Some people look back and say those early commune years were about art or style, about politics or spiritual growth, but I was there the winters of ‘68, ‘69 and more. We all knew that Black Bear was about food. We would sit there in the wintry evenings fingering a copy of Julia Childs’ first French cookbook, lusting over dishes that took ingredients we knew we would never see. “Divide ten eggs and set aside the whites,” they’d all begin. “Add a gill of thick cream,” we’d continue, reading to our companions, with the breathy hushed voices of people reading good pornography aloud.
I admit I was tricked. At first I thought the food was good, but maybe because I spent my first two weeks at Black Bear in that jail cell in Yreka, an overgrown truck stop in Northern California. Even lentils tasted good for a while when I got out. That’s a whole other story, but let me brush on it. I’d met Roselee Solow Patron at the Digger base camp in Dunsmuir. Still years ahead of the women’s movement, Rose was tall, confident and assertive—a regal woman. I was especially impressed that she had a huge, warm flannel sleeping bag, big enough for two by contemporary standards.
Anyway, Roselee and I were hitch-hiking up to Black Bear along what is now Interstate 5 when a young, well-scrubbed hippie couple picked us up in a new model van, the perfect ride. They were easy to talk into a side trip to Black Bear, where we’d never been yet. On the way, we stopped for gas in Etna. (In the sound track, ominous foreshadowing music should swell at this point.) While the kid was pumping gas, I went exploring in an old Victorian house that was getting demolished next door to Corrigan’s Bar. The place had been stripped but good. All that was left was an old kitchen sink tossed in the corner and some broken pipes. I remembered that John Albion had sent word that the main house plumbing wasn’t too good so I asked the gas pump kid if I could do some salvage. “Why not?” he said. “Everyone else does.”
We threw the sink in the truck and headed up to Black Bear where only a few people were living so far. They were delighted to see us. “We brought groceries,” we boasted.
“Did you bring any weed?”
We trudged up to the house with barely a hug when they heard we were herb-free and Martín dredged out an old box of stems and seeds, to try one more time to winnow out enough green for a welcome-to-the-commune smoke. (Martín was originally called “Marty”, as befit his New York roots, but he switched to “Martín”, pronounced Spanish style as “Mar-Teen.” It may have sounded more California cosmopolitan.) Just then one of the women said, “Jeez, here comes a cop car! How did they know?”
Martín told me to stall out front while he slipped out the back with the shoebox. I confidently walked out to distract these simple rural constables. “How are you fellows?” I said. Big smiles all around.
“Doing fine.” they said in unison. These guys are really dumb, I thought to myself.
“Were you in Etna today?” one of them asked.
“Did you do anything while you were there?” he asked.
“What’s there to do in Etna?” I said. They didn’t get the joke. “No, I didn’t do anything.”
“Didn’t you do anything?” he tried again. “You know, like take anything?”
“You mean the sink? You want it back?” These cops had to be the biggest hicks I’d ever met.
One of the hicks pulled a card out of his pocket and read in monotone, ”I’d like to advise you of your right to counsel, your right to remain silent and your right not to be questioned without an attorney.”
Maybe they weren’t the jerks I’d thought. While I was revising my opinion, my hands were behind my back in hick handcuffs and I was being ushered into a hick squad car. I spent the night (and the next 14 nights) in Yreka jail. “Whatchya in for?” asked the inmates, who’d never seen a hippie up close. “Possession of hair,” I grumbled.
But this is the story of how I saved the commune with the recipe for chimichangas and I’m getting lost in self-pity. I hardly heard from the Ranch in lockup. One night the jailor we called Turkeyneck yelled back to us, “Hey, Terence. Your friend Michael called and said his girlfriend had a baby girl. He also said he can’t make your bail.” Everybody in the cell block laughed for a while. That was the daughter they named Shasta Free. Welcome to this world, Shasta.
It was a lousy time to have long hair. I’d already been in jail twice that year on trumped up this or that and it wasn’t even September. I was starting to compare the cuisine of the different jails. Yreka was way better than either San Francisco’s Hall of Justice or L.A. But two weeks of corn meal mush and peanut-butter-jelly sandwiches on white bread took their toll. Every morning, just before I woke, I’d have a dream that I was in jail. They’d wake us by clicking on very bright lights. As I woke, I’d think, it was all just a dream. Then I’d wake some more and be in jail. Suffice it to say that the days in jail flew by like years. The public defender couldn’t remember my name. The trial got put off until the following spring.
I finally got released on O.R., short hand for “Own Recognizance” which is itself jailhouse lingo for “No Bail Required.” After all that, I decided the ranch was the safest place to wait for my trial. Fresh air, Roselee’s sleeping bag and no more white bread. I thought I was in heaven. That was early September. By mid-October there were 30 of us living together out in the middle of nowhere and some of the romance was disappearing. So was the food. One afternoon a handful of us came in for lunch and it was brown rice served on white rice. And winter had barely started. This was a crisis. We decided to take the Coors truck, all I had left to show for that year in show business, and head out shopping in Eureka. (I know you want to hear more about the year in show business, but this is really a short instructional chapter on making chimichangas so it isn’t the place. It is true, though, that story that I once danced with Tina Turner.)
“We,” in this case anyway, was John Albion, Richard Marley and me. We had the truck. We had the need. We didn’t have any money. I kept asking John and Richard how we were gonna fill the truck with food or even the gas tank with fuel to get home when we didn’t have a cent. I guess they couldn’t hear me very good over the roar of the truck. We spent the night at the house of Mike Mullen, a longshoreman friend of Richard’s. The next day we ran around meeting local bohemian artists who wanted all the stories about the new Black Bear adventure. And then that afternoon we met a man named Merlin. Merlin had done well in the chemistry business—psychedelic chemistry—and was impressed by our plans. He sized us up, to see if urban hippies could survive in the woods, and I think we passed the test when we crawled under the truck in the Humboldt County mud to readjust the baling wire that held up the muffler. He passed more than a $1,000 to Richard, a huge sum at that time, and asked if we were interested in a backhoe. I didn’t know what one was and thought he said “some tobacco” so I couldn’t understand why Richard and John got so excited.
We hit every food wholesaler in town and two days later returned to the ranch with a full load of provisions. That was the first food run, a theatrical event that was eventually elevated to a fine art. This is important because the ingredients for chimichangas for a commune winter are the following:
4,000 lbs Tule Lake Wheat.
1,000 lbs pinto beans.
55 gal. Vegetable oil.
300 lbs onions.
20 pounds garlic.
5 pounds chili powder.
1 pound cheddar cheese. (Optional)
This also happened to be the contents of the larder.
Start by dividing the wheat. Feed half to the chickens. Grind the rest into flour.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Not much happened at Black Bear for those first couple of years. It was not until 1970 or so that I remembered chimichangas. The food had gotten better than brown and white rice but only a little. Sometimes Glenn Lyons and John Salter got a deer but that would be gone in two days. Glenn and John were both university academics who came to the commune as researchers, and, like researchers the world over, had “gone native,” as they say. Willis Conrad, one of our first friends on the river, was one of the traditional Karuk fishermen and he’d sometimes bring up sacks of fresh-caught salmon. But mostly it was beans and rice. For variety, some nights the beans would be undercooked. We tried cooking things by substitution. Maybe corn starch would substitute for eggs? So Zoë Leader tried baking brownies with a recipe from the nutritionist Adelle Davis, but without eggs, an ingredient we only dreamed of.
They came out of the oven smoking, black, with a texture like some roofing material. She’d just used up the last chocolate and took off for the woods in disgust. Redwood Kardon came by and tried one. “Not bad. Tastes like really good burnt chocolate.” Efrem Korngold tried some too and nodded with approval. Not bad at all. Word spread. By the time Zoe returned, the burnt pan was licked clean.
So it was, anyway, our day to cook. Doug Hamilton. Mark Gabriel. Me. We reviewed our choices. White beans and brown rice. Brown beans and white rice. We were artists in our souls, but without much palette. Then I remembered chimichangas. They were in those days only found in Sonora and in southern Arizona where I’d grown up. Now days you find them in the frozen grease section of every 7-11 in the world. Right next to the microwave. They were just deep-fried burritos, really, but in those days they were a well-kept secret.
So we hauled 20 pounds of wheat up to the Corona Mill hand-grinder in the attic and Doug started grinding. Mark started a long painstaking round of guitar tuning. I started telling a story about when Linda Ronstadt was my house guest. After about a pound of wheat, Doug rebelled. “Howkum you azzholes are just standing around and I’m getting stuck with all the work?” So I started trading off with him and also held the small table steady, which made it go faster. In guilt, Mark started actually playing guitar and also took turns at the mill.
At that point, Gail Ericson came through, looking for her daughter Shasta. She gave us an uncharitable look and asked how many grown men it took to grind wheat. We all tried to look as busy as possible. Gail could be awfully ungenerous in those days. I remembered months earlier, when there was some wine and everybody was in a frisky mood, I came over to Gail and quietly asked if she wanted to slip off and make love. “Oh, you mean fuck?” she said in a voice that carried across the room, and walked away laughing. People turned to me with smirks and then turned away.
When the flour was done, we fired the great US Army stove, started the beans and started making flour tortillas for 60 hungry communards. The beans were already soaked and we started early. I hated them undercooked. Cover them barely with water. Add onions, garlic and chili powder. Are you writing this down? When the skins of the beans wrinkle, pour in some oil. Never add salt until they’re done. Don’t add too much water and don’t cover the pot. As the stack of tortillas grew, a sense of excitement spread through the main house and then across the ranch. Something new for dinner. We began rolling the beans into the tortillas and dipping them into the hot oil where they sizzled the same way I remembered at the little place across from the Greyhound station in Tucson. Carol Hamilton and Geba Greenberg began helping us. Michael Tierra slipped away to get elderberry wine that he’d already aged for a week. Then he started playing music with Kenoli Oleari and John Cedar, who were visiting from the Free Bakery collective in Oakland.
Some nights there just wasn’t enough food cooked. On nights like that, the big eaters like Redwood or Martín would sit near the children in case one of them fell asleep with their food unfinished. Every one of us would have starved before we shorted the food to a child. But it’s also a sin to waste food and they wanted to be first in line to head off any sinful moment. Everybody in those days was so thin it was a little scary. We’re much less scary now.
It was a culinary triumph. We’d cooked way too much and every morsel was eaten. Some were a little burnt, most were perfect and not one was undercooked. They made a crunchy, resistant noise as you bit them: hot and dry on the outside; spicy and juicy in the center. “These chingyjamas are great,” Elsa Marley said and she gave me an affectionate kiss. More music. More wine. Tommy Drury, best of the Black Bear cooks, praised my invention. Praise from Tom was praise indeed. Smokers slipped outside to light up and tell much better stories than the non-smokers ever told. I watched Catherine Thompson Guerra whisper something to Danny Guyer and they slipped away. Another couple left, arm in arm. Buoyed by my new celebrity, I edged over next to Rhoda Bagno, a beautiful friend of Elsa Marley’s, and in my most suave voice asked her if she wanted to fuck. She turned and stared at me. “I don’t fuck. I make love,” she said, and so there could be no doubt, she turned and walked away.
Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Malcolm Terence's new book, Beginner's Luck, Dispatches from the Klamath Mountains, published by Oregon State University Press. Terence will be at Northtown Books in Arcata at 7 p.m. on June 8 for a reading and book signing.