Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Maybe We Should've Named Him Gossamer

The meat of my experience in Montana consisted not of beard-growing or gold-mining or bear-cooking, as most of my Chicago friends seem to think. Nor was I able to make a single stromboli for Jim Harrison as predicted by Old Crazy Hair (sadly, I was given the high hat by his secretary despite a promising letter of introduction). Rather, I focused on running a pretty amazing mobile wood-fired oven operation set up by my good friend Ryan LaFoley.

Three summers ago I made a shorter trip to Bozeman, MT to help Ryan out, as he had just built his first mobile oven. You see, he had this nasty habit of driving around the Union's 4th largest state and offering ranchers the free service of tearing down dilapidated barns--if he got to keep the wood and tin. Naturally, he had to do something with all that dross, and what better than to build trailers to house wood-fired ovens? He got hold of a Mugnaini fresh off the boat and mounted it onto a trailer, building up a mysterious-looking shelter around it. Was it a smokehouse? An ice-fishing hut? I'd be thrilled with either, though people were not disappointed when we rolled up, hit the switches Impala-style and opened the hydraulic side panel, revealing the oven and a beautiful cherry-wood prep table built by this monster of a craftsman who would soon put his talents into a second oven, and ask me to come to Montana to drive it around and build fires in it.

In March, I got a message from Ryan: "Want to pause your life in Chicago, move to Montana and work long hours for low pay and no benefits?" Naturally, I was intrigued. He'd bought a 1954 Chevy dually truck, painted bright orange and ready for some heavy lifting on a 1984 tow-truck chassis. Like any sane person, he flew to southern California to pick the truck up and drive it back the 1,200 miles to Bozeman, stopping along the way to load up another oven on the truck's bed. Once back, the plan was to build out another housing for the oven, and this time add some other cool bits and pieces to the picture. Not wanting to neglect the original oven, he needed someone to operate the second.
I flew out, and the build out began. Let me disclaim everything that follows here by saying that the design is roughly 0% mine, and that the only labor that came from my back into this truck consisted of me holding up a board to nail in when Ryan ran out of hands. Certain kinds of minds are capable of this sort of task, and his and my abilities are on the absolute opposite ends of this spectrum. You wanna feel like a chucklehead? Get involved in a building project like this with my skill set. It was damn intimidating.

THANKFULLY, my reason for being there was not to contribute to the fabrication of the truck, with the exception of a few practical suggestions here and there. Instead, I stood back, worked on some recipe development and organizational issues for the business, and just watched this beautiful thing come to life. In the end, the truck had the wood-fired oven, a commercial convection oven with a generator and propane tank to run it, a hand sink with a huge water tank, copious amounts of storage space, a tailgate section that can be converted to a wood burning grill spanning the width of the truck, support beams for a spit to be installed over said grill for the roasting of whole animals and misbehaving cooks, side panels that slide off and convert to pizza rolling tables, and a really bad attitude. The "Orange Marauder"--as (pretty much only) I came to call it--growls and spits when you start him up and makes all kinds of rough noises and draws all kinds of stares. But he cleans up nicely, and parked at the edge of the Bogert Farmer's Market or in the thick of Music on Main in Bozeman, or in the middle of a field, with absolutely no resources, not even water, where we cooked a multi-course, plated meal including fresh pasta for a wedding of 80 people, well, the old boy looks great.
Seems there is a proliferation of pizza trucks around the country these days, and I still cringe when people say "Heard you went out to Montana to run a food truck!" But it is a good thing--another step in a (mostly) positive direction of making good food accessible and not crazy expensive and at street-level. And definitely a great presence in Bozeman. And though my role in the birth of the Orange Marauder was most minimal, I'll always get a little jump every time I see an old farm truck rambling down the road in front of me.