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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Beverly Ridge: Hyenas on the Prairie

Photo of the Willow Creek train siding in Montana.

He, wearing a sun-withered shirt under equally faded denim coveralls, smiled down on me as a favored schoolteacher might.

She, medium in every way from her height to her brown shoes, beamed with date-night anticipation and called me “sweetie.”

We were all of us there for dinner on a small town Saturday night straight from a Hal Ketchum song. Her husband held the door as I and a group of friends entered, a whining aluminum screen door that reminded me of the corn-and-beans acreage my grandparents owned in the northern Midwest. The doorway meeting was the last we saw of the farmland couple, but it served as a tidy introduction to the Willow Creek Café and Saloon.

The early spring evening just warmed up from there.

Setbacks would come, of course. One could pick apart the heavily lacquered wood furnishings, the dirt-tired parquet floor, all the dead animals watching you dine on distant cousins. Just as easily, I could burn up a fat paragraph about the salads and soup that arrived five minutes after our entrees.

Worth mentioning, in fairness, but by no means the point of this telling.

The front of the Willow Creek Cafe and Saloon.

Willow Creek, Montana, is a place so coiled up in America’s rural tapestry that you find yourself falling for the threadbare corners. The layer after generational-layer of whitewash on the dining room wainscot; the two young couples at the next table, decked out for the night’s dance, girls emboldened in their long dresses and boys with matching corsages, darting glances; our peppy server, Crystal, who scorched lines on the floor under 15-foot high, tin-plated ceilings and mid-century light fixtures.

Willow Creek is honest and real, a beer-in-the-bottle experience. School buses get dented and orders dropped in an honest and real world. An honest and real apology smoothes petty grievance over, often leaving a patina that becomes more lovable than the new and the unblemished.

The ribs seal the enchantment. That’s what drew our caravan to the red-and-white plastic tablecloth of this valley whistle-stop. Crossing thirty miles of interstate, another ten of sun-smoothed rural highway pointing out trumpeter swans on the Jefferson, and a half dozen more across riparian-flat gravel, one truck shuttled five of us. And soon enough there would be five platters of Willow Creek’s legendary baby back pork ribs. Variety is sometimes a needless spice. The food arrived under the airborne utensils of expatriates from Colorado, New York, Chicago, North Carolina, and me in my finest cowboy boots, the lone native. These were experienced finger-lickers at the table, veterans who knew their barbeque by rite and ritual.

“They use sugar in the sauce, that’s what blackens the edges,” one said.
“I think it’s a two-coat process, and I’m sure that there’s mustard in it,” from another.
“The meat really does fall off the bone.”
“I don’t know what the recipe is. I’m not even sure I care. I just know I’m digging it.”

The baby back ribs at the Willow Creek Cafe and Saloon.

The last statement drew a consensus, and we put the guesswork to rest. The table grew quiet for a good ten minutes, save for the unmistakable clinks of devoted dining. Of our quintet, only the Coloradoan successfully navigated his entire, full-order platter. The cup of vegetable soup, two hunks of homemade white bread, a stack of bronzed onion ringsāŽÆhe left nothing but a plate of bones that appeared as though cast to the desert for all of August.

As for me, I saved a hefty portion of my plate’s trappings. In their retirement, they would decorate an egg breakfast and Tuesday’s quick lunch. The savory meat maintained excellence right up to the last.

Back in the boney wreckage, we were all too food-pregnant to face the house selection of desserts. And that was the closest the night saw of “unfortunate.” Homemade blackberry pie, red velvet chocolate cake, and a vanilla crème pie tantalized in a woman’s script on the blackboard above. Even as I type this, I can’t imagine how one of us didn’t save enough room to try. Blame the ribs. I ate half of a half portion and still felt the impingement that follows indulgence. We were all of us reclined deep into our chairs, grinning and lazy as over-stuffed hyenas.

The western expanse of Gallatin County offers no vacancy for self-pity, though. With summer more than a rumor in Montana’s early April, the warmer weather will surely invite a reunion for our five (and more) to make the trip back out for another waistband-stretching loop around the tablecloth at the Willow Creek Café and Saloon. And I can about guarantee that it’ll be another night of “just the ribs, please.” -BM

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