The burgers were union made on the Fourth of July in Butte, where Sen. Barack Obama celebrated the twin birthdays of daughter and country. Sen. Max Baucus introduced Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who introduced Michelle Obama, who, after leading the crowd through a nearly on-key rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” to daughter Malia Obama, finally introduced her husband. The presumptive Democratic nominee then stumped for a few minutes to the adoring crowd before announcing, “Now I’m gonna get myself a hot dog.”
I took in the speech from the vantage point of the grill area, where members of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (Local 112) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (Local 44) were waiting to flip burgers.
When Sen. Obama finished talking, the spatula-wielding brothers issued a collective “Oh, shit” as the hungry crowd turned from the stump toward the grill. As the swarm of Obamites organized into a rapidly extending queue, Al Wilson of Local 302 in Martinez, Calif., ran back to his grill, ecstatic.
“That was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Wilson gushed.
“Oh yeah, you never seen Obama speak before?” said Bob Brock of Local 44. This being Obama’s second trip to Butte, and fourth to Montana, Brock had seen him before.
“My favorite part was how he linked Independence Day to energy independence,” said Wilson, who works in Shelby wiring windmills. “There’s always gonna be wind.”
I asked Wilson if he thought union workers who had previously supported Clinton might vote McCain in protest.
“No,” said Wilson. “Every union member I know is going to vote Democratic. Every one, because we know that when Republicans get in…” He stopped there to flip a burger.
“Al, we’ve got a situation,” said a young woman from the Obama campaign, suddenly bursting in to the grill area. “We need four cheeseburgers with…hang on.” The staffer then spoke into her radio, “No, just tell me what Malia wants…” before turning back to Wilson and Brock. “We need four plain cheeseburgers,” she finished.
Sen. Obama, meanwhile, had set up shop at a smaller grill alongside the podium, where he simultaneously chatted up supporters and flipped burgers. He’d put the patties on buns, customize the ketchup and mustard levels, and hand them out. I made my way to his grill, only to realize I was standing next to Gov. Schweitzer. I had to ask, considering the rampant rumors of Schweitzer being a possible running mate, if he or Obama had any big announcements lined up for the afternoon.
“I already made my special announcement,” Schweitzer said with a grin, referring to his earlier introduction of Michelle.
When I looked back toward the grill, the slippery presumptive nominee was making off toward his campaign bus. Schweitzer, seeing an opportunity, headed for Obama’s vacant grill, saying to me, “Hey, don’t you go write that I’m gonna get me a sausage with nothing on it!”
“Uh, okay, what are you going to have on your sausage, Mr. Governor?”
“Nothing!” he replied.
When I caught up to Schweitzer at the grill, he’d flip-flopped, and taken a burger instead, also plain.
“Good clean burger,” he mumbled, wolfing it down.
For several reasons, some of them aesthetic, I hate to interrupt a man eating a burger. But I had to ask Schweitzer about the fact that cattle—of which we have more of in this state than people—contribute so much methane to the atmosphere. Without missing a chomp on his burger, he cut me off before I could finish the question.
“The Great Plains have always been full of antelope and buffalo,” he said, speed talking as usual. “Grass-eating, methane-producing ruminants are part of the natural landscape in Montana.”
“Speaking of cows and buffalo,” I asked, “now that we’ve had two reported cases of brucellosis [which will cost the Montana cattle industry its brucellosis-free status], what happens next?”
“The Feds are going to come in and take over, and they usually get it wrong,” Schweitzer said.
“Why is this problem so hard to solve?” I asked. At the same time, I finally understood why so many politicians like their burgers and dogs plain—it’s easier to talk in between small, clean, rapid bites.
“The Interagency Bison Management Plan was agreed to by several state and federal agencies," he said. Frankly a bunch of lawyers and lobbyists who knew nothing about disease management.
“When I ran for governor I said, ‘This doesn’t protect the wildlife industry or the livestock industry from the spread of brucellosis. This is a document that has everything to do with chasing buffalo around and not managing a disease.’
“If you’re managing a disease,” he continued, “then you manage all the species with the disease. Cattle are the easiest species of all of them to modify their behavior and location. That’s what I’ve attempted to do. But there are some in the livestock industry who said, ‘We want no change, we’re not changing anything, everybody else must change.’ Well, now they found out that they don’t like the change that’s coming their way. So probably we’re gonna hit it again, and we’ll come up with a plan that makes sense for all of Montana.”
And off he went to shake some hands. I got myself a brat, with everything on it.
Ask Ari: Cooking up camas
Q: Dear Ari,
Over the past couple of weeks I have been driving by some truly local Rocky Mountain fare—camas. The field I have been eyeing will soon be ready, and typically in my family we cook camas the way my Salish ancestors have done countless times before: in a covered pit with dark green tree moss wrapped around the bulbs and a few sweet wild onions mixed in.
I have read your column now for a few years and I think you have concocted some creative cuisine. I recall a stuffed heart, which was cooked over a fire in the mountains, and that sounded tasty. I thought I might try to spice things up a bit this year and try to make some suggestions to the ladies cooking camas. Do you have new twists on preparing and pairing anything with camas bulbs or tree moss?
Salish Sous Chef
A: Having never cooked with camas or tree moss, SSC, I’m cautious about trying to help you cook camas bulbs.
But I did a little digging around and learned that camas is a member of the lily family, like garlic and onions. This is promising. I also learned that the bulbs can be baked, as you described, and then pressed into cakes for long-term storage. I believe these are called p’ap’xiy in Salish.
So here’s my idea: camas dumplings. Bake some camas bulbs, as you described, and then press them together into cakes. Meanwhile, make a pot of buffalo or venison stew, and when it’s almost done, add your p’ap’xiy. Let it cook long enough for them to heat up, but hopefully not crumble apart. Alternatively, you could use your p’ap’xiy like a biscuit, and serve them drenched in buffalo gravy.
But if you really want my help, I’ll need to come out when you cook them (wink wink, nudge nudge).
Send your food and garden queries to email@example.com.