Once upon a time on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, before the evolutionary ingredients of post-industrial-strength river tourism — hairnets, gourmet menus, the Norwalk virus, food handlers’ licenses, coolers the size of refrigerators, rigorous spot kitchen inspections, a river food ethos of “plenty” rather than of “enough,” the potential of routine waste — and before crew members were counted as part of trip allocation, thereby making crew who served only one function (cooking) expendable (one more crew member equaled one less paying passenger), there were dory cooks. Iron men and wooden boats? Harrumph! Golden women and wooden boats, guardians of the movable feast, unsung heroines of the river hearth.
Ah … dory cooks — the queens of riparian cuisine, the mistresses of mastication and the arbiters of river etiquette. Like the boats, they could do it all. They were fun and fun to watch, sturdy but graceful under pressure or in repose, practical when the going got rough, beautiful without effort or insistence. Outdoor women who were able to orchestrate riverside banquets, leap tall kitchen tables in a skirt in a single bound, stay up late to sing and dance and rise early to boil a pot of cowboy coffee, break and mend hearts, corral unruly boatman, tend to passengers, pull an oar when necessary, lend an ear. Amazonian in spirit, women who practiced the art of river cooking for large numbers of people, at times under difficult conditions, more often than not with a smile (there are many kinds) and steely determination to get the job done. Women who, after the culinary course had been set, might wander off for a smoke, a drink or a river bath and then reappear, as if by magic, carrying an apple cobbler baked in a Dutch oven. The able princess-guardians of the Kitchen — the heart and soul of any dory river trip — made things look far easier than they were. Their work always began long before the put-in.
To feed roughly 32 people (including crew) over 18 days on a limited budget required deliberate planning and healthy imagination. It was customary for dory cooks to begin trip preparations in the drafty, cob-webbed, desert-smelling cathedral-like warehouse in Hurricane, Utah, days before put-in, most often without pay. Personal pride and esprit de corps took the sting out of the paltry economics of the dories’ shoe-sting operation. After reviewing the passenger list, the ladies of the ladle performed the mystical calculus of figuring food quantities for 54 river meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner with dessert) based on number of passengers, gender, size, child, adolescent or adult, special needs and even time of year. A river cook’s job included finding any usable food in jars and cans from the previous trip, in accord with the prevailing ethic of non-waste. Make-do, make-it-up, but make-it-work. There were standard menus to tweak and numerous runs to the local market to pick up last-minute items. Dory cooks often drove to the wholesale warehouse in St. George to hand-pick the fruits and vegetables. There were #10 cans to peel the labels off and mark accordingly. An equally time-consuming task was to pack and label ammo cans and black bags and assign an equal load to each dory. The cook picked a “kitchen” boat to carry the kitchen gear as well as a “produce” boat to husband the trip’s supply of perishable vegetables and fruits. The amount of ice (oh, wondrous ice!) in coolers the boats could carry was limited and lasted only a few days, at most. All the dory cook’s efforts were borne with three goals in mind: to create varied and tasty meals for a large group of generally hungry people over a two-week period, to avoid the cook’s nightmare (a food scare) by having enough food and finally, to limit waste. After food prepping and packing, they turned their attention to tackling another vital task — assembling a complete kitchen outfit that would not set them howling at the moon for lack of a Dutch, a sharp knife or a favorite coffee cup. These were the pre-historic days before eye-catching outdoor catalogues carried an endless variety of quality kitchen accoutrements and other cool river stuff.
On the river, dory cooks routinely performed the impossible. They managed the food supply, the order of meals, special requests and where the ingredients for the day’s meals were located in each dory through the use of Sacred Notebooks, not to be touched by mere mortals, the unwashed boatmen. Each cook kept her own idiosyncratic, undecipherable code to the mysterious workings of the Kitchen in her holy grail. It was rarely out of her sight. She communicated her wishes (demands?) to boatmen through the medium of “pull lists.” Boatmen dared not argue with a dory cook who said that, indeed, the #10 can of peaches was in their boat. After six or seven days, with meat and vegetables gone or dwindling in quantity, the new challenge was to make tasty, satisfying meals from canned foods and long-lasting vegetables. Again, dory cooks made Julie Childs look like a fast-food burger slinger. It was also a matter of economy, both financial and ethical. Rather than create a sense of endless plenty, dory cooks operated on the premise of doing more with less — open-faced sandwiches, GORP containers on each boat, peanut butter boards before lunch, pre-dinner appetizers — all to take the edge of growing appetites. Serve enough, and a bit more, and know that everything tastes better when you are in the outdoors. The spice-box ammo can was the dory cook’s best friend. Out of reasonably priced food stuffs, they delivered quality meals.
On the River, dory cooks chose the location of the Kitchen, referencing weather conditions, shade and sunlight, sunrise and sunset, access to water, distance from boats and, most importantly, the scenic view. In the early days, they cooked on fire pans and wood-burning iron stoves and delegated firewood, fresh water and garbage duties to boatmen. Each woman had her own unique style, special meals, unspoken kitchen rules and a bag of culinary tricks to avert disaster and make more out of less.
Despite sublime scenery, roaring rapids, pretty boats and charming boatmen, what happened in the River Kitchen could make a good trip great or a not-so-good trip worse. The value of the role the dory cook played in river trip dynamics could not be underestimated. A welcoming invitation to “help” in the kitchen gave female (as well as male) passengers an opportunity to participate and socialize on a more intimate, democratic level than in those pretty wooden dories. Small talk, laughter and a cocktail lubricated the social machinery and made for genuine group cohesion. A dory cook was likely to hear passenger concerns early on, and relay information and firm opinions to the trip leader to meet an unanticipated need or head trouble off at the pass. Given the number of female passengers, dory cooks offered a viable alternate sensibility to that of the sun-baked, well-intentioned boatmen, no matter how alert or “sensitive” to the female vibe they were. Most boatmen would have agreed that a female presence in the crew (whether in the kitchen or at the oars) was not only desirable, but essential, to any good river trip. And when one of the boatmen went down with an illness or injury, dory cooks stepped into the breach to row the boats. With changing times, some dory cooks went on to become boatmen, just as covetous of their craft as their fellow rowers. In “The Hidden Canyon,” Ed Abbey described the dory cooks at the start of his trip, “Our cooks are two able and handsome young woman named Jane and Kenly. Both are competent oarswomen as well, and can substitute for the boatmen if necessary.” Indeed.
Dory cooks shepherded rookie boatmen through stomach-churning rapids with generous, sound advice, led passengers around difficult rapids, bartered with other river trips for coffee, restored kitchens washed away by flash floods, cooked in raging rainstorms, nursed hung-over boatmen back to life, treated raging cases of toliosis (foot fungus), smoothed the ruffled feathers of picky passengers, hiked side canyons, carried every medicine, trifle and good-luck charm in their decorated iron-purse-like ammo cans, added the ineffable quality of femaleness to the Canyon, decorating themselves with an array of scarves, dresses, bandanas, bathing suits, caps, hats, bonnets, shawls and jewelry that brought color, light, music and dance to the stone cathedral, the river corridor of sand castles and cloud creatures. Professional in their work, the dory cooks of decades past were fun-loving, light-hearted practitioners of the river maxim “function in disaster and finish in style.”
Ah, dory cooks!
Senior correspondent Vince Welch’s last piece for the Gazette was “Terror and Wonder,” which appeared in MG #177. He lives in Portland, Ore.