The Last Best Plates explores a Rocky Mountain oyster feed
This is the fifth piece in a six-part The Last Best Plates series about food and eating in Montana featuring the photography of Lynn Donaldson and the writing of Corinne Garcia. For more information, visit thelastbestplates.com.
By Corinne Garcia
Photos by Lynn Donaldson
For the hardworking farmers and ranchers of Montana’s eastern plains, the long, hot days of summer mean long hours spent working in the fields and little time for much else.
But before the summer days slip away, a late August celebration provides the perfect opportunity to relax and catch up with old friends and ranching neighbors.
That’s what Bill Dutton and his cousin, Dave, were thinking when they started the Jersey Lilly Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed 17 years ago.
“It’s just a way to get people together,” Bill’s wife, Karen Dutton, explains.
Bill, 68, and Karen, 67, run a cattle ranch halfway between Jordan and Sand Springs, where the ranchlands take over the horizon and your closest neighbor is likely miles away.
It’s where Bill has lived his entire life, except for his two years in the service. The ranch that his grandparents founded and the neighboring ranch are now leased out to a large cattle operation, and Bill manages them both.
The first two years of the annual oyster feed were held in Jordan before it settled into the Jersey Lilly Saloon. The saloon is the last existing business in the town of Ingomar, where Main Street is a dirt road that leads past a few clapboard buildings and heads toward more ranchlands.
Built in 1914, the Jersey Lilly was once the town’s bank, transformed into the town’s watering hole in 1933. Although it has transferred hands a number of times, it’s still a gathering place for area residents.
“Now they’re known for their beans and steaks,” Karen said. “And there’s still no indoor plumbing, so it’s not a real girly place to go, but it’s fun once in a while.”
Bill explains that Ingomar used to be a sheep shearing capital.
“The railroad went through there, and they had a big shearing plant in the early 1900s,” he said. “Ranchers would also go there to get their mail and supplies.”
The Duttons typically arrive to the Jersey Lilly around 4 p.m. on the last Friday in August (Aug. 28 this year) to help set up.
A Jordan local is hired to fry up the rocky mountain oysters (also known as prairie oysters or calf fries), and others start rolling in soon after, Tupperware in hand, as the pot luck-style side dishes and desserts start piling up on the inside tables.
“The ladies all bring a dish of some sort, so there’s not just oysters,” Karen said. “A lot of the ladies don’t like the oysters, but the guys do.”
She claims that rural cooks are the best, bringing everything from salads, meatballs and cold cut dishes to homemade pies.
Bill does enjoy the breaded and deep fried bull testicles that are left over from the seasonal brandings throughout the area.
“They’re just good to eat,” Bill said. “They’ve got a taste of their own, I don’t know how to describe it, but how can you ruin anything deep fried?”
People grab drinks from the bar, pile food on their plates and pull up chairs by friends and family to wolf it all down.
Some years there’s live music, and others, like last year, there’s a portable radio with music designed to draw couples of all ages to the dance floor.
The Duttons, who claim they’re “old as dirt,” usually start the 50-mile drive home by 9 p.m., leaving many others behind to enjoy the revelry long after the late summer sun sets.
“Some come that you know you’ll only see once a year,” Karen said. “It’s a good way to visit with people and use up all those calf fries, cause what are you going to do with them otherwise?”
Corinne Garcia and Lynn Donaldson are frequent contributors to Montana Magazine. Garcia writes from Bozeman. Donaldson is based in Livingston.
Recipe: Apple Pandowdy
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups vegetable shortening
1 cup water
6-7 apples, peeled and sliced
1 ½ cups sugar
1/3 cup flour
Cinnamon to taste
Mix crust ingredients. Put half of the dough in the bottom of a jelly roll pan (I have used a heavy duty cookie sheet with sides).
Mix sugar and flour for filling. Put half of the sugar mixture over crust and then top with apples. Add the remaining sugar mixture and dab butter over the top. If you forget to put the sugar on the bottom crust, don’t worry, you can put it all over the top.
Roll out the remaining crust and put over the top. Seal the edges, vent top to allow steam to release.
Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.
Mix a small amount of powdered sugar, butter and milk to drizzle over the hot pie when it comes out of the oven.
Courtesy of Karen Dutton
Montana Book Reviews: Worth a Read
By Doug Mitchell
A blue suitcase full of memories at the center of a poetic work of fiction. A thought-provoking book about business that challenges readers to tilt their perspectives. A set of stories that help with reconnecting, dealing with death, a visit to heaven and offer a twist on the classic Western novel. Montana Magazine contributor Doug Mitchell reviews a multifaceted set of books as broad as the Big Sky is wide.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Hogarth – 2014
I was introduced to Anthony Marra’s extraordinary book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by my college-age son Andrew. We were visiting my brother in Washington, D.C., and we took one of those father-son walks to catch up. We were wandering down Connecticut Avenue and stopped into a bookstore called Politics and Prose.
As we were browsing, my son went to the fiction section and took a moment to rearrange a shelf so one of the books – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena as it turns out – would have its full cover facing outward instead of just the spine.
Curious, I asked about this peculiar practice. He told me the book he was rearranging was the first novel written by one of his professors and that, although he hadn’t read it yet, whenever he went to a bookstore he tried to highlight the book by giving it a bit more shelf space.
While I had never heard of either the book or the author, I thought it only appropriate that I purchase a copy. Boy, am I glad I did.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is one of the best, if not THE best book I’ve ever read. Period. It is startling, challenging, important and poetic. Every page is a gift – even the cover – and I found myself regularly putting the book down in the middle of a chapter just to give myself time to reflect on the writing and to spend time with the feelings and thoughts the writing inspires.
Set in war torn Chechnya, the book follows the actions of Akhmed, an artist turned failed physician turned reluctant activist, as he turns his life upside down to save Havaa, the 8-year old daughter of a neighbor.
Havaa’s single-parent father, Dokka, has been taken by the secret police in the dark of the night, leaving Havaa and her blue suitcase behind; alone and afraid.
This is where the book begins and where the book’s center can be found; in turmoil, relationships, decisions, despair and hope. From that center, we as readers go on a journey with Akhmed, Havaa and a cast of compelling, complex and very authentic characters who weave a tale that is at the same time depressingly stark and astonishingly rich.
The cover of my version of the book captured this dichotomy perfectly. The entire cover was black and white except for Havaa’s blue suitcase. Perfect.
I’m not going to tell you much more about the story, because doing so feels a bit like cheating you out of the many, many gifts Marra has in store.
Take the suitcase. I’ve already mentioned it, and it’s on the front cover, so I think it’s OK for me to talk about it. In a lesser writer’s hand, the suitcase could just be a suitcase. But Marra transforms it and its contents into a story all its own.
Havaa collected in the suitcase gifts given to her and her father by refugees seeking shelter in their home. Many of these items have special meaning to our story. You’ll be astonished by the connectivity between even little things in the book.
The author has chosen every word carefully, and in so doing shows such a deep respect for the reader and for the characters he brings to life through his prose.
A couple of weeks ago I went into Book Passages, my favorite bookstore in the San Francisco Bay area, and found myself rearranging the display, much the way my son did in Washington, D.C.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena deserves a prominent place in bookstores and on the “must read” list of fans of good literature everywhere.
Tilt: Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers
By Niraj Dawar
Harvard Business Review Press – 2013
For those of you familiar with my reviews, this book may seem a bit of a departure from the norm. In some ways it is, and in others it isn’t.
I like books that challenge me to think and I really treasure writing – fiction or nonfiction – that challenges me to think differently.
Tilt, published by the Harvard Business Review Press, challenges the reader to both think differently and to use that new knowledge to inform organizational growth.
Before you dismiss Tilt as just another “how-to” business book, give me a moment of your time to convince you otherwise.
Is it a good business book? Yes.
Is it more than that? Indeed it is.
For me, and I think for many, the message author Niraj Dawar delivers so effortlessly in Tilt is transferrable to the work of community building, nonprofit work and advocacy. In its essence, the book is about taking a fresh look at how we do things and for whom we are doing them.
I guess it’s kind of like the old time movie that shows the art connoisseur closely examining a painting and exaggeratedly “tilting” his or her head to one side to get the full picture.
Without giving away the book’s premise, let me give you a CliffsNotes example. One of the stories Dawar tells is about the competition in the explosives sector as it relates to the sale of explosives to create gravel. The gravel producers need explosives to turn rock into certain sizes of gravel. They use explosives to do this and the competition for that business is fierce and highly price driven. One of the competitors, tiring of consistently having to reduce prices, decided to “tilt” their head and think a bit about what their customer really wanted. In thinking about it, they decided the company only wanted explosives as a mechanism to break rock into specific sizes. The company decided to “tilt” its business model away from selling explosives and toward the customer’s need – guaranteed gravel of a certain size.
This changed the competitive playing field from explosives as a product, to explosives as a service. On this new playing field there was now only one competitor; the one that “tilted.”
This is game changing stuff. Think about it. What if we took a similar approach to thinking about what “customers” want in the area of education? In the nonprofit world? In government?
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of business-speak in this book.
You’ll learn about “playing in the consideration set” and about “cognitive inertia” and even get a primer on “network effects.”
Thankfully, you’ll get that information in a way that makes Tilt read much more like a set of stories than a textbook. Dawar’s writing style is engaging and accessible, and I argue, very translatable.
One of the first chapters demonstrates this transferability and sets the tone for the book.
In it, Dawar walks the reader through an exercise to determine if an entity is “tilted” upstream or downstream. In his terms, upstream means tilted toward infrastructure and capacity and downstream means toward the end customer. This is a test in which nearly every enterprise can and, I would argue, should engage on a regular basis.
There are good reasons to “tilt” both directions, but one should understand which way they are “tilting” and own and capitalize on that intentional decision.
Dawar and his exciting book Tilt don’t presume to tell us how to think, but it provokes us to think, to wonder and to grapple with new ideas. Isn’t that exactly what a good book should do?
Moving Through Grief, Reconnecting with Nature
By Jay Dufrechou
Muswell Hill Press – 2015
While I count Jay Dufrechou and his family as friends, (our kids went to school together here in Helena) I have to admit I have not been intimately familiar with his work. That’s why I was delighted when Dufrechou wrote me and asked if I would consider taking a look at his book Moving Through Grief, Reconnecting with Nature. It gave me the opportunity to learn more about his work and to delve into an area with which I don’t have a great deal of familiarity.
Initially, I feared the book might be a clinical text that would be above my pay grade. Dufrechou has both a doctorate and law degree, and is a professor of transpersonal research ethics at Sophia University. So you can see how I might think I was out of my depth.
But in the end, I was pleasantly surprised. Dufrechou’s writing style is bright and refreshing.
He takes his subject – but not himself – very seriously and fills the book with personal stories that make the subject matter very easily accessible.
The content won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the topic of connecting our emotional selves with the nature that surrounds us will resonate with all of us – especially those of us in Montana.
Moving Through Grief, Reconnecting with Nature is a spiritual journey that has power, grace and a message that will be transformative for many readers.
Lucy’s Biggest Fish to Fry
By Tom Stockburger
iUniverse – 2013
I read this book in two big bites. Author Tom Stockburger is a talented writer and University of Montana graduate who shares his story of losing his wife to cancer.
Lucy’s Biggest Fish to Fry gives voice to a story all too common in today’s world. All of us know families we care about who are today going through what Tom, Lucy, Keely and Kyle Stockburger went through beginning in 2009 when Lucy was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
While I am sure the book was a catharsis for Stockburger to write, it is much more than that.
It is a wonderful and frank discussion about the decisions, emotions, victories and defeats this disease brings to people and families and communities around the world.
I want my kids to read it. My wife, Julie, and I are healthy now, but who knows. By sharing his experience so openly and eloquently, Stockburger provides a road map of sorts from which we can learn a great deal.
While I cried when Lucy died, Lucy’s Biggest Fish to Fry is not in any way a sad book. In fact, it is inspirational and empowering in its focus on hope and family and love.
Just Over The Ridge
Sweetgrass Books – 2015
Fort Smith native and current Reed Point resident Aud Steinfeldt’s debut novel, Just Over The Ridge, is at its best painting the magnificent landscape of Montana.
Set in north central Montana, the novel is on its face about the life and times of its main character John Tousette. Under the surface though, like Montana itself, it covers a lot of ground.
While it wasn’t my favorite book of the summer, Just Over The Ridge is a good story and Steinfeldt is clearly a writer gathering her considerable talents.
If you think for a minute, though, that you are picking up a modern day Loius L’Amour feel-good western story, you will be sorely mistaken. This book is dark at times, and the hero doesn’t act the way we expect our fiction heroes to act. While I found myself uncomfortable at times with the direction of the story, I tip my cap to Steinfeldt for not letting Just Over The Ridge be just another formulaic novel.
That said, this book has plenty of the things we have come to expect in a western story – guns, hunting, love, lust and alcohol.
In the end though, I think it is a book about redemption and I’m interested to see what Steinfeldt has in store next.
Doug Mitchell is the Montana Magazine book reviewer. He writes from Helena.
Northern Montana plains help fulfill bucket list trip with man’s best friend
Story and photos by Bill Cunningham
We all have dreams, some of mysterious origin. Others, well, we know exactly where they come from. And I knew exactly when the seeds were planted for a dream I harbored for 20 years.
I had just read A Hunter’s Road by Jim Fergus.
Fergus and his faithful Labrador lived the ultimate upland game bird fantasy by hunting in 24 states, including Montana, over a five month period.
Someday, I promised myself. But “someday” was delayed year after year – seemed like it would never come.
Until last fall.
I had a heart-to-heart with my loyal hunting partner, Xena, a 9-year-old -going-on-1 Labrador cross breed with boundless gusto for the hunt.
“You know Xena, we’re not getting any younger.”
“How about spending a big chunk of October exploring a big chunk of Montana chasing upland birds?” Tail knocks over everything in its path.
Come mid-October, us two old dawgs hit the road in a tiny old pickup towing a tiny camp trailer. The idea was that the trip would be open-ended, sans artificial time constraints. We would mostly hunt public land or open private land, such as state Block Management Areas, or BMAs.
My theory is that a public land hunt can match that of private leases if one is willing to hunt harder.
Success would be measured by quality field time, not by birds in the bag.
Lowering the harvest bar held two advantages: I would be less disappointed by my lousy shooting and, lacking a freezer, I would need to eat as I go. How could I possibly consume the daily limit of three pheasants, eight huns and four sharpies anyway?
With the pressure off, I could simply revel in sunrises, broaden my Montana horizons with inspiring prairie vistas, and watch Xena pursue running roosters.
And this is how it turned out during the golden days of October across a wide swath of northern Montana.
We left Choteau with no firm destination. I pointed east and 150 miles later, ended up on public land along the Judith River near Denton. Along the way, I noticed that fields had been scoured by heavy rain. I’d heard that entire upland bird populations in Montana’s heartland had been wiped out by torrential rain during August. Here was another excuse for not bagging many birds – nature had beat me to it.
I marveled that there were any upland birds given the vagaries of weather, habitat loss and predators. At least my inconsistent shooting greatly improves the birds’ chances of survival.
After setting up camp along the river, I learned from a hunting couple, Terry and Linda, that hunting pressure had driven most of the pheasants across the river.
Terry tried to wade it, but had to turn around in the swift current.
Having anticipated high water, I crossed in my pack raft, with Xena swimming alongside. We were soon hunting in cover so thick that I could only hear the pheasants Xena was flushing.
And so it went for the next couple of days: lots of miles and misses punctuated with boredom when my mind drifted elsewhere.
While working back upstream to the raft, I reminded myself that to hunt properly the pace should be deliberate but not too fast. I should be at home on the land with a Zen-like contentment that comes with being in the present.
Just then, Xena locked on a scent, charged into a thicket, busting a rooster whose brilliant colors glowed in the azure sky.
The felled bird was delivered to hand with a look that said, “It’s about time, Dad!”
A thunder storm arrived that evening prompting me to move camp from the gumbo bottom to the bench above.
After the move, I went on the hunt with local habitat specialist Virge Gluth, who plants food plots and shelter belts for upland birds.
Miles later, we entered dense patches of snowberry lining a serpentine stream. Xena flushed a rooster followed by a heroic blind retrieve.
Once again, we would enjoy the fruits of our labor, this time with one of the gourmet recipes in A Hunter’s Road, which had inspired the trip in the first place.
That had me reflecting again: When hunting public land, one has to out-walk the competition to be successful. It all begins with quality habitat, which is why Gluth’s habitat work is so vital.
During his “personal journey into the romance of open country,” Fergus hunted with a host of memorable characters.
In like manner, and after my time with Gluth, I headed to Malta to rendezvous with my old friend Bob Jamieson, a retired outfitter from British Columbia.
Jamieson has an amazing gift for stumbling upon just the right person at just the right time. He befriended Bob Skinner, a Malta bow maker, who in turn got permission for us to hunt private land just south of town. We saw but didn’t kill any pheasants. This led to nearby state land along the Milk River where we saw but didn’t kill even more pheasants.
We made a quick trip to nearby Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. It was way too hot and dry for Xena to pick up scent, and besides, the birds had been hammered by heavy rain and hunting pressure.
Instead, we got there to see what really good bird habitat looks like and it was impressive.
The next day at the Malta City Park, Xena was barking at Lindy, an early morning walker. Turned out she and her husband had recently retired from ranching north of Circle where her brother-in-law still ranches.
Lindy said the pheasants there are so numerous they’re a nuisance.
Unable to resist we made the 3-hour drive to Prairie Elk Creek. Along the way, we drove through desolate badlands and wondered if there could possibly be any upland game birds within 50 miles.
Upon entering the ranch we obtained permission, set up camp next to a pond, and marveled at the number of pheasants running around the buildings.
Our euphoria ended the following day when Jamieson missed the only rooster we saw. No matter, pursuing game birds was merely an excuse for exploring new country.
After a couple of days, Jamieson headed home and I made one final sweep through pheasant cover.
To my surprise, both Xena and I did our job and produced a rooster for the pot.
Heading home, we made a grand sweep toward Jordan, across the Musselshell River and ended up on the West end of a BMA swath along McDonald Creek.
We hunted as a team, flushing, shooting and retrieving well. By the end of the morning we were “bagged out” and ready to find a campsite.
Coming full circle, we ended up alongside the Judith River where the odyssey began two weeks earlier. After six miles and six hours, we drug into camp with a few birds and memories that will last forever.
As you read these words chances are Xena and I are somewhere in this magnificent space we call Montana, reliving the dream.
Bill Cunningham of Choteau became a “dog person” somewhat late in life but can’t imagine life without a Lab. He writes from Choteau.
To read more Montana stories like this all year, subscribe today!
Top reader photos: Night skies of Montana
We’ve got a pretty great edition of our Top Reader Photos for you this week, as we celebrating the sights of Montana skies.
Take a look at these gorgeous nighttime shots from our readers. Talk about the Big Sky State, right?
Do you have Montana photos to share? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Red Ants Pants Music Festival: By the numbers
They’re gearing up for a population spike White Sulphur Springs this weekend as Red Ants Pants Music Festival sets up camp there.
As we told you in our fabulous July/Aug 2015 feature about the festival, Red Ants Pants is quickly becoming one of the most popular summertime events under the Big Sky (last year Brandi Carlile headlined, this year it’s the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band during the festival that runs July 23-26).
Rising from the prairie near the base of the Castle Mountains, just past the small town of White Sulphur Springs, stacked bales of hay and livestock equipment fill much of the space along one of Montana’s trademark stretches of highway – until a miniature tent city appears each July.
But what does it take to put on a festival that welcomes close to 11,000 people to a town with 900 residents?
As you can see above from a few numbers the folks at Red Ants Pants dug up for us, there’s more than a little work that goes into it.
- Ticket and schedule information for Red Ants Pants 2015
Huge shout out to those footballers who filled those gopher holes!
Three Montana stories that capture the heart of the holidays
The Montana Magazine would like to wish all our readers a very happy holidays.
In the spirit of the season, we’ve compiled a couple of our 2014 stories that will leave you with those warm and fuzzies appropriate for the holiday season.
First is the story of how the town of Whitehall saved the Star. The Star is the town’s one and only movie theater, which was close to closing because it was lacking the digital technology to play newer films. Until the people of Whitehall rallied around it.
Next is the heartwarming story about the horses that change lives at the Bitterroot Therapeutic Ranch near Corvallis. The unique and patient horses and trainers at the ranch help people of all abilities find independence. BTR is one of only six ranches in Montana certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
And finally is the story of a small run farm in Northwestern Montana where the dairy cows are treated like members of an extended family. The Hedstrom family owns and operates the Kalispell Kreamery, and have for 35 years. “People like the concept that these cows are truly happy,” Mary Tuck said of her family’s farm.
We hope you’ve enjoyed revisiting some of these special stories from around Montana. And, we hope you enjoy your holiday season!
Take a look: Montana’s ‘E’ towns
Can you name all the ‘E’ towns under the Big Sky? Hint: There are 11.
Having trouble? Let this slideshow from photographers across the state help out.
Big Sky Country Slideshow: It’s the most colorful time of the year
Fall in Montana, does it get any better?
Not really. In honor of that, here’s a little slideshow Thursday pick-me-up courtesy of our wonderful Facebook friends. They have been showing off the colors of Montana’s fall quite a bit lately and it’s awesome.
Thanks to all the photographers who let us share their work.