The Billings Outpost

Old memories, new challenges on MLK Day

By SHARIE PYKE - For The Outpost

It was Lent, 1965. We were Presbyterians, high school juniors and seniors, kids from the suburbs. Our pastor, George Ramsey, had taken us into Detroit to attend a Lenten service in an old, beautiful church. We were ushered to the back of the balcony, a symbolic back of the bus.

It also made us less conspicuous. We were about the only white people there. I remember an atmosphere of hostility, and the face of one very pretty woman who one looked up at us and glared.

The service started. Nothing stands out in my memory until a large black man in a suit climbed up the stairs of the carved stone pulpit. Who is this man, I wondered. He began to read.

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’

“And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.  

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11: 5-9.).

The preacher was Martin Luther King Jr. He was not a particularly handsome man, nor did he possess the charm of a TV preacher, but he was intense and compelling. His voice, without a microphone, easily reached to every corner of the old church as he began his sermon.

“Knock,” he said. “Knock. You don’t tear down the door. You knock. And your Brothah, (pause) your Brothah, (pause) I say, your BROTHAH will give you bread.”

Dr. King didn’t just talk a good talk, he walked the walk: in Montgomery, Selma, in Detroit, in front of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial, without a flak jacket, until James Earl Raye assassinated him. It takes great courage to choose to face death and not fight back.

Just two years later, on July 23, 1967, in what became known as the Long, Hot Summer, Detroit erupted into violence. Centuries of suppressed anger won out over Dr. King’s plea for reason and nonviolence. Looters smashed windows and helped themselves to whatever appealed: TVs, furniture, groceries, clothing.  Most of the inner city black community, along with their white counterparts, huddled inside their homes. The heat and humidity added to everyone’s misery.  Detroit has never been same.

That long-ago violence in 157 American cities settled nothing. Now, almost half a century later, the protests, both violent and peaceful, radiating from Ferguson, Missouri, tell us that, indeed, nothing is finished. So far, no modern day Martin Luther King has come forward to provide a meeting ground for groups with opposing viewpoints.

Christ taught his disciples to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.”  In the Judeo-Christian Bible, bread is the symbol for all God’s gifts, not just food – for grace, for life itself. “And who is my brother?” asked the Pharisees. Jesus answered them with the story of the Good Samaritan: Your enemy is your brother, the foreigner is your brother, and you must give him whatever he needs.

But right now, no one is giving unto anyone. The Great Recession has turned us all into misers. The land of plenty, with amber waves of grain, has become the land of stubble. I hate to admit this, but I have several bags of dried legumes and several pounds of rice, “just in case.” To paraphrase J.B. Phillips, my God is too small. I, too, need a spiritual adjustment.

When they collect the offering at All Nations Church here in Billings, they sing “You can’t beat God’s givin,’ no matter how hard you try.” On this Martin Luther King Day, let us all, wherever we fit in our city, be gracious to each other. Let us operate out of faith, not out of fear.

Can I hear an amen?

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 January 2015 14:04

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Rocky professor weighs evidence of Custer’s son

By ADRIAN JAWORT - For The Outpost

When Rocky Mountain College history Professor Tim Lehman included the potentially controversial statement that George Armstrong Custer had a son with a Cheyenne woman in his book, “Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations,” it wasn’t put in to create controversy.

It was merely one part of his research of the best sources he could gather, and he decided he couldn’t leave it out once all the facts were added up.

“I just go by the best evidence I can,” he said. “There are a number of oral traditions passed on through the Cheyenne people with different families and branches that all talk about that. It’s consistent with all the evidence.”

But since the time of Custer’s death, propaganda to portray Custer as a Christ-like hero of Manifest Destiny had always been an agenda. Custer’s grieving widow, Elizabeth “Libbie” Custer, garnered so much sympathy from the U.S. public and military that rarely anyone spoke ill of Custer. She wrote three books on her husband that, according to Lehman, “silenced his critics and elevated his claim to greatness.”

Any personal knowledge of a Cheyenne mistress - especially one with whom he fathered a child with named Yellow Swallow - would eventually be thrown into the ash heap of history as Libbie would live to be 90 years old, outliving most whites with potential knowledge of the affair.

Recorded native oral history, however, has several sources that Custer had a son named Yellow Swallow with a woman whom Custer called Monahseetah (Meotzi). She considered him her husband and was devoted to him. Lehman says that although many people are dismissive of oral accounts because they can have variances, there were more than enough overlapping stories about Meotzi and Custer’s son to conclude it couldn’t be dismissed.

“I guess the fans of Custer want to ‘see no evil,’” Lehman said of those most often dismissive of the evidence. Their agenda to whitewash history and view Custer as a saintlike martyr loyal to Libbie would be skewed. Likewise, it would be odd for natives since he’s often viewed as the ultimate manifestation of villain.

After the 1868 Washita River Massacre, Custer kept captured women and children as POWs for four months. Meotzi birthed a baby two months into captivity, but could have gotten impregnated by Custer afterward. She was employed by him as an interpreter even though she couldn’t speak English.

In 1927 a cousin of Meotzi’s, Kate Bighead, recounted to Thomas Marquis in detail how after the Washita Massacre she first saw Custer in the spring of 1869 when he smoked a peace pipe with Cheyenne chiefs, promising he’d never attack them again.

“I was then a young woman, 22-years-old, and I admired him,” she said. “All of the Indian women talked of him as being a fine-looking man.”

Bighead detailed how Meozi was sought after by Cheyenne men because of her beauty – which also was described at length in a letter by Custer himself.

“She said that Long Hair (Custer) was her husband; that he promised to come back to her, and that she would wait for him,” Bighead recounted. “She waited seven years, and then he was killed.”

Joseph White Cow Bull, an Oglala Lakota and veteran of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, told David Humphreys Miller in 1938 about meeting Meotzi in 1876. He tried to court Meotzi and recounted seeing Yellow Swallow, a boy with light streaks in his hair.

“They said the boy’s father had been a white soldier chief named Long Hair; he had killed her father, Chief Black Kettle [at the Washita River Massacre] eight winters before, they said, and captured her. He had told her he wanted to make her his second wife, and so he had her,” he said.

“She was in her middle twenties but had never married any man of her tribe. Some of my Shahiyela (Cheyenne) friends said she was from the southern branch of their tribe, just visiting up north, and they said no Shahiyela could marry her because she had a seven-year-old son born out of wedlock.”

Unlike many other troopers who fell during the Battle of The Little Bighorn, Custer’s dead body was spared from drastic mutilation – Custer’s brother Tom had his head smashed in flat by a Lakota warrior, Rain In the Face, who had a personal vendetta against him, for instance - because some Cheyenne women recognized him as father to one of their own, according to Bighead.

“In a kinship society like the Cheyenne, that means a lot,” Lehman said.

The mutilation that did occur to Custer was ritualized, according to Bighead. His trigger finger was cut off, and sewing awls were stuck in his ears to “enable him to hear better in the afterlife,” she said.

Bighead said Neotzi mourned hard upon the news of Custer’s death, cutting her hair and slashing her arms. She was heartbroken that the man she’d considered her husband had to be killed by her own tribe and allies after he broke his peace pipe promise to never attack them again.

Last Updated on Thursday, 01 January 2015 16:28

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Changing face of Cuban food adapts to politics



Eleven years ago on New Year’s Day, I arrived in Cuba with a group of students from the University of Montana in tow. We were there on a hard-to-get educational permit. Our goal was to get a handle on the state of Cuba’s agriculture system, which, thanks to geopolitical circumstances, had been thrust in an aggressively organic direction. We also wanted to get our mouths around some Cuban food, and our minds around the enigma that is Cuba.

Now, with President Obama’s recent steps taken toward normalizing relations with Cuba, it will be interesting to see how the Cuban food system, as well as the rest of the country, changes.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s agriculture system was characterized by monocultures of sugar and tobacco.

These crops were sent to the U.S.S.R. in exchange for gas, food, agrichemicals, and equipment. At the time, Cuba boasted the most tractors per capita of any nation on earth. When the Soviet Union tanked, Cuba suddenly had to grow a lot more than sugar and tobacco, but without the inputs and supplies on which it had grown dependent.

Politicians in the U.S. saw this as an opportunity to tighten the noose on Castro’s regime, and made the embargo more severe by passing the 1993 Torricelli Bill (aka the Cuban Democracy Act), which made it illegal for U.S. companies to do business with foreign subsidiaries that did business with Cuba. This isolated the nation even more. The average Cuban’s caloric intake dropped to as low as 1,000 calories per day. Fertility rates dropped and abortion rates climbed.

The Cuban government began breaking up the large state-owned plantations and putting them in the hands of the workers, who turned many of them into vegetable farms, orchards, and animal pasture. In cities, vacant lots, yards and rooftops were converted to gardens.

Agroecology, a powerful agricultural paradigm in which farms are treated as ecosystems, took firm root in Cuba. Farmers markets appeared, becoming one of the first signs of the emergence of a free market in Cuba.

The resourcefulness with which Cuba attacked its food issues was reflected in many other ways that Cuba dealt with scarcity. Cuba functioned as if the world was actually a finite place, with limited resources, and the mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” went without saying. Broken tools, and appliances that most Americans would toss were repaired.

Anything with wheels was put on the road.

Despite long odds, the people were fed. Average caloric intake rose above 2,500 per day.

Infant mortality dropped to lower levels than in the U.S. But these impressive metrics came with a hefty price tag in terms of civil liberties. It was a common occurrence for members of our group to be pulled aside and told, in hushed tones, about the government spies, the threat of prison, and lack of freedom and opportunity.

Along with sharing their dissatisfaction with their own government, many Cubans also vented frustration with ours. In addition to the material hardships caused by the embargo, there was a widespread pain at the loss of contact with their neighbors to the north. Cubans, by and large, love and respect Americans, and the embargo hurt their feelings.

We made a lot of friends in Cuba, smoked some fine cigars, heard some amazing music, and ate some surprisingly bland food.

Given the agricultural strides Cuba has made, the underwhelming food surprised me. One of the world’s hottest peppers, the habanero, is named after residents of Havana, but the cuisine was devoid of spice.

“We don’t eat them here,” I was told.

Not that I’m conflating piquancy with flavor. But the food was largely so boring that any spice surely would have helped. This isn’t to say that Cuban food is inherently bland, but that the Cuban flavor has gone into hiding - holing up in some private homes, and offshore, but rarely found in restaurants. There were some very notable exceptions, like the El Romero vegan restaurant in Las Terrezas, a welcome and inspiring respite to the steady diet of pork we were fed. But more often, it seemed as if the years of repression had suffocated the culinary soul of Cuba, and most of the cooks who had grown up during the embargo didn’t really know what to do with the newly emerging diversity of produce.

Hopefully, along with increased freedom and opportunity, normalizations with Cuba will allow some flavor back into the lives of ordinary Cubans. But at the same time, the advances made in Cuban agriculture may be threatened by the availability of fossil fuel-based farming practices, and diverse, agroecological systems might revert to monocultures. I hope not.

I’ll leave you with a recipe for Sopa de Ajo, or garlic soup. There aren’t any hot peppers, but the paprika hints at the Spanish roots of Cuban cuisine. The recipe comes from the wonderful cookbook “Three Guys from Miami Cook Cuban” (Gibbs Smith).

Sopa de Ajo


3 tablespoons olive oil

6 slices white bread, cubed

12 garlic cloves, minced

1 28-ounce can peeled whole tomatoes, drained and chopped

1 teaspoon paprika

1 bay leaf

4 cups chicken stock

¼ cup sherry

6 eggs, yolks and whites separated


Sauté cubes of bread in hot oil in a pot until they begin to brown. Stir in minced garlic and sauté for another minute – just long enough to cook the garlic slightly. Mash the garlic and the bread together with a spoon.

Add tomatoes, paprika, bay leaf, stock and sherry. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for one hour. Salt and pepper to taste.

Separate the eggs, add three tablespoons of the hot broth to the egg yolks, beating constantly, to temper them. Add egg yolks to the broth and whisk in rapidly until smooth.

Quickly whisk in the unbeaten egg whites until mixed completely. Bring the soup to a boil, remove from heat. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Last Updated on Thursday, 01 January 2015 14:53

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One Night Before Christmas


‘Twas a night before Christmas and all through Montan’

Not a cowpoke was pokin’, not one lonesome ranch hand.

We all had concluded our afternoon chores,

We had eaten our beans and had toasted s’mores.

We had washed behind ears and had slicked down our hair

And had flossed our brushed teeth with the greatest of care.

All our boots was arrayed ’round the dimmin’ camp fire

Hopin’ Santa would fill ’em with our hearts’ desire.

Now we all was bunked down ’neath our warm wool bedrolls

With our piggies a pokin’ through our stockings’ toe holes.

With our heads on our saddles and our backs to the ground

We was wheezin’ and snorin’ a Christmas time round.

When out on the prairie there arose such commotion

That it shook me from slumber with a perplexin’ notion

That somethin’ peculiar was about to begin

And I weren’t real sure o’ what trouble we ’as in.

So outta my bedroll like a rattler I sprang

And I grabbed for my rifle so as to take aim

At whatever was causin’ that riotous sound

When to my surprise ol’ Santa flew round.

He was driving a buckboard, the Xmas Xpress,

Nary touchin’ the ground with all its excess

Of presents and such stacked in and upon

And I gawked there before him with just my spurs on.

(And my long-johns, o’ course, ’cause I always sleep in ’em;

I do hope their mention offends none o’ the women.)


With the stars in the heavens and the sagebrush around

He pulled up the buckboard and gently touched down.

Then quick as a rabbit round them boots he did spring

Fillin’ them to the brims with the nicest of things:

For Lefty, a lasso and pink bubblegum;

For Dusty, a stick-on tattoo of his mum;

For Cookie, a wine rack and a pan for bread dough;

And for Shorty, suspenders so his butt-crack don’t show.

And for Juan, the vaquero up from Mexico way,

The most amazingest gift that I’ve seen till this day:

A beach towel displayed with a luminous scene

Of Guadalupe, Our Lady, atop a moonbeam!

When having completed his cowboy camp chore

St. Nicholas chuckled and circled once more

Ticklin’ all o’ them piggies pokin’ out o’ them socks

And awinkin’ at me standin’ there still in shock.

Then mountin’ the buckboard, his Christmas conveyance,

He shouted out to his hosses that had stood in abeyance,

“Giddyup my bold broncos, my steadfast ol’ team,

O’er mountain and prairie and forest and stream

We have yet to travel this miraculous night

And we’re racin’ to beat the dawnin’s first light.”

Then he held fast the reins and he sat himself back

And he gave me a nod and a tip o’ the hat

And with a big grin gave this parting adieu,

“Merry Christmas to all o’ you ol’ buckaroos!”

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 December 2014 12:59

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It’s never too late to have a merry Christmas

Ah, distinctly I remember,

It was in the bleak December,

And each separate, dying ember

wrought its ghost upon the floor ...

Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore.’

– Edgar Allan Poe

By SHARIE PYKE - For The Outpost

The raven is my friend. Memories and ghosts fill my Christmas, gifts from the past. And the most treasured gifts have been the kind that don’t come wrapped in sparkly paper.

I grew up in Detroit, so trees came from a lot, not the forest. I can’t remember anyone, back in the 1950s and ’60s, having an artificial tree.  Christmas smelled like fresh fir.

At our house, there was no such thing as an imperfect tree. The salesman always threw in some extra branches, and my dad and grandpa would drill holes in the bare spots and insert a branch here and there.

Dad put the lights on with painstaking precision. We hung no ornaments until he was satisfied. Then we could take our turn. Tinsel back then was made of tin foil, and then a few years later, of aluminum.

This, too, we put on strand by strand. We were wildly extravagant, buying new packages every year. Some of our neighbors and used it over the next year.

My mother came home one year, a day or two before Christmas, with the best tree ever: a gigantic Scotch pine.

The tree salesman cut the price to practically nothing because it was so large that he hadn’t been able to sell it. We lived in a late Victorian home with 9-foot ceilings, but the tree was still too tall and too wide.

We took the leaves out of the dining room table and moved it to a far wall. After Dad and grandpa hacked off the bottom, the pine slid partly into the bay window, but it still took up half the room.

Another year, my brother and I created a faux stained-glass manger scene on the triptych of our front windows using tempera paints. The project took hours and hours. Our father then backlit the window with his photographic flood lights.

We entered our work in the Christmas lighting contest for the local paper, sure that we’d win. Predictably, first and second place went to electrical  extravaganzas, but we took third. I was disappointed that we didn’t take first. The children in our family were expected to earn straight A’s. 

Other memories have the bleakness of Poe’s raven. The Christmas I was 19, 1967, I had knee surgery. I was still in the hospital, in a ward, when my father came to tell me that my grandfather had died at the same hospital.  After he left, I cried, whether from physical pain or grief, I don’t know.  Probably both.

A nice, traditionally built, black nurse came to ask me what was wrong. I remember her compassion. She sat down on my bed and put an arm around me. I’m sure that she was flesh and blood, but sometimes God shows up with skin on.  Was she an angel?

Most families have food traditions. We dined on oyster stew on Christmas Eve.  The oysters were special order, to be eaten with equally special little round crackers.

But the name stew was misleading. It was whole milk topped with butter and salt and pepper. My dad relished this, but I can’t think of anything more blah.

I would call oyster stew the German equivalent of lutefisk. But we all ate it because that’s what we did. Tradition!

Also in the German tradition, we didn’t get to open our presents until Christmas morning. We were allowed one present after church, then had to go to bed and try to sleep. When we woke up the next morning, usually just after our parents had fallen into bed, we could open our stockings, and then we had to wait. We were not to get the grown-ups up until 7 a.m.

The gifts weren’t as important in my memories as the expectation. We took turns opening presents, but by 10 a.m. it was all over. I always felt let down, that whatever I’d been seeking hadn’t arrived. Surely there was one more box.

Now I celebrate Christmas with few presents, I seldom cook an extravagant meal, and I am often alone for the day. This year I have a small, hand-blown Christmas tree that I bought at St. Vincent de Paul. One of the tiny ornaments is missing, which is probably why someone donated it. I may or may not get out my crèche.

But nothing is missing any more. My hollow center has been filled with the Spirit and I have peace and a quiet happiness. It is enough. I am enough.

I know that there are many reading this who had childhood celebrations filled with anger and chaos. But just as you can start your day over at any time, you can reinvent Christmas as well.

Light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Forget your age. Buy yourself the toy you never received and play with it.

If the turkey always resulted in a fight, shun that angry bird and have filet mignon. Or even sushi. It’s your choice. Be brave, live recklessly, be joyful.

We started with the Raven. Let us now finish with Tiny Tim. Merry Christmas!  And God bless us every one!

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 December 2014 12:47

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Creme Anglaise: A tasty way to get your eggnog


The French didn’t earn a reputation for culinary sensibility by accident. One example that comes to mind this time of year - and one in which eggnog lovers might be especially interested – is the French attitude toward Crème Anglaise. Namely, they consume it year-round.

Crème Anglaise, which translates literally to “English Cream,” is sold in liter-sized boxes at the store, and appears on many dessert menus, where it functions more as a sauce than a drink. When I’m in Paris, no matter the season, I guzzle the stuff like it’s the night before Christmas, even though unlike true eggnog it contains only yolk, but no egg white.

Nor does Crème Anglaise contain booze, or spices like nutmeg. But if eggnog is what you’re after, you could do much worse than use Crème Anglaise as a base. And if you fold in stiff egg whites, as I describe below, in all likelihood your eggnog will rule the Christmas party.

“Crème Anglaise” was one of the few bits of the local tongue that I picked up in France, and being able to say those words took me to some very happy places. The phrase also got me out of a potentially sad place on one occasion.

At Charles de Gaulle airport I was confronted by security agents who noticed several packages of viscous fluid in a scan of my luggage. As I explained that the thick liquid was “Crème Anglaise,” the agents broke into excited chatter.

“Blah blah blah le Crème Anglaise

blah blah blah le Américain

blah blah oui oui, le Crème Anglaise.”

They sent me on my way with pats on my back, words of encouragement, and for all I know recipe advice. My bags were checked through, Crème Anglaise and all.

But I have no illusions over how close I came to losing my Crème Anglaise in Paris. Had there been a hot Moelleux au Chocolat in the vicinity - a French-style chocolate muffin with molten chocolate inside – those viscous liquids would surely have been deemed a security risk, one that could only be defused by a party in the break room.

Crème Anglaise is a thin sauce, and when poured over things it looks like spilled paint. For a neater presentation it is often served as a puddle on a plate, in which the likes of pie, or Moelleux au Chocolat, is placed. The French call this presentation île flottante, which means floating island.

This holiday season, perhaps the approach advocated on the “Menopausal Stoners’” blog is more your style: “After you make the Crème Anglaise, mix in the Five Dirty Browns: rum, bourbon, cognac, brandy and some other whiskey. We’re going to mix up a batch and invite that tasty boiler repair man over for cocktails.”

Indeed, Crème Anglaise tastes so much like eggnog that most people wouldn’t notice the difference. And many traditional eggnog recipes essentially start with Crème Anglaise.

Sans the spices and booze, Crème Anglaise is less committed than eggnog, with more ways in which it can be used. Whatever the occasion, from dessert to Christmas Eve to an evening on the Menopausal Stoners’ basement couch, Crème Anglaise is a good place to start.


Crème Anglaise, with Eggnog Anglaise variation


This recipe takes about 20 minutes, start to finish. For one cup:

½ cup milk

½ cup heavy cream

3 eggs

2 Tablespoons vanilla

2 inches of a vanilla pod, split down the middle and seeds

removed. (Alternatively, use 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract).

In a thick-bottomed saucepan, heat milk, cream and vanilla on medium. Stir often to prevent scalding.

Meanwhile, separate three eggs. Use a fork to stir the sugar into the yolks, along with a pinch of salt. Keep stirring until everything is fully combined.

When the cream mixture reaches a simmer, pour a thin stream into the yolk and sugar mixture. Stir vigorously while pouring slowly, a little at a time, in order to temper the yolks, so they don’t curdle when heated. Stir out all the lumps each time before adding more cream.

Once all the hot cream has been incorporated into the egg yolks, remove the vanilla pod, wash the pan, and return the mixture to it on low heat. Ideally, use a double boiler. It should heat very slowly, not coming close to a simmer. The sauce will quickly thicken. After 5-10 minutes, with much stirring, remove heat. If you heat and thicken it too much at this point it can form a pudding, which will curdle if stirred.

If you make it a day ahead of time, even less heating, and a thinner finished product is advisable, as Crème Anglaise will thicken in the fridge. Many recipes advise that the Crème Anglaise be prepared the day before.

Before cooling, some cooks will push it through a sieve with a rubber spatula, to remove any curdles. Just remember to lick the sieve.

Allow the Crème Anglaise to cool to room temperature, and then refrigerate until use. The whites of your separated eggs remain, and present some interesting opportunities. True eggnog contains egg whites, and who wouldn’t want to blend a puddle of thin, colorless protein slime into their Crème Anglaise?

Fortunately, there is a very good way to do so. Beat those leftover egg whites until they’re stiff, and fold them into the Crème Anglaise. The result is so puffy and airy that it hardly qualifies as a drink. The stiff whites provide a royal, heavenly body to the subtle, exquisitely pleasing flavor. It’s like sipping a sweet cloud.

Spike, and spice, as you see fit. In last night’s ‘nog, I went with a pinch of nutmeg and a splash of Frangelico Italian hazelnut liquor. That worked great.

And for the rest of the year, consider doing what the French do: enjoy Crème Anglaise any time you want, and maybe not always with booze (without the raw whites, it’s a cooked product). With so many ways that some Crème Anglaise in the fridge to bring someone closer to a happy place, it’s a good thing to have around. In fact, there’s Crème Anglaise in my coffee right now. Café Anglaise, anyone?


photos by Ari LeVaux

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 December 2014 12:45

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The Crazies: A dramatic island of mountains

“It’s a good country. Where a man can sit in his saddle and see … all across to the west stretch the Crazies, and, swinging in the stirrups, a man has to throw back his head to follow their abrupt shoulders up to the white crests of the peaks. A pretty clean country where a man can see a long way and have something to see.”

– Spike Van Cleve in “Forty Years’ Gatherin’s,” speaking of the view from his ranch

/Yellowstone River near Crazy Mountains

By RICK and SUSIE GRAETZ - University of Montana - Department of Geography

Considered an island range owing to their location separate of the main Northern Rockies, the Crazy Mountains of south central Montana are more akin to the Rockies than they are to the state’s other rounded and more forested isolated ranges. The valleys of the Yellowstone and Shields rivers set them well apart from the Absarokas to the south and the Bridgers on the west. They are only about 30 miles by 15 miles in size, but serve as sentinels on the horizon from many points east.

Here, the transition from prairie to mountains is dramatic. In a 20-mile span from the river bottoms of the Yellowstone to the pinnacle of Crazy Peak, the terrain rises more than 7,000 feet.

These “Crazy Woman Mountains,” as the Native Americans sometimes called them, are crowned by 11,214-foot Crazy Peak. With 25 pinnacles soaring to more than 10,000 feet, they are the third highest range in the state. Ice, wind and water erosion sculptured them and created the more than 40 jewel-like lakes scattered amongst the sharp saw-toothed ridges and alpine basins. Today, only one ice-age remnant remains, Grasshopper Glacier, which clings to a north facing headwall between Cottonwood and Rock lakes on the west perimeter.

Nearly vertical slopes lead to the highest summits and windswept barren ridges. Mountain goats find this terrain to their liking and frequent the steepest areas.

The northern flanks of the Crazy Mountains are gentler, and the vegetation more lush, than the rocky and precipitous southern reaches. The historic Musselshell River has its headwaters here in the north, and the Shields River begins its flow from the sheerer west ramparts. Sweet Grass Creek, heading toward the Yellowstone, rushes out of one of the deep eastern canyons.

There are several stories on how the mountains got their name. One was that a wagon train, coming through the Musselshell Valley, was attacked by Indians. A woman’s family was killed, and it is said that she ran into the mountains to haunt the tribe.

Another has it that a woman settler was separated from her wagon train and wandered into these peaks. People thought that she couldn’t survive without going mad, so the range was dubbed the “Crazy Woman Mountains.” Others claimed it was because they popped up in the middle of nowhere or because of the convoluted geologic formations found there. Take your pick.

The Crazies are significant to Native American culture. In 1847, Chief Plenty Coup, a great chief of the Crow Nation, climbed Crazy Peak to seek a vision so he might properly lead and guide his people.

Although they do not enjoy the lasting protection wilderness status would give them, the extremely rough terrain and the attitude of local ranchers – and lately of the Forest Service – has kept this country pristine and relatively free of roads. Checkerboard ownership places a good portion of the landscape in private hands, including favorite climbing places such as Conical, Granite and Crazy peaks and Rock Lake. Some owners will give permission to enter, but most will not allow motorized use of this wild country ... foot and horse travel only! The same goes for much of the public land.

There isn’t an access shortage, as most of the footpaths traverse Gallatin National Forest ground. One of the most popular routes into the Crazies is reached from Highway 191 between Big Timber and Harlowton via Big Timber Canyon. Beginning at Half Moon Campground, the trail climbs to the high areas around Conical Peak and the Twin Lakes area and then crosses a pass before lowering to Sweetgrass Creek and another trailhead. Tracks also lead to the west side of the range from Wilsall and Clyde Park. There are about 66 miles of horse and walking byways within the Crazy Mountains.

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 December 2014 00:00

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Egan explores key year in Montana’s history

“Montana 1864: Indians, Emigrants and Gold in the Territorial Year,” by Ken Egan Jr. Riverbend Publishing. Paperback, 223 pages.

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

Ken Egan Jr., executive director of Humanities Montana, used to teach at Rocky Mountain College, where I now teach, and his “Hope and Dread in Montana Literature” remains my go-to source when English students lack the right cocktail of those two qualities. Now he has written “Montana 1864,” a breezily readable account of a key year in Montana history.

Why key? Not only was 1864 precisely 150 years ago this year, it also was the year in which Montana became a territory. If Mr. Egan hoped to cash in on sesquicentennial nostalgia, that ship appears to have sailed. But he has much to say about a year when the Civil War was still raging, gold was beckoning,  and Indians were still a force to be reckoned with.

It also was the year in which Henry Plummer, who seemed to regard law enforcement and law breaking as complementary trades, was hanged for his crimes. Future Copper King William Andrews Clark was shipping freight to the mines,  Granville Stuart was on his way to becoming a prominent rancher, and Charlie Russell was born. Also that year, gold was found in Last Chance Gulch.

White settlers were pouring into Montana, making the people who already lived here increasingly nervous. Their voices, including those of Crow Indians Plenty Coups and Pretty Shield, also are heard here.

The book is filled with familiar names, but many of the stories and sources will be new to all but the most dedicated students of Montana history. A rich selection of photographs and quotations adds further depth.

 Mr. Egan has an engaging style, and while his mix of original sources and his own present-tense narration can occasionally be confusing, time spent with this book is well spent, both entertaining and informative.

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 December 2014 10:45

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Billings-based boxing novel falls a little short

“The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter,” by Craig Lancaster. Lake Union Publishing, 286 pages.

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

Craig Lancaster’s first novel about Edward Stanton, “600 Hours of Edward,” was a promising start. His second Edward Stanton book, “Edward Adrift,” was even better, with passages very near to poetry.

Between those two came another novel, “The Summer Son,” which struck me as predictable and derivative, and a fine collection of short stories, “Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure,” which I thought put him into the first rank of working Montana writers, and probably working harder than any of them.

Now comes “The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter,” an inviting novel that is nevertheless a mild disappointment.

There is much here to like: the setting, which is in Billings; the writing style, which is as hard-boiled as an eight-minute egg; and the title character, a failed boxer struggling to put his life back together.

That’s about as clichéd a premise as American prose offers, but this isn’t “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (although Rod Serling’s famous teleplay does make an appearance). Despite years in the ring, Hugo Hunter is no punch-drunk fighter. He has a certain wit about him, and talents that stretch beyond putting on boxing gloves.

But he keeps fighting well beyond the point where it makes sense, another addiction in an armory of addictions.

This would be a stronger book if it contained more of Hugo Hunter and less of Mark Westerly, the fictitious sports writer who has dedicated much of his career to covering Hunter’s career. Westerly has long since abandoned all pretense of objectivity when it comes to covering his biggest story, and he has his own personal demons to jab against.

It’s just that his demons are far less interesting than Hunter’s. He gripes about his bosses at The Billings Herald-Gleaner; he suffers from a failed marriage; and he falls in love again, so we are told, but never quite believe it. I found myself wanting to skip past his scenes to get back to the guy the book was named for.

In fact, about halfway through, I suffered a Kafka attack, which can be treated only by abandoning everything else and digging into Franz Kafka for a few days. I don’t know why this happens; as Kafka himself said, it isn’t the song of the sirens that is so irresistible, it’s their silence. As with much of Kafka, I don’t know what that means. I just know that when Kafka calls, I have to go.

None of that detracts from Mr. Lancaster’s considerable achievements. He is a top-notch stylist, and his occasional missteps, it seems to me, point less to his limitations than to his still formidable potential. Keep punching, Craig.

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 December 2014 10:37

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Winter book roundup

By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost

“Spirit of Steamboat” and “Wait for Signs,” both by Craig Johnson. Viking.

Shoppers for last-minute Christmas presents could do worse than to pick up one, or both, of  these two quick reads by the creator of Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire, now the title character in a TV drama.

“Steamboat” is no mystery at all but a quick retreat in time to 1988, when a young Sheriff Longmire recruits the help of former Sheriff Lucian Connally to fly a desperately injured accident victim to Denver. It’s Christmas Eve, the weather is horrible, and the only plane available is a World War II veteran.

There’s no real suspense here, since we meet all the characters, still alive years later, in the first chapter. But Mr. Johnson can spin a tale, and he will have you on the edge of your seat as the plane fights its was to Denver.

“Wait for Signs” is a collection of a dozen Longmire short stories, drawn from stories Mr. Johnson writes every Christmas Eve.  It’s a mixed bag, and an excellent accompaniment to “Steamboat” for Christmas.

“Duck, Duck, Goose,” by Hank Shaw. Ten Speed Press. Hardback, 229 pages. $24.99.

This may look like one of those recipe books designed for the coffee table instead of the kitchen, but don’t be fooled. Mr. Shaw, a food writer, has compiled a serious volume of recipes and techniques for cooking ducks and geese, both wild and domesticated.

That duck on the frontispiece is carved out of wood, but those inside are seriously edible. Sections are included on buying, storing and hanging birds, in whole or in part, with extra chapters on giblets, charcuterie, fat and eggs.  From basic smoked birds to barbecue, soup, casseroles and gumbo, it’s all here.

“Stone Cold,” by C.J. Box. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. 370 pages, hardbound. $26.95.

Year after year, C.J. Box cranks out successful and highly readable novels – 14 novels about fictional Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, plus four standalone novels.

So perhaps it’s to be expected that on occasion he might slip a notch or two. That seems to be what happened in “Stone Cold,” the latest Joe Pickett novel and a bit of a disappointment.

The opening is promising enough. Nate Romanowski, Joe Pickett’s shadowy but loyal friend, always has lurked around the edges, and sometimes beyond the edges of the law. In the opening pages of “Stone Cold,” he appears to have gone completely over the edge. As the novel opens, he is sneaking up on a log home on the banks of the Bighorn River near Fort Smith with mayhem on his mind.

Romanowski blows past security guards and a technician and shoots the cabin owner, Henry P. Scroggins III, through the heart. Scroggins, we learn, is a corrupt and criminal businessman, and we are assured that the world will be better off without him.

But has Romanowski gone from being an outlaw on the side of justice to a cold-blooded murderer? I have to be careful here not to give away the ending, but the answer never becomes quite as clear as one would like.

The result is strangely unsatisfying, with an occasional plot hole and a mystery not quite solved. Well, there’s always the next book.

“The Road Taken,” by James O. Southworth, edited by Linda Grosskopf. Call 545-9761 for copies. Paperback, 307 pages.

This should have appeared last Christmas, but we never quite managed to get that issue out. James Southworth is best known as a former state legislator, frontman for the bluegrass group Southbound, and a prolific writer, including a number of stories that have appeared in the Outpost.

Some of those stories are reprinted here, along with tales of his life and career. Mr. Southworth is a diligent researcher with a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor that holds him here in good stead. Ms. Grosskopf, an experienced writer and editor, restrains some of his grammatical enthusiasms, with good results.

A collectioi of photos from a rich life round out the book.

“Kevin Red Star: Crow Indian Artist,” by Daniel Gibson and Kitty Leaken. Gibbs Smith. Hardback, 188 pages. $50.

This really is a coffee-table book, a lavish and rich collection of some of the best-known works by Montana’s best-known Indian artist. Chapters are included on his childhood, stages of his career, and his approach to art, but the real charm is the many pages of color plates of his work.

If you are a fan of Mr. Red Star’s work, that’s all you need to know. If you aren’t, then it’s time you took a look.

“Death on the Greasy Grass,” by C.M. Wendelboe. Berkley Trade. Paperback, 384 pages.

Mr. Wendelboe attempts to tread the same ground that C.J. Box and Craig Johnson have walked before him. We get an FBI agent who witnesses a murder right at the reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

His search to find the killer takes twists and turns, with occasional flashbacks to the original battle. There are plenty of suspicious circumstances, a lovely woman and a corrupt businessman.

But Mr. Wendelboe has not yet acquired the craftsmanship of Mr. Box and Mr. Johnson. The humor often falls flat; the prose creaks along. Reading it reminded me of watching Brooks Robinson playing third base on TV back in the 1960s.

Nothing to it, I thought. Then I became a public address announcer watching 12-year-olds trying to make those same plays. Quickly, I figured out why everybody said Robinson was so great.

Here, Mr. Wendelboe’s book serves as a foil to show off just how good Box and Johnson are.



Last Updated on Thursday, 18 December 2014 10:36

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