“Ranch Hour” – is that last hour prior to serving guest dinners when kitchen schedules succumb to the laws of dude ranch entropy. It is that dark hour from the parallel universe of ranch chaos, rearing it’s nefarious head to incite, agitate, perturb, and to utterly collapse the timely assembly of an otherwise orderly culinary pièce de résistance.
The best dude ranch vacations will include memorable meals shared with loved ones that are paired with the unforgettable activities in a dude ranch day. For us at the Marble Mountain Guest Ranch, we make the quality of our meals second in priority only to ranch safety. We know that part of creating a great experience for our guests is to have a delicious and fresh variety of food available at every meal. Memories and reflections on the ranch meals will then trigger reflections of positive ranch adventures and of larger ranch hospitality. Because we put so much into the planning, preparing, purchasing, harvesting, preserving, baking, and cooking, of our food, it is only natural that our kitchen stays fairly busy all day, and every day.
The ranch kitchen is located in our main dining lodge. This building has become one of the main social and communication hubs on the ranch. It is a place that people are drawn to because of the enticements of wafting aromas such as freshly baked bread and cookies, sauces simmering on the stove, or meats in the smoker. And, for the more techno-connected types, it might also have something to do with the WiFi accessability in the lodge.
But the serenity of the ‘oh so good smelling’ ranch oasis is not always easily maintained. Because the lodge is located physically at the front of the ranch, and because of its centrality in our daily activities, the traffic coming to and fro can get a bit backed up. And the trickiest time of all, which we have called ‘ranch hour’, is that hour just before dinner. For reasons that remain somewhat of a mystery, and despite our planning and hard work, this is the target time for outside influences to inject disruptive forces into the choreography of the ranch plan.
For example, imagine the kitchen staff of 2-4 people dutifully and artfully preparing dinner for 36 guests and staff. There is one hour left until dinner. The wranglers have finished their day, the river rafters have just returned and the guides are putting away river gear and cleaning up for dinner. The meats have been in the smoker since 8:00 am, and the extra sauces and marinades are simmering on the stove. For the moment, all seems under control. What could possibly go wrong? Well, here is a sample of things that have gone wrong during “ranch hour”.
A leather-clad Harley Davidson motorcycle club pulls up onto the ranch and parks en masse with engines running in front of the lodge to ask if we have suggestions for the best route to the coast. You detour staff #1 to assist the biker club with directions, but simultaneously, A child comes into the lodge and proclaims, “I don’t know who did it, but somebody didn’t close the gate to the chicken coup! Your dogs are playing tag with the chickens now.” You immediately send your sous chef to defend the chicken flock and have now diminished your kitchen staff by one more team player.
Mrs. A, a ranch guest, then comes to the lodge begging for feminine hygiene products because her pre-puberty teenage daughter has unexpectedly started her first period. You send sous chef #2 to assist Mrs. A and now you are down by three staff. Immediately after loosing staff #2 and #3, Mr. B, another guest, also walks into the lodge and asks for a spare key to his cabin because his wife locked the door with the keys inside, or lost them on the trail and by the way can he have a bandage for the blister he got from his new Teva sandals? OK, so we now have lost three kitchen staff, you have ½ hour out of the remaining critical path “ranch hour” to successfully assemble dinner and you have no more available kitchen staff to detour. Your are now fully descended into the abyss of the dark side ranch hour. You then see an unknown vehicle speed up to the ranch driveway with a baby elk sitting in the rear seat! The driver exclaims: “I found this baby elk on the highway, without it’s mother, will you watch this elk and call Cal Fish and Wildlife and tell them to send animal rescue teams?” “NO!!! Take the elk back where you found it!” You maintain composure with the elk thief and refrain from deriding explicatives and editorials so you can smile congenially to the guest whom is now informing you that the soda machine is out of ice.
The final insult arrives as you are setting out dinner for thirty-six at exactly the correct time. The freshly prepared, original cuisine prepared with love and attention is hot and on the buffet table just as a Forest Service truck drives onto the property. They come in and ask if you would maybe be available to feed 200 fire fighters breakfast and dinner for the next three weeks starting tomorrow? Also, do you have an extra-large pasture they could use to land helicopters?
Needless to say, things have a way of getting busy on the ranch. After 24 years of dude ranching, we still have days when despite our best efforts and hard work, things don’t go completely according to plan. But the truth is that dude ranching can be unpredictable. And this plays to one of a rancher’s greater strengths; to continually adapt and take things in stride, to work through the kinks and to persevere through the thick and thin. Are dude ranchers superhuman multi-taskers? Not likely, but they may be living and working as modern era entrepreneurial pioneers. It might just be a bit of that bootstrap cowboy determination and frontier grit. This is the same inner strength that shows up with almost any self-employed entrepreneur. They give a piece of their soul for the success of the endeavor. It may also be an ability to disconnect from the center of a situation and see circumstances from a paradigm that allows for visions of the humor in the moment. Regardless, dude ranch cooking can be just as exciting as dude ranch adventuring! And we look forward to showing our ropes and our cuisine to anyone who is ready for the challenge.
Cierra Sorensen and Doug Cole