the freshest.
If you’d asked me to lay money on it a few days ago, I’d have bet that my boys were growing up too soft to seriously consider staving off hunger by taking the messy road all the way from catching a thing to cooking it.
But there’s still cowboy blood in them from both sides of my family, and I suppose it’s bound to bubble to the surface once in a while. Sure, it weakened a little when it passed from my parents to my brother and me, but it still had enough power in us so that we made a few of our childhood candy runs to the local 7-Eleven on horseback.
It’s good to see that somewhere deep down, my boys still feel their cowboy roots. And I guess it’s a relief that the first one to show it is going to start off by channeling it through a line in a lake instead of a rifle pointed at a elk.
If his meal turns out to be not as dead as he thinks, a slap of a wet tail will be a lot easier to take than antlers in the ribs.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.