Wrangler Dani

Writer, editor, marketer and communication strategist. I'm also a wife, mama, hiker, cowgirl and experimental cook living in beautiful Central Oregon.

Archive for the ‘31 days’ Category

October 23rd, 2012 by Dani

Vanilla {31 days}

The Barefoot Contessa always says, “be sure to use really good vanilla” in her recipes, as though any buyer of her cookbooks would ever think of some imitation flavor as good enough. I love the smell of vanilla, bright and sweet in summer, creamy and warm in winter.

It’s dropped into a fluffy angel food cake, standing tall and proud on the kitchen counter, begging for strawberries to attend it. It’s drizzled into the whipped-cream-maker, then artfully swirled atop fresh pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, probably more whipped cream than you really need, but it’s Thanksgiving and who’s counting? It’s carefully measured into cookie batter, and when they are scooped out and placed on the baking sheet like a line of delicious soldiers, the scent of vanilla and chocolate and sugar and butter mixes together and begs the oven to work faster.

Vanilla is the smell of a good candle, of comforting lotion, of coffee creamer and afternoon snacks. It tastes like the cookies we used to eat after long afternoons on the ranch, the chunky, fresh cookie engulfed in our boss’ massive hands, held less impressively in our own small, not-quite-clean fingers. It tastes like home, like having a mom who had time to make you feel warm and special and well-fed, with care and concern for your belly and your being. It tells us that everything is OK, that someone bigger than us is holding our future and we needn’t fret. It is a taste that is not easy, it doesn’t just spring into being, someone has to care enough to give it the perfect palate to do its work. But someone does, and always has, in those moments when I feel incapable of mixing together ingredients or measuring extract, when my life is confusing and difficult and the simplicity of a cookie seems out of reach.

I’m longing to feel safe and held. I’m yearning for vanilla.

October 22nd, 2012 by Dani

“Walkin’ a Little Crooked…” {31 Days}

He’s the king of understatement, the kind of guy you’d want in your corner in a brawl, the sort who would call a near-death experience “kinda unpleasant, when y’think about it”.

I told him I was nervous about a new path for my life, and I could hear his smile over the phone, shaking his head at my trepidation in life the way he shook his head at me when I got scared on horseback. “Aw, change is nothin’, Dani,” he said, forcefully but not unkindly. “I’ve been doin’ it all my life.” He has. He’s been everything from a cowpoke to a logger to a warrior in Vietnam, and he’s moved all over the west, constantly searching for open skies and new frontiers. He’s a classic outdoorsman, the kind of person who can fix a pickup with nothing but some hay twine and a pocketknife.

He used to intimidate me, with his big white mustache, barrel chest and massive, powerful hands. He doesn’t give praise easily, he almost never gets “mushy” and he would much rather sit quietly on his porch with a strong cup of black coffee than be in a room full of people. He insists on quality – wranglers working for him had to be fast and tireless and highly alert. Loose cinches, dirty blankets, uncleaned hooves and gummed-up bits all incurred his wrath – he might be an old-fashioned cowboy but that was no reason to mistreat or neglect your horses.

He was the toughest and best boss I’ve ever had, and he taught me everything I know about managing a horse herd and riding well. When he met my now-husband for the first time, he peppered him with questions and insisted that he understand just how special I am. I blushed as he put his meaty hand on my back, protectively.

He had a heart attack yesterday and I felt my own heart flutter and sink at the thought of never riding with him again, or never hearing his soft chuckle, swapping stories in the dusty twilight after a long day. I just talked to him on the phone and my heart is settling down again, because according to him he’s just “walkin’ a little crooked, nothin’ to worry about”.

He choked up a little bit on the phone today, and I saw him in my mind’s eye as he looked when I left after my last summer as a wrangler, when he had two teardrops dangling in the corners of his eyes, straw cowboy hat pushed back on his head. I slammed my face into the plaid pearl-snap shirt covering his barrel chest and felt him pat me, gently, telling me I should “get on out before it gets dark, and drive safe now.” Today as we said good-bye, he did what he always does when we infrequently chat. He said he loved me, and I choked out a good-bye before hanging up and sobbing.

Here’s to walkin’ a little crooked. To early mornings and cowhorses and shared stories and a faithful courage that stops me in my tracks. Here’s to Boss, and many more years of bossing me around, riding into the sunset and understating even the most difficult circumstances, because God is in control, not us.

October 19th, 2012 by Dani

Pillow {31 Days}

We were registering for our wedding at REI, and we were wandering. You don’t register for essentials at REI, you register for weekend things. Fun stuff, the things you can’t wait to spend time and money on once you’re finally married and get your life back. So there they were, the perfect non-essential gift, the thing that is least likely to change our lives and yet seemed so necessary in the moment: stuffable travel pillows. We barely exchanged a glance – we knew we needed them. Blip, went the scanner, and they were on our registry, begging for someone who wasn’t in the mood for place settings and sheet sets to find them.

A few months later, they arrived on our soon-to-be-shared doorstep, gifted from a fun-loving aunt.

I chuckled over them and went back to whatever essential pre-wedding thing I was working on. I’d gone to camp for years and never taken a pillow: even as a camp counselor I just balled a sweatshirt under my head and went to sleep, considering the comfort of a pillow not worth the hassle of transporting one. Camping in the woods was no different – I’d never been one to carry pillows and blankets with me, figuring that beach towels and sweatshirts were more than soft enough for my purposes.

But now we had these little cute pillows, all stuffed and ready for travel. On our first camping trip as man and wife I brought them along, laughing at myself and what I considered over-preparedness. But lord have mercy, those little pillows were comfortable. Maybe it was sleeping under the stars with my new husband, and maybe it was a travel pillow, but I’m not taking any chances. Sometimes it’s worth splurging on non-essentials.

October 18th, 2012 by Dani

Mashed Potatoes {31 Days}

I remember standing in our next-door neighbor’s kitchen, as he told me they were having chicken and “smashed potatoes” for dinner. I looked at the clean countertop with the unassuming green cardboard box sitting atop it, waiting for his mother to come in and start whipping up some supper. My 10-year-old brain did not comprehend. “So what’s in the box?” I wondered, and he looked at me like I was crazy.

“Smashed potatoes,” he answered, shaking his head at my ignorance.

This was new to me. I had never shaken a box and thought that the rain-maker-style noises coming from inside would deliver the creamy mashed potatoes pictured on the box-front. I’d actually never made anything from a box: everything in our house was thrown together from bare ingredients: flour, baking powder, sugar and eggs made cakes, pasta, milk and grated cheese made mac and cheese. So too, big, hearty-looking Russet Potatoes were scrubbed with a small stiff brush, cut into quarters, put into a large pot to boil. They weren’t peeled or even cut particularly small, part of the joy of mashed potatoes is that they do taste like potatoes, skin and all.

They were pulled from the water, placed in a large bowl with milk, butter and a steel potato masher, and smashed and mixed together as the steam rises. Today I still make mashed potatoes the way my mom does, and although I like to play with ingredients that she never used, adding things like creme fraiche and garlic, the essence is still the same: mashed potatoes should taste as though they came from the ground, not a box.

October 15th, 2012 by Dani

A Recipe I Love {31 Days}

I love a lot of recipes. I love food and I love to cook. But one that I can always serve to anyone, that nearly always sounds good no matter the season, that always makes my hungry husband smile, is pasta and sausage.

It’s hearty and simple and made with only a pot or two, no fussy things here. First, I boil and brown some good quality sausage. This is not the time for frozen Kielbasa or cheap “Italian-flavored” bits and ends in a stuff-sack – this calls for artisan sausage, made with love and bought across a wide countertop from a smiling butcher.

Then I mix in veggies and a little seasoning. Depending on the season and sausage flavor I mix it up, but you’ll always find garlic and onion, maybe some carrots, okra, green beans or swiss chard laying gently beside large, fragrant sausages, cooked to bursting. I add a little olive oil and some butter if I’m feeling skinny, plus a shake of salt, pepper, a little oregano or basil.

Next I boil pasta – al dente, like in a good restaurant, not limp like boxed mac and cheese. I use good pasta too, whole wheat if I can find it, usually bowties or penne, because who wants to waste time twirling spaghetti on their fork?

I mix my cooked pasta, veggies and sausage all together, watch as green tendrils wrap around the pasta edges and it soaks up the flavor of the sausage. I pour a bit more olive oil on top and a few extra herbs – whatever it asks for, whatever smells haven’t erupted yet. I pull garlic bread from the oven – I forgot to tell you – this is freshly buttered sourdough slices, topped with newly-grated parmesan cheese and garlic, broiled and sizzling.

I scoop our dinner onto plates, a celebration of the very idea of shared food, as it jumbles joyfully onto the plate: red, green, brown, tan, orange, seasoned and speckled with herbs and sauce of it’s own making. A slice of garlic bread slides alongside and a generous scoop of that fresh parmesan lands on top: dinner is served – to a bunch of friends on game night, a family and their newborn baby hoping for a covered dish, to anyone who stops by at dinnertime, to my love and myself after a long day. There’s always some leftover, and it usually tastes even better the next day – proof that a dinner as good as this one is meant to be shared.

October 11th, 2012 by Dani

Happy {31 Days}

Last weekend, we paddled across a lake on the Central Coast of California, and set up a tiny campsite under a live oak tree. We carried everything with us in the hulls of our kayaks, built a fire from branches and leaves, made meals with our trusty JetBoil and some freeze-dried soup. (It tasted better than it sounds.)

We fell asleep to the sound of foxes rustling in the bushes and crickets chirping under an open, silent sky. We awoke early to the honking of geese and gentle sunshine cresting the hilltops.

We made coffee, black and strong, and put our tents and sleeping bags back into our kayaks, packing everything away with precision and efficiency. As we slid our boats into the water, we watched the fog lift and felt the morning sun warming our backs. We paddled down the lake, and saw wild turkeys, geese, ducks, deer and even a black bear on the far shore.

Adam happily threw his line in the water, I laid back on my kayak and snoozed. The sun warmed our faces, the breeze kept us moving and the lake was still and silent, more like a lazy river than a true lake. My handsome husband reeled up his fishing line and grinned at me. “This is awesome,” he said. I couldn’t agree more.

October 10th, 2012 by Dani

Dishes {31 Days}

Every morning I hear him, water running and plates rattling. The coffee grinder whirs to life and dishes are stacked neatly in the drying rack. As I come around the corner, I see his back as he bends over the sink, scrubbing at a tough pan or wiping a glass.

It’s a small thing, a tiny act of love, one I used to perform when I lived with roommates, up early before the house stirred, making coffee and washing dishes from the night before.

But now I get to wander into the kitchen barefoot and belated, and maybe sneak my arms around his waist when his back is to me. The coffee pot gurgles and hisses, signaling a new day creeping up on us, but for a moment, we can stand in the kitchen and listen to it before lunches are packed and the day rushes on. That clean sink and those drying pots and pans make me feel his love, all the way from the top of my rumpled, curly morning hair to the bottoms of my bare feet.

October 9th, 2012 by Dani

Math {31 Days}

It was a cold, early morning and I was working at a drive-thru coffee stand in Bonanza, Oregon, population 350. I was 15 years old, it was my second day on the job and I was dutifully brewing coffee, turning on the heater, making sure espresso beans were in the grinder.

A farmer pulled up in his beat-up Honda, wearing good jeans and a clean ball cap, obviously headed for an early morning run to town instead of a day in the fields. He ordered two 16-oz mochas and a cookie, and waited patiently while I ground beans and frothed milk, chatting kindly with me. As I carefully placed the lids on the drinks, I realized that I had to add up a total for his order. I hated math, I’d never been good at it and I’d always feared being put on the spot. Well, this was a spot alright, and I was teetering atop it as my kindly customer fumbled with his billfold and looked expectantly at me. The coffeeshop’s owner had left a calculator in the stand but I wasn’t sure where it was, time was running out and I felt my face grow hot. I blurted out, “that’ll be $6.50, sir” and made change out of the ten-dollar bill he handed me, giving him his $3.50 in change with the shaky-handed assurance of an unconfident banker. I added up his order again as he drove away, and was pleased to realize that I had indeed done the math correctly, and even given him the right change.

After that, I started to trust myself with numbers, realizing that they weren’t as scary when they paid for simple things like coffee and cookies.

***

During construction at home, I learned in a similar way. If you have a 12-foot board and you need a seven-foot board, how much should you cut off? Well, five feet, I would think, pulling my metal tape measure over thick, hairy pinewood. How many inches in five feet? 5 x 12 = 60. 60 inches. Yes, that’s right. The skilsaw revs, my pencil marks emblazon the wood, a board is cut.

Boards are cut, they fit together like puzzle pieces, they form a wall, a roof, a room, a shop, a house. Numbers aren’t as scary when you’re building something valuable, when they’re being used to make a life.

***

Now, I use numbers in my business, to see if this whole “writing for a living” thing is working out or not. My awesome husband always believes in me but we do the figures just the same, and are pleased to see profits instead of losses.

See, I think to myself, this isn’t so bad. Numbers and math show that words matter after all. I think that’s a good use for them.

October 8th, 2012 by Dani

Sound {31 Days}

The creak of saddle leather, as my right legs swings over, easily, quickly. I’m now on her back and I settle my hip bones down, anchor my feet in my stirrups, rest my right hand on my thigh as my left fingers play lazily with tough leather reins. I don’t have to think about these movements, they just happen when I land. A horse down the line nickers, that gentle “hurrhurrhurr” you hear when you walk into a barn or a pasture. A sound of greeting. A horse further away whinnies, a calling sound, a mare asking her foal to come back, a friend calling to another friend, speaking of anxiety, of loneliness, of “how’s the weather?”

My horse sighs and flips her tail. She is ready for movement.

I hear the laughter of a friend. The call of a hawk, circling above us. The leaves of the Aspen trees, chattering in anticipation of fall, rustling and welcoming me to my wide open.

Rustle, creek, whistle, pop, laugh, whinny, nicker. These are the sounds of a long-gone summer, vividly recalled with one squeak of a belt or the feel of leather in my fingertips.

October 4th, 2012 by Dani

A Time I Didn’t Fit In {31 Days}

I was a freshman (no, I’m not going to say first-year, how insecure do modern educators think young women are, anyway?) in college, taking a speech class. I hated the class, it was three times a week and nearly useless – our instructor was a pleasant, shallow blonde who seemed to be less than five years our senior and had little interest in our lives or our improvement.

We were supposed to give a presentation on “how to do something” – make coffee, knit a scarf, drive a stick-shift.

I chose “how to break a horse”.

To be fair, I wasn’t going for the shock-factor or trying to be outrageous, this was really something I had knowledge in and passion for. However, I overestimated my fellow-students openness of mind. Halfway through my presentation I felt their eyes glazing over with the effort of understanding a world so vastly different from their own. Our teacher smirked openly in the back of the room, assuming that I was making the whole story up in an effort to sound cool or unique.

The truth was, I would have rather been anything other than unique at that moment. I felt naked. I noticed that I had worn boots to class (trying to keep with my theme) and that all of my classmates were in sandals. My jeans were suddenly too tight, my hair too long, I felt shrill and skinny and way too easy to see through. I had just revealed a passion to a room of bored strangers and they were allowing it to fly right over their heads and crash into the chalkboard at the back of the room, not noticing that my heart was flying and falling with it.

I wished that I had talked about how to bake a cake or grow a cactus, anything besides this.

My speech over, I slunk back to my seat and stared dutifully down at my notebook, feeling unexplainable dismay. I would not give speeches about anything personal for the rest of the semester.

Being unseen is painful. Being seen and not understood or given worth is even worse.