Here’s the thing about Central Oregon – when oncoming cars pass each other, the drivers wave to you. The last time I had to go through an ordeal like that was the last time I was in a pontoon boat. I could stop right here and you could probably come up with the rest of my story for me. I should also explain that my name is Matt, and I work with Jen.
As I prepared for my mammoth drive from Portland through Condon and Fossil to John Day, and back to Portland through Monument and Long Creek, it was suggested to me that I log my eating habits (somewhat). I says to myself I says, “What a quaint idea”, and I laughed it off. But after 5 hours of driving the “Journey Through Time Scenic Byway”, every opportunity to stop seemed blog-worthy. My mind was spinning; Andrew W.K. sounded like a great idea to play with the windows down. Suddenly I was taking pictures of landscapes, outhouses, and my car next to outhouses.
But I digress. This is about food, and I ate food in John Day. Upon stretching and settling in at the Best Western, I did find myself yearning for more than beef jerky and spearmint gum, which with a little help from lunch in Fossil (I found out later that Jen had already blogged about Big Timber Family Restaurant) was all that sustained me through the torment of waving with my hand on the wheel to complete strangers. The smell of sagebrush was in the air. My carefully mapped out venture to Grubsteak Mining Co. was in the cards tonight.
You know when you are hungry and you order something, but as soon as you order it you instantly regret it? Not because you’re worried about how it will taste, but that you know you probably shortened your lifespan and probably the lifespan of your future children? That’s pretty much the menu at Grubsteak. Matty Jr., I’m sorry but that was one hell of a Monte Cristo. And yes, those are gigantic tater tots and ranch dressing. Is there any better mixture of foods? I submit there is not. Needless to say after that feast I took a walk around the neighborhood because it hurt to sit down. Well played, Grubsteak. Well played.
THE NEXT MORNING
Fun fact: I love breakfast, and I had actually planned my breakfast for the next morning before I planned my dinner at Grubsteak Mining Co. The Squeeze-In Restaurant (don’t worry, that’s not the best name I have in store for you) was everything I wanted in a breakfast. Breakfast is greasy, it’s your choice of meat but you always choose bacon, and it’s a lot of food. One thought: Jen I don’t know how you take pictures of your food without having the locals stare at you. I was such a tourist…not that I blend in anyway. I am at my most content when eating breakfast, and as I mopped up what was left of my over easy eggs with my butter soaked toast I was oblivious to my short sightedness of only staying one night, because that means only one breakfast.
LATER THAT DAY…
Did you know Monument has a food cart? I heard it was the talk of the town, and decided it would be a brilliant idea to meet my AmeriCorps member there.
I apologize for not taking a picture of the cart itself – I already felt like a tourist and the lady looked at me quizzically when I said I didn’t want anything on my hot dog. Not wanting to stir up any trouble, I didn’t push the issue by explaining that I was writing for a food blog, as it would seem my story did not match my entree. What can I say? I like my hot dogs naked. It’s the same as ordering a cheeseburger plain, so you can really judge for yourself if this is a tasty burger or if someone in back is smuggling in inferior goods. Moral of the story: If you’re ever in Monument for whatever reason, stop by the Chuckwagon.
First of all: There are no locks at Wilson Ranches Retreat. At least not on the guest bedrooms. And, while I think they exist on the front and back doors, there seems to be no reason to employ them. On the back deck, bobble-headed ceramic owls with yellow eyes do all the spooking that needs to be done. Along the slopes behind the house, a large herd of black and brown cattle graze. Calves frolic in the stream cutting through the bright green floor of the valley. And the sky is lit from chalk blue to near black as the weather rolls between sunny and sleeting.
Second of all: This is serious dude country. The owners’ son scooted over to the Bed and Breakfast at 6:00 AM to ready our breakfast in starched Wranglers and striped button-up. The official story for his cooking in place of his folks was that his parents were needed in Portland, but I am guessing his father was pretty wiped out still from the “calving” over the past few weeks. Apparently, he stays up all night with the cows as they give birth. For a city slicker such as myself, that sounds exhausting.
Additionally, the other guests (long-time friends of the owners) showed me photographs of a cougar, splayed out triumphantly on the driveway of another rancher. One less big kitty to disturb the herd. I learned that if you do find yourself in possession of a puma carcass, your one responsibility is to send in a tooth for age verification. Fascinating.
Third of all: Grandmother’s biscuit recipe puts all other recipes to shame. Light, fluffy, perfectly browned on the outside and flakey on the inside. Our chef noted to another guest that he only uses his grandmother’s recipe. Good move, cowboy. No need to mess with a good thing. The rest of the breakfast included scrambled eggs, “porridge” also known as oatmeal with “the fixin’s” (brown sugar, pecans, cranberries and raisins), fried ham slices, and homemade jam. It was decent, but those biscuits stole my heart.
And, because, fourth of all: Fossil is a ridiculously friendly place, the other guests found me a ziplock bag to take the leftover biscuits home.
There is nothing quite like a BLT after a rousing training on the AmeriCorps Education Award and taxes. Especially if you’re the one giving the training. After settling in at Big Timber Family Restaurant, I opted against the much-recommended chicken ceaser salad wrap and cheeseburger with fries in favor of bacon and the intriguing “local hazelnut bread.”
Major points for the bread, I am a fan. Not sure it was the right choice for a BLT; I probably would do it with only butter in the future, toasted, maybe with a little honey. Nonetheless, it was excellent.
The bacon was fairly standard. When trying new places, I usually ask for the bacon extra crispy, but I didn’t want to seem too demanding. I regret that. Next time: definitely asking for the bacon to stay a little longer on the fryer.
Other folks (the ones who just endured my training on the AmeriCorps Education Award and taxes), selected the afore-mentioned wrap, a mandarin chicken salad (which was very quickly consumed by the orderer) and the chicken strip basket. The chicken strip basket looked delectable, and I will certainly order that next time. Although apparently this chicken ceaser wrap is phenomenal. I just couldn’t do a wrap in ranch country, which brings to me my next point: when in ranch country, eat things people you know have killed.
For dinner, one of the AmeriCorps members out here made an elk stir fry with meat from a friend’s hunt. Awesome.
The elk was tender; the taste was more delicate than gamey. It was incredible. And the cook, Nathan, didn’t overwhelm the meat with too many spices. The vegetables simmered happily away in the elk juices, melding into a delightful experience.
My previous dinner in Fossil a year ago involved beef enchiladas with beef from the hostess’s ranch, which is all no hormone, range-raised and fed, and humanely killed in the field (apparently, the cows never see the interior of a building from beginning to end of life). That beef was also divine. Although slightly hidden inside the cheesy goodness of the enchiladas.
Fossil has been on the culinary map for a few years with Painted Hills Beef, which is decidedly superior. Although I would vote that most meat killed in the vicinity is many times better than what high-end Portland restaurants can offer. Unless the chefs have joined the hunting club and are hauling their trophies back to the kitchen. That melty taste of an animal that spent its life roaming the sage brush and experienced minimal stress in dying, that taste is sublime.
My recommendation: follow the signs for the meat shoot, and enjoy the rewards!
When I was a child, I begged my parents to take our family on vacation to Fossil. This was largely due to my humongous obsession with dinosaurs, which was going strong from the age of three to nine.
There are many reasons why Fossil is one of the most exciting places in Oregon, but for the wee Jenny, it was all about the fossils. You can dig them up behind the high school. You can follow trails of them at the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Park. You can buy them. The whole place is just flithy with fossils. That said, there aren’t any real dinosaur fossils. And that fact made me a little sad about our vacation. It was the kind of sad from occurs when reality hits an eight-year-old. And, that kind of sad is deep. Way deep.
So, when the opportunity presented itself for me to visit Fossil as an adult, I was intrigued but cautious. I vaguely remembered the high school and how different it was from the awesome scenes of dinosaur digs in the Gobi I had seen on NOVA specials (big disappointment). What little I did remember of the town was not all that special (probably, because my soul was crushed by the lack of stegosaurus remains).
In the twenty years since my first visit, Fossil has apparently not changed much. A fact I find noteworthy. And refreshing.
The fossil beds behind the high school still bring in tourists. The Hancock Field Station near the Clarno Unit still hosts students in the OMSI summer camps. Rattlesnakes still pose a threat to unsuspecting individuals not watching their step or digging under their decks. And, the hardware store remains the only purveyor of hard liquor as part of the rural holy trinity of propane, antiques and booze.