The celebrated works of fiction and acclaimed pieces of music created by artists like Ann Patchett or Charles Wuorinen during residencies at the Ucross Foundation’s ranch near Sheridan receive a lot of attention — and rightly so.
But in order to host the artists who create the work, much thoughtful and unsung work is necessary. This includes feeding them.
For the last 12 years, that job has fallen to Cindy Brooks, a produce-obsessed California native who is self-taught in the kitchen. For most of the year, she spends her days mapping out menus, grocery shopping, peeling garlic and preparing veg-forward meals for Ucross’s fellows.
On the ranch grounds, Brooks’s meals are celebrated and acclaimed in their own right. “Perhaps the greatest nurturing I received was the delicious food,” composer Michael R. Jackson recalls.
She has hundreds of recipes, inspired by her travels and proclivities and honed by her instincts. And for her and Ucross colleagues, the pandemic presented a chance to step back from daily cooking and create something more lasting than a meal.
The result is “The Ucross Cookbook,” a compendium of Brooks’s greatest hits co-written by Cree LeFavour, a Ucross fellow. The book, which a crowd-source effort supported, came out in January. It contains more than 70 recipes interspersed with artist essays and vignettes of ranch life.
In the process of making it, Brooks found herself swapping roles in a sense as she became the artist propelling a long-term project. Not that she’s not already an artist.
Ucross President and Executive Director Sharon Dynak said the book enshrines that artistry. “It is a true celebration of Cindy’s creative thinking,” she said.
On the path to becoming a cook, Brooks was once a starving artist herself.
She grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where despite being exposed to “wonderful produce” and international influences, she was a picky eater. While traveling in Europe after high school, however, she had a culinary awakening.
After studying visual art in college — with a focus on painting — she began waitressing to pay the bills.
“I just kind of hated waitressing, but I really got interested in the food,” she said. She switched over to the production side of food service, first at a bakery then at a gourmet to-go shop, and “just had a knack for it.”
She also found an outlet for her artistic impulses.
“It became more of a creative process,” she said. “I really enjoyed it, and people liked what I did. I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna run with it.”
Run she did. She has pumped out pastries, catered events, worked as a private chef and owned a restaurant.
She left California years ago, driving her Karmann Ghia convertible to Montana (the unsuitability of that car in that state still makes her laugh) to cook at a dude ranch. That led to gigs in Jackson, Bozeman, Cody and in 2009, Ucross.
‘Overwhelm them with produce’
It’s early afternoon on a warm March day at the ranch, and Brooks has finished delivering lunches to the artist cabins scattered across the ranch. Now she’s thinking about dinner. She’s already begun prepping the spiced lamb.
“So I’m gonna throw that on the grill here in a little while because it’s such a nice day,” she said. “And we’re gonna do some grilled veggies to go with that, and I’m doing some curried cauliflower … and I’ve got some bread rising. And a little flan and berries.”
There are so many components that she nearly forgets one.
“Oh, and some mujadara!” she said, referring to the Middle Eastern dish of rice, lentils and caramelized onions.
She’s got timing to consider, ingredients to juggle. She also has dietary restrictions to figure in. “Right now I have a vegetarian, a pescatarian, a gluten-free, it goes on and on,” she said.
Brooks finds satisfaction in the daily act of planning meals and nourishing artists, she said. She likes the symbiosis of feeding artists so they can create great things. The process of cooking also brings her into her own state of mindful creation.
“It’s just such a focus, you know, sort of a meditation almost,” she said. “All you’re doing is chopping friggin’ zucchini or something, you know, but you’re in the moment.”
For inspiration, she ranges across the globe, leaning on dishes she encountered in travels. That can mean a Thai curry one night and Mexican-inspired beans the next. One thing is constant: vegetables.
“A lot of times the menu is influenced by what I have in the garden,” she said. “I want it to be healthy, I want it to be inspiring as they inspire me … I just overwhelm them with lots of produce.”
Captured in a book
Over the years, former guests and others have asked for recipes or suggested Brooks compile them into a cookbook. The tasks of feeding residents, however, tied up plenty of her time.
“And then when COVID came, guess what? We had time to do a cookbook,” she said. She approached President Dynak, who agreed to the project pitch and enlisted LeFavour to co-write the text.
Brooks stores a recipe catalog in her head, but has also kept menu logs during her time at Ucross. For the book she selected crowd favorites as well as time-tested standards. After she and LeFavour whittled down the list, Brooks cooked each recipe several times, rewriting it until she was satisfied. She also shared her own story with LeFavour, who wove it through the text.
“It was a very collaborative effort,” Brooks said.
The resulting collection reflects Brooks’s California roots — most notably in an enthrallment with produce, olive oil, herbs and garlic. Recipe blurbs convey tidbits about the chef: Her mother made Waldorf salad every Christmas; she studied abroad in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; she worships Italian food, she fixates on starches.
The meals are veg-heavy and hint of international cuisine, with recipes like California Panzanella, Chickpea Masala and Oaxacan Chocolate Black Beans. But being a Wyoming ranch, they also include dishes like PF Beef Stew — a nod to the historic neighboring Pratt and Ferris Cattle Company.
Ucross is a place of abundant space and silence, and the cadence and tone of the book reflect that, with essays from artists and portraits of the rolling landscape, empty sky and dining table where artists gather to eat.
Brooks hopes the book also inspires a goal she spells out on its pages; she wants her patrons “to come to the table weary and leave happily replenished.”
That spirit of generosity underscores her cooking. “When you eat what she’s cooked, you can practically taste her easy goodwill,” LeFavour writes.
Stepping into the role of a cookbook creator, Brooks said, has been a little surreal and very rewarding. Has it been rewarding as feeding artists? Not much tops that, she said. She is equally diplomatic when asked if she has a favorite recipe.
“You can’t ask a cook that!” she said. “I really don’t. To be perfectly honest, every day is my favorite thing to make.”