The family meal on a ranch means different things to different people, but in my experience, farmers and ranchers are by nature, warm and gracious hosts who are always happy to set an extra place or two around the table. The family meal was and is a place where not only our bodies are nourished, but our minds are expanded, events of the day are discussed, ideas are fleshed out, friendships are deepened and family bonds strengthened.
When I first moved to Paradise Valley more than thirty years ago, it was common for us to have Sunday dinner each week with Fred’s folks. It was almost always homemade fried chicken with all the trimmings and an apple pie served mid afternoon to early in the evening. It was more than a delicious meal, it was a review of the week, a good discussion of local, state and national events, a warm visit with a neighbor or two who would join us, and a celebration of our lives on the ranch. There was plenty of simple, delicious food, great conversation and an abundance of laughter.
My father in law Les opened most Sunday dinners by standing and giving a small speech. You heard me right. The tradition derived from one his parents had started with him as a boy in the 1920s and 30s. Sometimes, the talk was but a few sentences, but generally it lasted two or three minutes and included local or family history, the significance of the date, holiday or season, or might simply be the recitation of a favorite verse or quote with his commentary on its connection to him or our lives.
At first I didn’t quite know what to make of the formality of Les’ speeches but they sure became my favorite part of Sunday afternoons along with Minnesota Viking football and paved the way for fascinating dinner conversations. In listening to Les each week, I learned a lot about him and his remarkable life. I also learned that Marie always allotted him a strict three minute limit because she did not wish to have her beautifully prepared dinner get cold. He was generally compliant; but, I have to say that it amused me entirely when he was not.
It was clear that each of Leslie’s speeches was thoughtfully prepared. If the talk required props, he brought them. Occasionally, he would reprise a talk, and within a few sentences, either Fred or one of our regular guests like Bob Humphrey, Jim Porter, the Unger’s or the Bob Thomases would nod or wink in recognition.
Les was one of the most extraordinary men I’ve ever known. Not only was he a forward thinking rancher and rangeland expert, but he recognized early in life, that the Great Basin ranching culture that he grew up in was changing forever. He was a talented writer and filmmaker and in his spare time, he documented the old methods and tools used on our ranch, and in the late 1970s, as he was getting ready to retire, he and the Library of Congress happened upon each other and together over more than 4 years, they documented ranch life and culture on our ranch and in our community. That project grew to become Buckaroos in Paradise, the most expansive look at Great Basin ranching culture ever made. It’s curators became lifelong friends and have continued to update the collection and keep the interested public apprised of the Stewart family and our community of Paradise Valley.
Returning to the subject of family meals, I believe that they can and should be central in the life of any family. As Fred’s and my daughter Patrice began growing up, we began having her grand folks over to our place 2-3 times a week in addition to our Sundays at their house. In good weather, we’d meet up outside in our backyard and cook BBQ and Dutch oven style over sage brush coals. Those evenings inspired our daughter’s love and fascination with buckaroo culture that is still with her today. It took more time and thought than pizza in front of the TV, but it filled a little girl’s head with stories and adventures from a life and culture that she still carries with her today. She had her “Pa” Les until she was nine, but his spirit and stories will forever guide her life and love of this unique lifestyle we lead.
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Kris Stewart is a rancher from Paradise Valley, Nevada.