Mountain lion barbacoa.
Margarita's yam soufflé. Pastel de Choclo, a.k.a. Rodeo Pie. And for dessert, perhaps, Miss Ruby Cupcakes. These are but a few of the gustatory memories of John Weston that waft us on a poignant journey into the past in the company of a gifted writer and unabashed bon vivant.
The place is Skull Valley in central Arizona, the time the 1930s. Taking food as his theme, Weston paints an instructive and often hilarious portrait of growing up, of rural family life under difficult circumstances, and of a remote Arizona community trying to hold body and soul together during tough times. His book recalls life in a lineman's shack, interlaced with "disquisitions on swamp life, rotting water, and the complex experience of finding enough to eat during the Great Depression."
Central to Weston's account is his mother Eloine, a valiant woman rearing a large brood in poverty with little help from her husband. Eloine cooks remarkably well—master of a small repertory from which she coaxes ideas surprising even to herself—and feeds her family on next to nothing. She is a woman whose first instinct is to cry out "Lord, what am I going to feed them" whenever visitors show up close to mealtime. Recalls Weston, "Her strength lay in a practical- and poverty-born sense that there must be more edible food in the world than most people realized," and he swears that six out of seven meals were from parts of four or five previous meals coming round again, like the buckets on a Ferris wheel.
Although Weston evokes a fond remembrance of a bygone era that moves from Depression-era Skull Valley to wartime Prescott, rest assured: food—its acquisition, its preparation, its wholehearted enjoyment—is the foundation of this book. "I did not have a deprived childhood, despite its slim pickings," writes Weston. "If I recall a boiling pig's head now and then, it is not to be read as some Jungian blip from Lord of the Flies but simply a recurring flicker of food-memory." Whether remembering his father's occasional deer poaching or his community's annual Goat Picnic, Weston laces his stories with actual recipes—even augmenting his instructions for roasted wild venison with tips for preparing jerky.
Dining at the Lineman's Shack teems with sparkling allusions, both literary and culinary, informed by Weston's lifetime of travels. Even his nagging memory of desperate boyhood efforts to trade his daily peanut-butter sandwich for bacon-and-egg, baloney, jelly, or most anything else is tempered by his acquaintance with "the insidious sa-teh sauce in Keo Sananikone's hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Kapahulu Street"—a peanut-butter-based delicacy for which he obligingly provides the ingredients (and which he promises will keep, refrigerated in a jar, for several weeks before baroque things begin to grow on it).
Through this tantalizing smorgasbord of memories, stories, and recipes, John Weston has fashioned a wholly captivating commentary on American culture, both in an earlier time and in our own. Dining at the Lineman's Shack is a book that will satisfy any reader's hunger for the unusual—and a book to savor, in every sense of the word.