Fog has socked in the coast and the stunning views of the Pacific Ocean usually visible when driving over the Wildcat from Ferndale to Petrolia are obscured by white. The fog gives the steep ridges with yellow grass of early summer a different feel, like prairies at the edge of the world. Dipping down into Capetown, a quartet of ranchers are saddling horses. It's Saturday, but it's also time to ship cattle and a cool day is not to be wasted. Another 25 miles inland, the sky is clear and the heat is just starting to soak the ground around the Mattole Grange, where pickups are pulling in and finding coveted parking spots in the shade of a line of fir trees. We're coming together, toting picnic baskets and coolers, homemade pies and cash for the raffle, to celebrate the Fourth of July and the annual Deep Pit Beef and Beans Barbecue. This year, an old tradition is passing into new hands.
Deep pit barbecue — the technique of slow cooking your main course for hours underground on a bed of hot coals — is something the Journal has covered before. (See "Pit Boys," July 28, 2016.) But this event (and its sister event on Labor Day weekend) holds extra poignancy for me. Culinary experts talk about the importance of terroir — the impact of a region's natural environment on taste and flavor — but there must be another word for what happens to our palate when we go back to the same soil we crammed in our mouth as toddlers. Just a mention of the event raises the taste of those slow-cooked baked beans on my tongue. They are sweet and earthy and swim in a dark amber sauce. They travel home with us at the end of the day in bulging plastic bags, somehow improving in taste with each meal. This barbecue, those beans, have tasted the same every year for the past 36 years, with each July adding a successive layer of nostalgia. I'm not the only Mattole child who makes the odyssey back each summer to sit in the picnic tables under the firs and revisit the cool of the old Grange hall with its creaking wooden boards that has hosted grade school plays, high school graduations, harvest dances and local fundraisers since 1934.
Although proceeds from the Beef and Beans Barbecue go toward the hall's upkeep, the barbecue itself predates the establishment of the structure, according to Mattole historian Laura Cooskey. Cooskey's research finds mention of an annual celebration for the Fourth of July dating back at least a century, originally held on the North Fork of the Mattole River and then moved to the property of Arthur W. Way, now a titular county park next door to the Grange. The Grange was established in 1934, but burned down that same year. Reconstruction began in earnest that winter and the founders celebrated a timely finish with a barbecue that July.
For as long as I can remember Claire Trower, an accomplished soprano and the dispatcher for the Honeydew Volunteer Fire Department, has sung the National Anthem at noon on the day of the barbecue (held on the Sunday closest to the actual fourth). After the applause, announcements are made about the day's events (footraces for the kids, a raffle by the Women's Club) as people shuffle to form two lines that lead up to the pit and the grill. From the pit, a giant cast iron pot is winched into the light. The smell of baked beans wafts over the crowd, most of whom are patiently waiting in line with pots and pans. Cooskey offers up a bit of mythology: This is the same pot the Grange has been using since the 1930s.
"There's no way to prove it," she says. "But I never saw any notes in the Grange records that we ever ordered another one."
The origins of the bean recipe are less apocryphal. According to Lori Cook, who has been in charge of the beef and beans for 20 years now alongside her husband John, the recipe was passed down by Mattole old timers Mae Bugbee (1906-2001) and Miss Katie Cummings (1890-1974). Miss Katie, a schoolteacher and tax collector, is never referenced without her full title, which also adorns a local bridge. Cook says the recipe is no secret, although it has been amended to include garlic, something Bugbee was never a fan of.
Preparing for the big day is a sprint for the Cooks, who do their shopping on Thursday, soak the beans Friday morning, start the fire on Saturday morning and bury the beans by noon. (The beef cooks for less time, going into the ground at 6 a.m. Sunday.)
"Saturday's a long day," Cook says. On Sunday they serve the beans by the ladleful to the line of attendees, which usually stretches out from under the treeline into the hot midday sun. John Cook and his crew use pitchforks to spear roasts from a nearby grate onto a cutting table, where the slightest slice of a knife will break the tender meat into juicy chunks studded with perfectly roasted garlic. (We can imagine Mae Bugbee's shudder.) Once everyone is served, they usually sell the remaining roasts.
On July 8, the Cooks held a small ceremony to celebrate the changing of the guard, with Lori passing the bean paddle to Shannon Dupret and John passing the pitchfork to Todd Hennings. They aren't completely stepping down from the job, but Lori Cook said it's time to make sure someone else knew how to carry on in their absence. Dupret and Hennings shadowed them this year and will take the helm on Labor Day weekend. Lori Cook has compiled and printed a book with recipes and instructions, which will also be for sale that weekend. Bring your Tupperware, plan for leftovers.
Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.