Milk-can suppers are the Western equivalent of clambakes. In the high plains of Wyoming and Colorado they are a popular way of entertaining a crowd during the late summer and early fall when fresh corn is available.
This recipe comes from Leonard Wiggin. The Wiggins, intrepid Bostonians, homesteaded in northeastern Colorado in the 1870s, during the days of the open range and the big roundups. Milk-can suppers at the Wiggin Ranch near Grover, Colorado, are often followed by a fierce but friendly game of "ten-point pitch," the still popular card game seen in old westerns.
When removing the lid, be careful to avoid the scalding steam. Two strong men wearing heavy oven mitts usually empty the can into the serving containers. We have seen everything from a wooden hog trough to a wheelbarrow to a washtub used as serving vessels. Guests usually serve themselves and move on to a separate table set up with accompaniments.
To prepare the fire, dig a shallow pit 8 inches deep by 20 inches wide. Place two cement blocks, which will support the milk can, on either side of the pit. Build the fire using about 10 to 15 pieces of hardwood (about 1-1/2 inches in diameter and 15 inches long). When the embers are white hot, the fire is ready. (Continue to add wood little by little to maintain a slow, even temperature while cooking.)
Place a thin layer of corn husks on the bottom of a clean, unrusted 8- or 10-gallon milk can to insulate the food from the fire. Place the potatoes in the can, then add layers of carrots, onions, corn, cabbage, and sausages. If necessary, stuff the sausages into the can. Combine 3 cups of the beer and 3 cups of water and pour into the can. If your can has a lid, place it on gently to allow some steam to escape. (This is very important as a lid that is jammed on may cause steam to build up and blow both the lid and the contents of the can out the top.) If you do not have a lid, improvise one by placing a doubled sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil over the top of the can and crimping the edges.
Set the filled milk can on the cement blocks above the fire and cook gently for 1 to 1-1/4 hours. Add more wood to the fire as needed. If the liquid in the can seems to be boiling away, add the remaining 1 cup of beer combined with 1 cup of water. Empty the can into serving containers.
Serves 20 to 25
Spririt of the West: Cooking from Ranch House and Range
By Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs
$35.00/224 pages/125 recipes/35 full-color photographs
Recipe reprinted by permission.
This page modified February 2007
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