Cooking for the crew on branding day
for Tri-State Livestock News
Branding recipes and memories
Debbie Beardsley and her husband, Jim, are owners of the BB&H Ranch business, and live on the H+H Ranch near Powderville, Mont. They raised a fourth generation of Beardsley ranch kids, their five children Kari (Granmoe), Tamara (Choat), and Taylor, Jace and John Henry Beardsley, at Ismay, Mont., and Powderville. They have always raised commercial cattle, but these days have added sheep and goats to their operation as well. Brandings were always done “the old fashioned way,” with a crew of neighbors, family and friends showing up early to help gather, ropers to drag calves, and teams of wrestlers and a fast ground crew to work through anywhere from 500 to 1,000 calves a day. Debbie was a home-ec teacher before becoming a full-time ranch wife. And while she will never admit it, she is widely noted for her hearty meals and tasty treats that are the highlight of many brandings. Over the years she has cooked three square meals for many a crew, miraculously provided blankets, pillows and beds for whoever happened to stay the night, and likely taken cold showers after the hot water was long gone from dishes and cleaning a dusty branding crew. Following are her memories, stories and recipes.
I grew up acquainted with agriculture but not raised in agriculture. Branding on a large scale was a huge learning curve for me. I was in awe. I am very thankful for a mother-in-law and a sister-in-law who were very gracious enough to “break me in” gently when I married and moved 50 miles out to the ranch near Ismay. I probably was never really assigned to the task of helping with meals, it was just what was needed.
Mrs. Beardsley, Jim’s mom, always had a big breakfast for the branding crew and I eventually took over that responsibility. I have continued doing that although not as many come that early to partake anymore.
Depending on how many head they were doing that day, and how far apart the corrals were, sometimes the big meal would be at noon in between bunches of calves. But ideally, the guys always like to try and get by with just treats in the morning and then finish up and come back to the house for a big meal after the work is done.
Every branding Mrs. Beardsley would make homemade buttermilk donuts to take out to the crew. One older rancher told me humorously one time that he came to our brandings just for her donuts. And donuts he did eat! With fond memories I have continued making those donuts and have since added my mother’s cinnamon twists to the corral entrées. Those along with some cookies and bars make up the treats we take out midmorning, ideally timing it just after the riders have everything corralled and the calves cut off and ready to brand. Years ago the younger kids always loved brandings for all the pop – particularly orange, grape and strawberry Shasta — they could get their hands on without mom noticing. I have noticed that now days the health conscious cowboys and cowgirls appreciate more fruit and water and Gatorade as opposed to the soda pop and coffee that was always a given. When I think of preparing the treats and the meals for the branding crew, I look back and appreciate the help of our daughters, who either had babies or were going to have a baby, or a sister-in-law, who were able to take the food to the corral so I could keep rein on the beef roast simmering in the oven and attempt to make another, better cream pie.
Brandings have made me appreciate my three freezers a great deal. Although Grandma’s donuts and cinnamon twists and dinner rolls were always fresh, they do freeze very well when made a few days ahead. Cowboys and cowgirls never tire of beef and potatoes in any form, and if we have had a day or two of brandings I find barbeques hamburgers to be very appreciated. I have yet to duplicate my mother-in-law’s banana cream and chocolate cream pies. Many a cowhand would take their slice of pie first and then go through the line. They didn’t want to risk not getting a slice of her cream pie. Years ago the meal was considered THE thank you for help. Now a days most ranches pay the high school and college kids but I would venture to say that a hot meal with all the trimmings and desserts are what they still really count on.
I do recall a favorite branding moment one year when I was finishing the breakfast dishes and, as always, watching all the action out the window as the crew was just arriving. An unending stream of pickups and horse trailers kept coming and cowboys and cowgirls, one after another, kept stepping out of each vehicle. In a moment of trepidation I realized I just might not have enough food and that I perhaps better add more potatoes to the pot. Much to my dismay, though, I had peeled my last spud. I immediately called my sister-in-law, JoAnne, who was planning on coming out later to help. Having grown up on the ranch and knowing the importance of a branding meal, she said it would be no problem. She would stop by the store and get another 10 pounds of potatoes. But the memory we continue to enjoy is that she didn’t just buy potatoes – before they left she filled a kettle with water and grabbed her paring knife. As her husband drove 55 miles over a rough gravel road, JoAnne peeled those 10 pounds of potatoes — water splashing and all — just so they would be ready to put on the stove to cook for her sister-in-law to mash for dinner. When we cleaned up there was not much left of those creamy potatoes. We remember it and appreciate it every year.
It is always great to have neighbors and friends come and help but nothing can replace the joy and sound of youth at brandings. High school and college friends were a pleasure and a tremendous help at brandings. Their vivaciousness and their “thank yous” at the end of the day were the best part of the day. And how they could eat! But their enthusiasm was not without its risks and dangers. One of our daughter’s close friends, Jessica, came out to help one weekend during branding. The temperature was in the nineties and they all came in from the corral exhausted and very, very thirsty. Jessica came into the kitchen needing something to drink very bad. Unknown to me, someone from the corral had brought the vaccine, guns, pour-on and several others items into the entry way for me to clean up and put away. Jessica, with her bubbly personality, came bounding into the house, giggling and dry and grabbed a milk jug filled with white, milky liquid and took a sip of “milk.” Only it wasn’t milk. One small sip and she came running to me saying, “Debbie this milk of yours is really, really sour!” I looked at the jug and grabbed it away from her and knew immediately it was not milk she had sipped — it was pour-on left over from working cows. She had not taken much and she was okay, but it was very concerning for a while. To this day I keep the poison control number close to the phone, and we’re always a little more cautious with what white liquid we put in old milk jugs.
Another story we always enjoy is that of two older gentlemen friends of ours, both in their 80s, who loved to come to the country and to the brandings. Wilbur had been out to ranch before but Scottie had not. Jim had given Wilbur careful directions to be certain he could recall. As the afternoon and the branding went on we kept looking for them and had decided they changed their mind about coming, as in our last conversation they were not positive they could make it. Well, about 4:30 that afternoon in drive Wilbur and Scottie. They were not sure where they had been but according to the odometer the 65-mile-drive to the ranch had turned into 320 miles. They were not distraught about it at all as they chuckled about their road trip and the beautiful country they had seen. They had 101 questions to ask Jim about this place and that road. The (less than perfect) cream pies were long gone but they were pleased to have made it out to partake of leftovers. I now have an email with precise directions and mileage to the ranch, and I never send it out without thinking of Wilbur and Scottie, who have both since passed on.
Another branding memory is that of our second daughter, Tamara, who was getting married in September. She and her husband, Travis, had friends from 25 states come for the wedding. Many were excited to be in Montana and wanted to see the ranch, so instead of having the normal rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding — we had a branding! Jim had some late calvers that still needed worked, so we had a small branding and a big dinner afterward. When it was time to ride back to the house everyone was having so much fun and ready to go eat they just started mounting any guests who wanted to ride on any horse. It turned out to not be the best idea, but thankfully no one got hurt. One music teacher sister-in-law from Texas and her band director husband did decide to lead their “enthusiastic” horses home instead of ride, and an Iowa farm girl had a run-away that was narrowly averted by a different sister-in-law who was an Oklahoma barrel racer! There was no rehearsal for that wedding, but the memories made were probably more impacting than having a perfectly timed ceremony. One especially memorable part of that evening is when we got back to the house one of Tamara’s friends – it just happened to be Jessica again! – came up to her and said, “I’m missing my sapphire ring!” We knew it could be anywhere along the four miles from the corral back to the house. They went back to the corral to look, but as anyone who has seen a branding corral after a branding, knows, there wasn’t much luck. Now that I think about it, we should name that spot “Sapphire Corral.” And we probably shouldn’t be surprised if Jessica never comes to another branding!
I am also very thankful for cell phones, although we’re one of the last areas left probably in the country that doesn’t have good service. As with the poison control number I now keep the GPS coordinates of our ranch close at hand. Such a need was brought to our attention when we had a young cowgirl thrown off her horse in the branding corral. It was a hard fall and everyone was leery of moving her for fear of a neck injury. We were miles from the house and from town. The changing of rural addresses and road names (following 9-11) had the ambulance terribly confused about our location. Our brother-in-law kept diligently going to where he had cell service, then down to where the two-track pasture road – which they were likely not to notice – met the county road, and likely kept the ambulance from another two-hour delay. All turned out well and although she had a broken arm, it thankfully wasn’t worse.
Branding days are always a lot of work — whether in the corral or in the kitchen, although I would lean a bit more on the cooking side! Having neighbors or family makes it half the work it really is, but twice the appreciation and memories to reminisce on. Everything hits at once and extra hands in serving are wonderful and even greater when it comes to the cleanup and putting away (now we are talking about work!). It’s not the glamorous part of branding, but in my heart I know it is the grand finale.
As I reminisce on brandings over the years with our five children and numerous nieces and nephews, I have come to see the occasion as an anticipated rite-of-passage for so many in ranching. As soon as the kids are about 5 years old they get to be of help by carrying the nut-bucket, then progress to chalk marking, then filling the fly tag gun, and then — when strength and age are on their side — to wrestling and eventually roping. And may I add that many of our nieces helped me a lot in the kitchen making bars and rolls for the big day long before they were five and long after they were five. We didn’t do Mrs. Beardsley’s cream pies, though. What memories!
I think people like to have an active part of something good and to know they can contribute to help someone or some cause. At the end of the day everyone goes home very tired, yet feeling blessed to have worked with friends and family and with God’s creatures in His creation.