Cowboys are different than you and me, especially after they’ve been drinking. You don’t want to screw up their dinner, that’s for sure. They’ll come at you with murder in their eyes.
I know this from personal experience, a long-repressed memory that came flooding back recently when I took a wrong turn in Happy Valley and wound up driving by The Branding Iron restaurant in Cottonwood.
Back in 1983, right after I got out of the Navy, I worked as the night cook at The Branding Iron for a grand total of three nights. The place is situated on the Shasta County Livestock Auction grounds. I’d completely forgotten my abbreviated tenure at the restaurant when boom, there it was, passing by my window.
I returned two days later, on my motorcycle, in case I needed to get out of there fast. You never know with these cowboys. It was Friday, auction day, the air dank from the odor of steer manure. I flashed back more than three decades, to the first night I turned up for work at The Branding Iron, wondering if I’d ever get used to the stench. I never did. Or, at least I never got the chance.
There’s a certain Hollywood-movie-set quality to the Shasta County Livestock Auction’s architecture, with the restaurant being the prime example. The signage on the light brown cutout facade is generic but effective: “Restaurant.” Other facilities on the premises are similarly labeled according to their function. The whole place feels older than 1966, the year the Peek family established the auction, but it is in fact younger than me.
It does say “The Branding Iron” on the glass door entering the place, and the interior is filled with exactly the same cowboy art and ranch memorabilia that was hanging on the walls 34 years ago, when I briefly worked here. Back then, it seemed rather quaint, but I was just out of the Navy and had been heavily citified during my service.
Now the hundreds of cattle brands displayed on the wall symbolize to me a way of life that persists still, despite the vanishing American cowboy meme that’s been around as long as I can remember. I’m not – nor will I ever be – a cowboy, but I grew up with real cowboys in southern Idaho and eastern Washington, and recognize and appreciate the type.
The nice lady who served me a Diet Coke turned out to be the wife of manager Chad Carter, who was busy working the auction. They’ve only been running the restaurant the past several years, but she did confirm my memory that back in the day, it was open 24 hours.
That’s what it was like getting out of the Navy in the early 1980s. President Ronald Reagan canceled unemployment payments for honorably discharged veterans, and the only job I could land in Shasta County was on the night shift in this godforsaken hellhole. Thank you for your service.
That’s how I saw it then, anyway. Short-order cook was several steps down the ladder from engine room supervisor, my gig in the Navy. Not that I didn’t have significant cooking skills. I’d worked in a restaurant during high school, and prided myself on my abilities, particularly with breakfast, which was the main attraction on the night shift at The Branding Iron.
I also considered myself an expert at making chicken-fried steak, another menu mainstay and the unlikely cause of my demise.
To make the perfect chicken-fried steak, start with a fresh piece of cube steak, a cutting board and three medium-sized rectangular pans, filled respectively with flour, buttermilk mixed with two whole eggs, and bread crumbs.
Cover the cube steak with flour, shake it off, and smash it flat with your hand on the cutting board. Dip the flattened steak into the buttermilk mixture, thoroughly coating it, then cover it with breadcrumbs. Shake it off then smash it flat again. Now it’s ready to fry.
Squirt an abundance of oil on the grill and gently place the steak in oil. Squirt oil on top of the steak as well, so it won’t stick when you flip it. When the blood comes through the top, flip the steak and cook it till the bottom is as golden brown as the top. Add seasoning salt. Voila! The best chicken-fried steak you’ve ever had.
That’s how we did it at the restaurant where I worked during high school. We made it up fresh. But when I was working at The Branding Iron, the chicken-fried steaks were made in advance, then frozen. The idea was you were supposed to thaw it out in the microwave before you cooked it, but no one had relayed that instruction to me, the new kid on the block.
Oh, cherished workplace memories. I sat at the counter, drank my Diet Coke, perused the menu, and sure enough, it’s still on there, chicken-fried steak, with country gravy, $12.49.
I could see right back into the kitchen where it all happened, from the window slot where cooks and waitress exchange orders for plates of food. A massive set of bull horns still hangs over the slot. From the outside the bullhorns give the kitchen the appearance of a fortified bunker.
The reality is, there’s a side entrance and someone could easily corner you in there, should he be drunk enough and feel inclined to do so. Which is exactly what happened with the dude who ordered the chicken-fried steak on my third and final graveyard shift.
No one had ordered it the first two nights, and this is when I discovered the chicken-fried steaks were frozen in advance. The bar crowd was in from the OK Corral down Main Street and it was busy as hell, mostly breakfast orders. The frozen steak tossed me for a loop. What was I supposed to do with it?
I squirted oil on the grill, chucked the frozen meat on the grill, squirted oil on it, and threw a cover over it, hoping that somehow it would thaw out and cook all the way through before the breading burned. I squirted water under the cover to steam-heat the procedure.
I can honestly say that going out the window, it looked to me like a perfectly cooked chicken-fried steak, at least on the outside.
Five minutes later, when the waitress handed it back to me through the window, that was clearly not the case. The customer had cut into it, revealing a bloody mess still frozen in the middle, red rivulets congealing in the pool of gravy around it.
Through the window, I could see the customer, seated at one of the tables along the far wall, gesticulating angrily in my direction, although I could not decipher his remarks with all the crowd and kitchen noise.
He was a cowboy, a silver-haired guy, wearing blue jeans, a gingham shirt, trucker boots and of course a black cowboy hat. I presumed the woman sitting across from him was his wife, she looked the right age.
He had every right to complain. He’d cut into what looked like a perfectly cooked chicken-fried steak only to discover it was not just raw, it was still frozen. I felt totally embarrassed. I should have known better.
I told the waitress to have him sit tight, another steak was coming right up. That, of course, was a lie. Just three days on the job, my skills were rusty. The idea that I might thaw the frozen cutlet in the microwave, then grill it, never occurred to me. I knew it was going to take a good 20 minutes to fully cook it on the grill, and I hoped the cowboy would have that much patience.
He didn’t. With five minutes to go, I heard a commotion from out in the dining area. Someone was shouting something along the lines of never coming back to the joint again. It was the cowboy. Through the window, I could see the wife, who was trying to calm him down as he flapped his arms and attempted to stand up. Attempted, because he was so drunk, he slipped and fell to the floor.
Here, in retrospect, it probably would have been better if I’d said nothing at all; just let him stagger out of the restaurant. As he got back to his feet, I could see he was short, one of those bantam rooster cowboys who always has something to prove, especially when they’ve been drinking.
Will I ever learn to just shut the heck up?
“Hey, mister! It’s almost ready!” I yelled out the kitchen window helpfully.
He instantly stormed toward the kitchen like a tornado. I was about to be reaped by the whirlwind and didn’t have much time to react. I pulled the basket out of the deep-fat frier, grabbed a nearby sauce pan, ladled up a pan full of 400-degree fry grease, and was cocked and waiting for him when he entered the kitchen doorway, glaring at me with pure drunk hatred.
“One more step, mister, and you’re gonna get it,” I said shakily, indicated the pan of hot oil. I wasn’t sure if he could put two-and-two together, so I added, with a little more authority, “Get the hell out of my kitchen!”
He continued glaring at me like I was an extremely disagreeable insect. The crowd inside the restaurant had gone silent. Outside I could hear the plaintive bleating of cattle in the stockyard, destined for slaughter. As I was wondering what I was going to do if the hot oil didn’t stop him, he finally spoke, as malevolent a hiss as I’ve ever heard.
“You wouldn’t make a pimple on a cook’s ass,” he sneered.
Then he turned on his heel and stormed out of the kitchen, snatching up his wife by the elbow on the way out the restaurant door and disappearing into the night.
The restaurant quickly settled down, like that sort of thing happens every day, which maybe it did, back then. I don’t really know, because I didn’t stick around very long.
After the bar crowd went home, I began doing the prep work for the morning crew, still rattled by my encounter with the cowboy. Deep down, I couldn’t shake the feeling he was right. I was less than a pimple on a cook’s ass.
That explains why sometime during the night, I mixed up the gravy and the clam chowder on the steam table. Both were stored in unmarked plastic containers, both were cream-colored gelatinous pastes when cold, and without labels, how was I supposed to know the difference without actually tasting it?
If indeed there was a difference. I served six customers biscuits and clam chowder with nary a complaint. No one even noticed the switch until the head cook came in the morning. She fired me on the spot.
I was relieved, to be honest. I wasn’t sure I could face another shift.
So that’s it, The Branding Iron incident. I have to say, the place looks far more inviting from where I’m sitting nowadays, the customer-side of the counter. The menu has expanded; they’re using local beef, and the cowboy atmosphere remains authentic. There are people who still do this, raise cattle for a living, and you can find them here just about any day of the week.
I can assure you, almost none of them are drunk, most of the time. They’re too busy working.
I searched the old photos on The Branding Iron’s walls for my cowboy, to no avail. Who knows if he’s even still alive? If he is, I’d like to thank him, for showing me my place in the world, or at least where my place isn’t.
The Branding Iron is located at 3917 N. Main Street in Cottonwood. Hours are 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sun-Tues.