GREAT BIG EMPTY (Gillette, WY)

by John Idstrom on November 17, 2011

Gillette, Wyoming might well be the worst town in America, its sole redeeming virtue that you can buy a fifth of cheap Canadian from a liquor store with a drive up window.  Because God Knows, the last thing you want to do in Gillette is to get out of your car to buy your booze.

Gillette has gas.  Literally.  One of the main industries in the area is drilling for methane, which is an industry that stinks.  Again literally. As a result of drilling, the methane in Gillette leaks into residential wells in sufficient quantities that you don’t want to light a match while you are sitting on the commode, so the story goes.

No lie.  I can’t make this stuff up.

A while back I actually spent the night in Gillette in what was perhaps the worst motel in town, a dump so nasty it gives landfills a bad name.  Let’s take a second to review.  The worst motel in the worst town in America.  You do the math.

So you might understand when I say I woke up the next morning a tad grumpy.   The Mustang Motel. I should have known better.  My first room had not even been touched by housekeeping.  The wastebasket next to the lumpy (and unmade) full-size bed contained half a dozen used condoms and there was a half-rack of crushed Pabst cans on the side table.  Party on Wayne.

When I went back to the office (where the clerk sat behind bullet-proof glass), and asked for a new room, the guy rolled his eyes as though I had just asked for Egyptian linens and a humidor packed with Cuban cigars.

Damn high maintenance tourists.

The night previous I had stayed in Livingston, Montana.  In comparison to Livingston, Gillette might as well be on the dark side of the moon.  At Livingston’s Murray Hotel, a mere block from the Yellowstone River, I slept deep and dreamless on a fluffed featherbed with a deep down comforter and watched pay-per-view on a large flat-screen TV.  Dinner was at artist Russell Chatham’s Livingston Bar and Grill (now shuttered, sad to say) and included a dozen Kumamoto oysters and a monster lamb shank (braised until falling off the bone) that was nestled cleverly into a bed of creamy polenta.  Dinner was finished with warm pear crisp.  The oysters were washed down with a couple of glasses of steely Loire Valley Muscadet, the lamb with a bottle of St. Innocent Pinot Noir from Oregon.  With dessert there was scotch, a splendid and smoky single malt from the Isle of Islay.

In Gillette, not so much on the food front.  Unable to find an open restaurant at 9:00 pm, dinner was a greasy bag of Burger King slop (have it your way my ass), washed down with the afore mentioned Canadian mixed into a super-sized Diet Coke.  As if matters could get any worse, the game on TV found the Raiders being beaten by the Patriots on the infamous/bogus “tuck rule” call that magically transformed a Tom Brady fumble into a meaningless incompletion.  Upon further review, instant replay sucks.

Needless to say, I was out of sorts.

The next morning I got up early and went for a run to try to shake off the slag.  Two steps out the door of the Mustang, I knew there was trouble.  A biting wind blew out of what could only have been the north and angry dark gray clouds scudded at barely rooftop.  Clouds with an attitude.  Clouds that had just been paid and were fixin’ for a bar fight.  It was January, which in Gillette can only mean bad things.  Believe me when I tell you I was not in the mood to be snowed in and stranded in Gillette, Wyoming.

After being nearly eaten by an unleashed pit bull protecting the turf around his double-wide, I snapped the run off short, threw my bag in the car without a shower (as if) and hustled Roy, my trusty yellow Labrador, into the back of the Outback.  Pulling out of the Mustang parking lot, I thanked heaven for all-wheel drive.

We boogied out down the arterial past a couple of depressing unoccupied strip malls without so much as a Styrofoam cup of Folger’s Mountain Grown.  A few weeks previous I had lost a crap job and in the process several other things of far greater value.  I was in no mood, believe me.

Roy and I drove straight past the Interstate entrance ramp and in a quarter mile came to a T in the road.  Frozen snow spit on the windshield while the intermittent wipers smeared the freeze.  Roy groaned once and laid down on his cedar chip bed in the back, chagrined no doubt by the absence of a morning tennis ball toss.

Stopped at the intersection, we idled.  Across the way, an impossibly long freight train clattered past in front of us, coal cars dusted with snow.  I looked right and saw nothing.  Looked left and saw more of the same.  Had there been tears in my eyes I would not have been embarrassed.   But I was bone dry.

Then, this song  came up on the shuffle, completely by chance.

Roy and I sat at that intersection stopped with my foot on the brake and listened all the way through.  Four minutes give or take.  At the end of the song I looked at Roy in the rearview mirror.  “Well, boy” I said through tight lips, “whaddya think?  Which way?”  The dog said nothing, his brown eyes staring back calmly, without emotion.

We turned right and left Gillette in the rearview mirror.

Lamb Shanks Braised in Red Wine

Rub lamb shanks liberally with a mixture of fresh chopped rosemary, minced garlic, paprika, salt and pepper.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

In a deep pot (I use a large Creuset enameled cast iron beast) brown the shanks in hot olive oil turning until they are well browned.  Remove from pot.

Add chopped onion, leek, carrot garlic, and celery (in French this is called a mirepoix) to the pot and cook until softened.  Add about 2 Tbs tomato paste to mirepoix and cook until it gets clumpy, about 2 minutes.  Add red wine (at least a half bottle) and scrap up brown bits from the shanks.  Replace lamb shanks in the pot and add more red wine (and perhaps some good beef stock) until the shanks are at least half covered with liquid.

Cover and place in 300 degree oven for 3 hours.

Serve with creamy polenta or garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach.

(Author’s Note:  You will never find this dish in Gillette, Wyoming)

Bon Appetite.

* * * *

John Idstrom thinks and writes about food at http://www.meezenplace.com.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jennifer Rakstad April 22, 2013 at 5:03 pm

You must look for the absolute worst place to stay in town. I have lived here 20 years and wouldn’t visit someone in that motel. I think that is a place for oilfied crews to use for extended stays. Gillette is a great place to live and raise a family, we are one of the few places that hasnt been much effected by the economic crisis this contry is facing.

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