”I’m nervous!” Tanya Rainwater chuckles. But nerves don’t keep the perky 62-year-old from serving up Cactus Jack Chili in her rainbow socks. “I’ve always got to be doin’ something,” she says, talking Anaheim peppers and Western lore as she weaves back and forth between her artwork and her husband.
Rainwater knows cowboys and kitchens like the back of her hand. She’s learned and created almost every kind of art — and taught it, too — while she and Jack followed the arts and crafts circuit across the Midwest. “But this is my first time at this rodeo,” she confesses, slicing a wedge of Cowboy Cornbread.
The corn bread, chili and the Bear Track Fudge that follow are tasty remnants of frontier Americana. And the “rodeo” she speaks of is Rainwater’s latest challenge: pulling Old West history across the modern stove top with her latest creation, “A Cowboy Cookbook.”
HASH FROM THE HOMESTEAD
“A Cowboy Cookbook” is a self-published collection of dishes born in prairie kitchens, nurtured across fire pits and cast-iron stove tops and preserved in carpet bags, attic corners and even on the backs of “Wanted” posters for more than 100 years.
“This isn’t the food cowboys ate on cattle drives,” Rainwater says. Trailside fare in the Old West was mostly just beans, biscuits and salted beef. (“Unless one of the cows died, then they’d eat it,” she says. “Sometimes you’d have mighty strange accidents with those cows.”) Instead, the book is a collection of simple recipes, resourcefully turned in by cowboy wives. “It was a hard life, but these women knew how to make a lot from a little,” Rainwater says.
A lifetime of collection and two years of research have yielded recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as snacks, herbal teas and prairie cosmetics. “A Cowboy Cookbook” is a culinary tour of the Old West, compiled by the Blackfoot/Cherokee descendant whose earliest passions were cooking, pottery and cowboys.
“I always liked making mud pies as a kid,” Rainwater says. Born into hard times, she molded shapes out of the clay near her home in rural Michigan. “My grandfather, always a practical man, said, ‘If she’s going to do that, she should make dishes for her grandmother.’ I was 3 at the time. But eventually I followed his advice.”
That advice would lead to a career creating, selling and teaching about American Indian pottery. But chores came first. “My mother worked all my life, so I had to learn the kitchen as a child,” she says. “And my mother married five times, so I had a lot of different stepfathers to cook for.”
Recipes were cherished, because she had to scramble for them. “When I first got married — my first marriage, not a good one — I couldn’t afford a Betty Crocker cookbook. So I started a chain letter explaining my situation and asking people for one recipe. Well, recipes came in from all over. Some people went crazy and sent 10. Some came from as far as Germany and Switzerland.”
The recipes, and the good will they symbolized, stayed with her as she learned pottery and made a living teaching it at classes and Indian powwows around the Midwest.
OLD TALES, NEW TRAILS
“Cowboy Cookbook’s” recipes, from Buffalo Bob’s Buttons to Sharpshooter’s Salmon to the spicy/tasty Cactus Jack Chili, are rendered with a tall-tale flare and a love of the West.
“Oh, I’ve always wanted to be a cowboy,” Rainwater says. “From the time I was a kid.”
Cowboy culture is what lured her from her native Midwest out to the shadow of the Superstitions with Jack. She spent more than two decades mimicking a cowboy’s gypsy lifestyle, making her beloved pots, then herding them to Indian powwows in five different states, where she would sell, teach, learn and gather more recipes.
“The cowboys learned a lot about herbs and living off the land from the Indians,” she said. “And I believe I learned more from those (American Indian) women than they ever got from me.”
Rainwater is a woman of multiple passions, and isn’t shy about following them: “I’ve always got to be doin’ something.” The beading she learned at the powwows is now a sideline of hatbands, necklaces and jewelry that she sells on the craft and festival circuit. “I love the road,” she says. “We’re not shy about traveling.”
But when doctors told Rainwater her emphysema could no longer abide the clay dust of her pottery studio, the blow fell hard. “I still miss pottery,” she says, a year later. “But at the same time, I feel lucky I was able to work with the earth as long as I did.”
The cookbook has opened a new door for Rainwater. Her studio is her kitchen now, and she brought her cowboys with her.
“I’m not done,” she says. “I’m doing a second cookbook, more about herbs and medicines. That’s why I’ll be (selling beadwork) at Lost Dutchman Days. I want to meet more of these cowboys. Talk to their wives. Learn more about how they use the skillet.”
Like the cowboys she loves, she sees more on the trail. “That’s another reason I did (the cookbook),” she says. “So many people, they get something like emphysema, and they think, ‘Well, it’s over,’ and they shut it all down. But you don’ I have to shut down — there’s things you can be doing. Like cooking. Everybody cooks. You I can do something creative, and I not ever leave your house. I’ve had a wonderful life — and I know it’s not over, as long as there are new things to try.”