When I was a child, my brother was a shepherd near the Continental Divide. His was a world of horses, harmonicas, tumbleweeds, slab bacon and earthy wisdom.
Today, my brother, that Western archetype of yesteryear, lives in the suburbs. He cooks on a stovetop and buys his bacon pre-sliced. I want to believe that he is still as cool as ever, that his domestication is just a thin veneer. I want to touch his wild core, to know that it is still there. Thus my plan: get him to teach me how to make granola.
"I got the nickname when my friend Carolee embroidered me a shirt with the words 'Charlie Granola,'" he told me. "She walked all day to Sheep Camp to give me that shirt, and to eat some granola. I used to make 20-pound batches in a wood stove with sagebrush for fuel. Sage was everywhere.
"Sheep Camp was at 9,400 feet along the Utah/Wyoming line," he remembered. "I would saddle up Snooper at dawn for the morning herd, make granola in midday and play fiddle tunes on the metal roof of my chuck wagon in the afternoon."
We were in his new kitchen. He fiddled with his cappuccino maker as he spoke.
"I phased out making granola when I moved back to civilization," he said. "I had the time, but no one to hold my horse."
But time is relentless. The last wild tribes of Amazon Indians are being contacted, Eskimos drive snowmobiles, cowboys shop at Wal-Mart, and Charlie Granola has traded his horse for a riding lawnmower. With no more horse left to hold, I decided to see if he did, indeed, have the time. While Charlie Granola made two deluxe cappuccinos, I followed his old granola recipe, freshly written.
By the time he finished steaming his milk, I had mixed 2 cups of raw oats, 1 1/2 cups of chopped cashews, 1 cup of dried shredded coconut, 1/2 cup sliced almonds, 1/3 cup sunflower seeds, 1/3 cup sesame seeds and 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon.
I made another mixture of 3/4 cup maple syrup, 1/2 cup safflower oil and 1 tablespoon vanilla extract. I poured it into the dry ingredients and mixed it all together with my hands (though spoons are allowed). I began to understand that when you make granola, stuff flies everywhere.
I divided the mixture between two metal cookie sheets, spreading evenly, less than 1/2 inch thick.
After I put those pans in the oven, I chopped Calimyrna figs (the yellow kind) into pieces the size of peanuts until I had a cup's worth. Then I tossed them in flour (1 tablespoon) until they no longer stuck together. I pitted some dates and did the same (you can also buy chopped dates, pre-floured).
Charlie Granola's instructions read: "Bake 25 minutes at 375. Stir four times."
"So," I asked, "I'm supposed to stir this every 6.25 minutes?"
Charlie looked confused by my anal calculations.
"I tried to write you this recipe to show the general gist of how I made granola," he said, reaching for the recipe. "In reality it was different every time."
He puzzled over his instructions.
"I don't know how many times I freakin' stirred it," he concluded. "And I don't know how long I freakin' cooked it, or how hot the wood stove was. All I know is if you spent too much time messin' with your granola, the coyotes came and ate your sheep."
"The trickiest part was convincing The Boss to bring up the ingredients," he said. "In 1973, the store in Woodruff, Utah, was a gas station, grocery store and post office all in one. They sold Velveeta, Oscar Mayer and Wonder Bread."
I took a tray from the oven. "Is this ready to be stirred?"
"Oh yeah," he said, "Every five minutes. Keep it moving."
The granola was hardening in the sides and corners of the sheet, which I set on Charlie Granola's granite countertop. I dug in with a wooden spoon. Granola flew everywhere.
"It helps to oil the tray first," he said, handing me my cappuccino. "Now that you mention it, I used to use a cast-iron skillet. The high walls keep the granola from flying around. A glass baking dish would work, too."
When the granola began to barely darken, I mixed in the dates and figs, and continued baking.
"Some people insist on raisins in their granola," said Charlie Granola, "and that's OK. The dates and figs are a necessity, but if you want to add raisins, or dried cherries, that's fine."
The granola started to thicken into a glistening mass. Then it started to dry out and get crunchy. When its hue was a rich shade of golden brown, I took it out.
"Give it a final stir so it won't stick together, and let it cool," he said.
It hadn't taken much longer than two cappuccinos, and the whole house smelled like a 1970s sheep camp -- in a good way.
I spooned some of the still-hot granola into a bowl with some cold milk.
Nutty and sweet, it tasted like the crisp sunrise of a bluebird day.
Yes! After all these years, Charlie Granola was still in the saddle.
-- Chef Boy Ari