Before moving to Montana some twenty-six years ago, I found a handbook that seemed just the ticket for the whole family to read. An Idiot’s Guide to Montana had as its subtitle, “How to behave in the Last Best Place and not piss off the natives.”
Initially, I thought “natives” was in reference to indigenous people. I was wrong. The word was used to describe people who had been born here and therefore had special privileges that nobody else would ever enjoy. Birth rights, if you will. Many advertised their specialness with bumper stickers that read, NATIVE.
I find the whole native thing bewildering because, as has been noted, many natives can trace their lineage to a great-grandmother who simply couldn’t turn enough tricks to get to the coast.
That being said, the book came in handy with well-thought cautionary advice we’ve endeavored to heed.
There was a chapter about driving, for instance. It explained how real Montanans didn’t need four-wheel-drive vehicles, let alone any of those made in a foreign country. Up here, Ford and Chevy have ardent admirers; Toyota, Subaru and Volvo were listed under a section called, “communist cars.” A sub-chapter was titled “We don’t use turn signals,” followed by another called, “I’ll park wherever I damn well please,” that explained that Montanans had been parking long before anybody had thought to bother with all that yellow paint.
There are several references to the land in Montana, such as, “Do not call your 20 acres a ranch, even if you have a breeding pair of alpacas.” “Ranchette” would be more appropriate, but sounds stupid—like something a realtor might say.
The book also warned against calling farm subsidies “rural welfare.” And it advised that when listening to a rancher talk about life in the Big City, it’s best to just look down and scratch the dirt with the toe of your boot or Birkenstock, whichever might be the case.
Unless you own a cow, you aren’t allowed to wear a cowboy hat. The only exception is rodeo night, to which attendance is mandatory or you won’t be allowed to vote in the next general election, an action that tends to deter Democrats who wince at team roping and are more likely to be vegan.
Cowboy shirts with sleeve fringe are only for tourists and country singers with at least one gold record. Jeans are worn outside the boot, unless you’re from Texas which presents a whole host of other problems. Wearing clothes made by L.L. Bean, Patagonia or Armani is ill-advised; Levi’s, Carhartt and Filson are acceptable brands. New blue jeans are to be weighted down and dragged wet behind a horse for several hours before wearing. (This is a time-honored tradition to keep one from looking like a dude.)
Other than to complain, nobody talks about the weather. You’re allowed to say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes,” but only after you’ve lived here through three winters—all of which may happen concurrently. One just never knows. And remember that Montana has three seasons: Snow, mud and tourists. Outdoor grilling is a year-round activity. Baseball is typically played in the rain, unless it’s snowing.
Montana is a drinking state. In the old days before there were cup holders you could drink in your car or truck, even if it was moving and you were behind the wheel. If you were suspected of being drunk behind the wheel, whoever suspected you of such would just give you a ride home. Finding your vehicle the next day was your punishment.
Bar etiquette is important to know. Feel free to order a Cosmopolitan but be prepared to suffer the consequences. The same is the case with wine, unless it’s boxed white zinfandel. Best to stick with a “ditch,” typically a Canadian or bourbon whiskey with just enough water to make it look like it was siphoned out of an irrigation ditch. Know that “brew pubs” are what gave rise to the popular expression, “Die Yuppie Scum.”
Everybody over the age of 12 is armed but not dangerous; they are a friendly lot who do the two-finger wave when driving.
The state bird is a Western meadowlark; its flower, the Bitterroot; its tree, the Ponderosa pine. There are a lot of elk, except during hunting season. And there are wolves that some people believe eat children. There are grizzly bears that, once dead and stuffed, make handsome welcoming mannequins in hotel lobbies. The state food is the pasty, sort of a calzone stuffed with chopped beef, potatoes, rutabagas and onions that was first served to miners in Cornwall, England. Smothered in a quart or so of gelatinous brown gravy, they’re a lot better than they sound.
Music is important in Montana, especially the kind you hear around campfires or in bars where Coors Light is the most popular beer. People frequently line dance. Frank Zappa submitted his song, Montana, as the state song. It was rejected, probably because of the song’s focus on dental floss. Elvis is truly loved here (still) and it would be unwise for anybody to say what I once wrote shortly after his death: “The saddest part of his funeral was that they didn’t bury his records with him.” Never, never say that aloud.
Montana does have its sacred cows, but the Idiot’s Guide made no mention of the Moss Mansion. I double-checked just to make sure.
I’ve never been to the Moss Mansion, although I thought I had been, which is what lead me to disparage it as the “tackiest place in Montana” on Facebook recently. What I actually was disparaging was the Alberta Bair house. Either way, a whole lot of people let me know that I had pissed them off.
As young people tend to say these days, “My bad.”
The Moss Mansion, which is suspected of being haunted, is in Billings and it is where I’d like to go now just to see how wrong I was in thinking it was that other place. But what I had to say mistakenly about the Moss Mansion does apply to the Alberta Bair House.
The Bair place was built by Mr. Bair, a sheep rancher known as Mr. Bair. (It’s rumored that he and Moss might have been friends.) From what I recall, the Bair place, which is not a mansion, started out as a simple clapboard farmhouse to which addition after addition was made in the form of a single room for every thousand sheep the Bair family sheared. The rooms dump into each other without the benefit of a single hallway.
I should mention that the house is located in the middle-of-nowhere. Unless you’re already there, it takes a minimum of four-and-a-half hours to get there from wherever else you might be, unless you have access to a helicopter, in which case you’re more likely to visit Bill Gates’ place in Big Sky.
Mr. Bair had a couple of daughters who spent the Great Depression in Europe, buying up tchotchkes from monarchs and tyrants who were going belly up and dumping their stuff for mere pennies on the dollar. A lot of the stuff was gilded. They’d send the stuff home and Daddy would shear some sheep and build another room to house what he famously called “crap.”
On the side, Mr. Bair amassed an impressive collection of Western art and Indian artifacts by trading lamb chops with the likes of Charlie Russell and a few tribal chiefs. And that really upset Mr. Moss whose Mansion needed artwork that wasn’t impression-era oil paintings of lilies or renderings of Jesus on black velvet. (I made that up.)
This whole Moss-Bair thing has been an embarrassing situation I’ve created for myself, however unwittingly. Notice how that didn’t stop me from writing about it, however. (Most essayists would gladly sell their mothers for a story idea.)
In closing, I’d like to apologize to those who I offended but who really owe me an apology because I didn’t call anybody names—they did. And they’re the ones who thought the use of the word “tacky” somehow defines someone as nouveau riche.
I should also mention that I didn’t shed a single tear when Elvis died. And I really don’t much care for Butte, either.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
One of the most mispronounced words in the Montana dialect, the pasty is featured on the official seals of many small Montana towns. Although it can be stuffed with almost anything—I’ve heard of them being stuffed with carrots, peas, parsnips, turnips, pepperoni—the official Cornish pasty, after which the Montana version is widely modeled, has been given Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in Great Britain. Producers are restricted to making the stuffing with onion, potato, rutabaga and beef.
They’re not difficult to make and I would suggest avoiding the frozen ones altogether.
For the Pastry:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 ounces butter (or half lard and half butter) cubed
3 to 4 tablespoons water (cold)
For the Filling:
1/4 cup onion (finely chopped)
1/2 cup potato (cut into 1/4-inch dice)
1/2 cup swede/rutabaga (cut into 1/4-inch dice)
1/2 cup rump steak (cut into small cubes)
Salt (to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
1 large egg (lightly beaten)
Place the flour, salt, and butter into a large bowl.
Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour and salt until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs, working as quickly as possible to prevent the dough from becoming warm.
Add the cold water to the mixture and stir until the dough binds together, adding more cold water a teaspoon at a time if the mixture is too dry.
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for a minimum of 15 minutes and up to 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 425 F.
Divide the pastry into 4 equal pieces and roll each piece into rounds the size of a salad plate.
Place the onion, potato, rutabaga, and meat into a large mixing bowl and combine thoroughly. Season well with salt and pepper.
Divide the meat mixture evenly among each pastry circle and place to one side. Brush the edges with beaten egg.
Fold the circle in half over the filling so the two edges meet. Crimp the two edges together to create a tight seal. Brush each pasty all over with the remaining beaten egg.
Place the pasties on a greased baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes until golden brown.
Serve hot or cold.