Cathy Luchetti is the author of eight books about the settling of the American West in the 18th and 19th centuries, from religion to cooking and cuisine to courtship rituals and child-rearing. She was invited by Laura Bush to come to the White House to be part of a discussion of Women in the West. She has received numerous honors, including the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for Literary Excellence for Women of the West (1982) co-authored with Carol Olwell. Her book Home on the Range: A Culinary History of the American West received the James Beard Best Writing on American Food Award in 1994. Medicine Women: The Story of Early-American Women Doctors (1999) was short-listed for the Willa Cather Award in non-fiction. Other books include Under God’s Spell: Frontier Evangelists, 1772-1915, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1989; “I Do!”: Courtship, Love, and Marriage on the American Frontier: A Glimpse at America’s Romantic Past through Photographs, Diaries, and Journals, 1715-1915, Villard Books (New York, NY), 1995; The Hot Flash Cookbook: Delicious Recipes for Health and Well-Being through Menopause, Chronicle Books (San Francisco), 1997; Mama Says: Inspiration, Wit and Wisdom from the Mothers in Our Lives, Loyola Press (Chicago), 1999. Her book Children of the West: Family Life on the Frontier, Norton (New York, NY), published in 2001, was named by the Los Angeles Times one of the Best Books of 2001—The West.
Zara Raab: You got together with a friend, Carol Olwell, to write the first of your histories of the American West. I imagine there are some deep streams in your own personal history, your childhood in Texas, that may account for your motivation for writing so many wonderful books about the American West.
Cathy Luchetti: I am a “Woman of the West.” I grew up in Texas with lots of bedtime stories about the West. One set of my great-great grandparents came West across the Great Plains in Conistoga wagons. They settled in what became Baker, Oregon.
ZR: Where is Baker, exactly?
CL: Baker is east of Portland, in a desert area––in a place you don’t imagine could be in Oregon. It’s desert with a. little bit of grassland, like eastern Washington State.
ZR: Was Baker a family name of yours? The town of Baker is named in honor of U.S. Senator Edward D. Baker, is that correct? And wasn’t he the only sitting senator to be killed in a military engagement? He died in 1861 while leading a charge of 1,700 Union Army soldiers up a ridge at Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, during the American Civil War.
CL: Yes, that’s correct. One Baker signed the pioneer register. Frederick Waymire, on my grandfather’s side, was part of the Oregon Continental Congress, had 17 children, and was called the “Far West Davy Crockett.” Another ancestor, also a great-great grandfather, started the second oldest winery in Napa in 1855 and called it To Kalon, which is Greek for “The Highest Good”. His name was Henry Walker Crabb. He was from Germany or Wales, we’re not sure which, and he brought with him all these strains of plants and planted them and built a big beautiful old house. Crabb’s wines were widely known and his Black Burgundy was especially highly regarded in the West,
The house burned, but it has been rebuilt, so it’s still there. Mondavi owns the winery now and kept a To Kalon history room up until a few years ago. My mother and I would get trotted out every few years to represent the family. The vineyard became rather famous in the 20th Century as the source of the Georges de Latour wines. But yes, I had a pioneer background that made me interested in the lives of these pioneers who came West in the 19th Century.
ZR: Did any of these relatives or ancestors write letter or keep diaries?
CL: Unfortunately, no. Well, wait. There were a number of interviews or articles written about Crabb’s winery back at the turn of the century. Those are on recorded at the St. Helena Historical Society. No letters, which is another reason I was curious.
ZR: What about old photographs?
CL: Unfortunately, only a few photographs. But if you go into the pioneer museum in Baker, Oregon, you can see my great-great- grandmother’s signature.
ZR: You’ve written eight books, mostly about the American West and the people who settled it in the 19th Century. These are large books, full of fascinating details and wonderfully evocative period photographs. Tell us how you went about gathering materials from diaries and other primary sources for your books.
CL: I owe everything to librarians at the archives and historical societies around the country. Every one of my books was prefaced by a massive mailing to a hundred different archives asking them if they had any lesser known correspondence in their files that had to do with the themes of the book. “Yes,” they would write back to me, “We have this collection, that collection.” Sometimes they would be able to photocopy parts of letters for me. Other times I would travel to the place to research the materials, or I would hire someone to do the research. Over time, I would get a sense of what the collections had and as more things became available on line it was easier to look there. But the work was always done with the generous support of the librarians and archivists who with their knowledge and expertise would unearth these little known collections of letters and diaries.
My usual practice in beginning a book was to accrue information on the subject until it got to be the shape and size of a book. So the first part of writing was a treasure hunt for information. It was a great way to combine travel with research. For example, North Dakota has a fabulous collection of some of the most beautiful photographs and best diaries I’ve ever seen. They hardly charge anything for the use of their materials. Here in California, Susan Snyder at the Bancroft Library has been extremely helpful. So I really enjoyed working with the Bancroft. The California History Library in Sacramento has got a wonderful collection, too, as does the Colorado State Historical Society.
ZR: I notice you use some photographs from the collection of Paul Palmquist. Did you work with him?
CL: Oh, yes, I worked with Paul Palmquist for years. He was local, so I always included his photograph. Then he was so unfortunately killed. The photographs in his collection are extraordinary.
I also developed a real relationship with the University of Nevada. I donated almost all my research materials to the Nevada Historical Society. I also did a lot of work at the Mormon Archives both in Salt Lake City and the Oakland LDS Temple Archives.
ZR: What are the fees for the use of photographs?
CL: The Library of Congress or the National Archives or any of smaller places would charge very little. The Amon Carter Museum in Texas will have the very same things the Nevada or Nebraska Historical Society has, but charge five times as much for it. The use fees occur on an enormous sliding scale from $250 to $12.50 for a single photograph. Sometimes I’d find the same photo in a junk or thrift store, or in one of the ghost towns in the Sierra selling memorabilia. Then the cost was very little.
I did a lot of work at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. I spent a lot of time in North Dakota, one of the most desolate places I’d ever been.
ZR: One diary you use in your texts describes crossing what is now Jayhawker Mountain in the desert around southern California. The hardships people underwent just going from one place to another were extraordinary.
CL: I was just down there backpacking with my son. The idea that anybody could cross that desert is all but unbelievable. In fact, we passed Jayhawker Mountain and we were thinking of climbing, but it was the driest, most desolate place I’ve every seen. That diary tells just how confused people could get without maps and navigation aid. They had the Drinking Gourd and the North Star and one guide and somebody had to make a decision about whether the guide knew where he was going.
ZR: I understand you are involved with the environmental group Desert Survivors. Tell us about that.
CL: I grew up in the desert in Midland, Texas. Right outside my door there were sand dunes. Rattlesnakes, too. And of course all I could do was get out of there: I couldn’t wait to leave Texas. But then as you grow up, your roots come back, so I longed for the desert. I found this group called Desert Survivors, an odd group of people who drive hours and hours just to be in the desert, longing for vistas, and dry terrain and all the things that the desert offers. So I’ve participated with them backpacking, hiking and exploring for well over 20 years.
ZR: Are people re-enacting pioneer times when they do this? Like the Civil War re-enactments that are so popular in the South?
CL: There is a desire in this age of complete comfort to pare back and experience things on an extreme level. Going out into the desert gives you a chance to do that. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily in the sprit of the pioneers. I do not go in costume. I doubt if the women in my book Women of the West were interested in mountaineering or exploration. But there are some parallels
ZR: Let’s turn to Home on the Range: A Culinary History of the American West, which won the James Beard Writing on American Food Award in 1994.
CL: Yes. The James Beard Foundation Award ceremony was held in New York at the Lincon Center.
ZR: So in addition to being a marvelously gifted writer, you’re also known for your cooking. What kind of kitchen did your own mother have when you were a child?
CL: I hate to say this, but I’m sure I’m interested in cooking because my mother was a terrible cook. She was a devotee of the casserole, especially if it had Fritos or potato chips on top of it. I‘m interested in good cooking because I never got much of it. She showed how she felt about being a housewife through her cooking. She became a much better cook in her sixties. She developed a kind of interest in it.
I like to experiment. I like to take something that you already have and imagine you can make it more interesting. It’s like a puzzle. That’s definitely what the pioneers did. They had dribs and drabs of things. And they had to make something of it. Being in the Peace Corp was instructive, too, in this regard. There were no stores. People would come around selling eggs one day and meat another day. Being in the Peace Corp was the first time I have ever been hungry. It made me think about food in a way I had not thought about food before I developed a curiosity about how to doctor dishes and make them more interesting. I like to do signature pieces, not necessarily fancy but different. As a kid, I was always trying to feed my brother things I’d made from roots and berries and seeds, bird nests and lawn clippings. I served up dishes from whatever happened to be around. And he was smart enough not to eat them.
ZR: When we were kids, we’d mash up acorns and make a paste of that. It was part of a staple for the native Americans.
CL: My kids and I would do that at a family ranch in Middletown. We’d put the acorn meal in the stream over night, and the next day mix it up with Bisquick. I don’t’ think I’ve ever tasted anything so good.
Now it’s called wild crafting and bush crafting. Lots of people are eager to find foods in nature. All kinds of people give classes in how to go about it.
ZR: Have you every given a class in this?
CL: No, but when my book Home on the Range came out, I’d prepare recipes for bram brack, buckwheat or hoe cakes in the fire place for the author interviews. I’d make Birds on Toast and Washday Rice or drip coffee with roasted carrots whenever I gave a lecture.
ZR: Talk about your lectures.
CL: Every time a book came out, I’d be invited to give talks about it. And because I’m basically very shy, I made a power point show, where I combined the most interesting parts of each book, anecdotally, into one presentation, and if someone wanted me to talk at a book store, I’d take my presentation. I remember being in the Tattered Cover in Denver, the head of the Storytellers Association came up to me and asked if I would be a key note speaker, with hundreds of people in the audience, using this power point show. It turned out just fine despite my nervousness. I would always respond, albeit somewhat reluctantly, if someone asked me to make a presentation. The power point show was a good device and I was happy to use it. I gave a presentation at the Library of Congress and at the National Archives. These were televised.
ZR: Impressive. Are the videos available to the public?
CL: Yes, the videos are archived.
ZR: Home on the Range mentions recipes from the wild west like ragout de prairie dog, mountain sheep antelope, roast grizzly bear, elk steak, codfish balls. Have you tasted these things? Is it possible to? Area these places in the foothills of California where it is possible to go into a restaurant and order, say, a “Hangtown Fry”(an egg and oyster dish)? Or how about beans cooked in the bean-hole method—larded with pork fat and buried in live embers? What about walnut catsup? 
CL: In the Mother Lode country, probably you can get Hangtown Fry or some version of it. I gave a lecture at the Virginia City opera house where some of these dishes were offered. There was also a Nevada State Historical Society event for which I’ve had professional chefs prepare elk steak and Birds on Toast.
ZR: Your books inspired you to do these unusual things.
CL: On another occasion some of these dishes were given away as part of a raffle in Nevada. The people who bought the tickets and won the raffle got to come to my house where we served elk steak. It was a big money raiser for the Nevada Historical Society.
ZR: You were enterprising in a very pioneer spirited way.
CL: Yes, I guess I was–including screenplay gigs in Hollywood. One screenplay was called “Hot on the Trail,” produced by William Wyler’s daughter, Kathleen Wyler. The filmmakers wanted to do a documentary on the West and hired me to be the screenwriter. I went to New York and was held captive in the Port Authority Building. It was really interesting. The images would be on screen and I would write the script. I had to write the script quickly as the images came flowing across this massive screen.
And then there was the enormously popular TV western of the 1990’s, with Jane Seymour as the lead––Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. They used my books and actually flew me to Hollywood several times to consult on how the surgeons would operate on patients. Would the early doctors really sew up a wound by putting a 50-cent piece under the skin? My publisher said, “Well, gee, since this program is willing to fly you to Hollywood, why don’t you write a book?” So that’s how I came to write Medicine Women: The Story of Early-American Women Doctors.
ZR: Medicine Women was the book short listed for a Willa Cather Award in non-fiction in 1999?
CL: Yes, that’s correct.
ZR: What other entanglements with Hollywood did you experience?
CL: A major film company was doing a documentary on courtship and marriage in the West and they, too, flew me to Hollywood to be their consultant. They used photographs and stories from my 1995 book “I Do!”: Courtship, Love, and Marriage on the American Frontier, but of course the photographs are in the public domain, so I didn’t really benefit. They used me as the research tool. I can’t say the photographs were mine, but the collection was mine. I flew down with my son Zack and we played Hollywood-for-a-day.
Every so often Women in the West is optioned by a movie producer. Then it’s dropped, because no one can figure out how to make it into a film. But they keep trying. The book is used by many producers and other writers as resource material. Sometimes this gets acknowledged.
ZR: Could your agent have protected you?
CL: If any of them had optioned the book, yes. But the movie people were just using me as a consultant. These experiences were little adventures into a totally foreign world. The phone would ring, and a little Hollywood voice would say, “Darling, it’s just heavenly. The book is heavenly” in a soft, Southern drawl. And then the option would drop. I should say: “Darling, it’s just funny. Very funny.”
In the end, though, despite all the interest shown in it by movie producers, Women of the West was never made into a film. A play, a theater production, has been created from it, with little vignettes from the book. It was quite effective.
ZR: It should be a TV series, because it’s episodic. . . What are your thoughts of novelists who draw on the West for their stories, writers like Wallace Stegner? Did you ever think of writing a novel?
CL: No, never. Writing a period novel does not interest me at all. I don’t read historical fiction and I don’t write it. I love literature, though. Stegner’s Angle of Repose is fabulous literature. The general Western is fiction dressed up as history; it a way of introducing readers to the West.
ZR: Regarding Women of the West, did you ever look at Mary Hallock Foote’s letters later published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West and later still used by Wallace Stegner as the basis for his novel Angel of Repose?
CL: Wallace was utterly bona fide in taking life events such as Hallock’s story and using them in his fiction. The book gives her credit for the letters. Just as a personal aside, the movie The Descendants got an Academy Award, not because it was such a great movie, but because the Oscar people think they should give an award to things that have to do with history. I think that’s why The Descendants got so much notice in the Oscars. We haven’t really honored Hawaii and its roots this year. So the director of that film was lucky enough to step into a category that the right people felt obliged to award.
ZR: What are you working on now? You have a new book in the works.
CL: I am working on a manuscript I’m calling “Travels with My Headache.” It’s basically traveling with my headache and examining folkloric, food and other remedies and apocrypha having to do with headaches. I’m going in to the direction of my earlier book, The Hot Flash Cookbook.
ZR: What are your travel plans these days? I know you and Peter have traveled extensively in the past.
CL: We’ve traveled in Tibet, Peru, China, Mexico, and Greece. We’ve been in Mexico again recently, and I’m writing little stories about it, investigating the teas and remedies that people there have for headaches. I’ve anthropomorphized my headache. This book is a whimsical approach to a self-help book. There are a lot of books on how to cure a headache, and mine is going to be a more folkloric, travel guide approach to the subject. It’s interesting and it’s fun. I get to riff on lots of weird, interesting stuff. For example, did you know that the philosopher Wittgenstein loved to destabilize complete strangers as well as colleagues with questions like, “Do dogs have headaches?” For him, words were the salvation and damnation of everything. Do dogs get ice cream headaches? I am asking my veterinary friends.
Every time a new headache question of a magical, apocryphal or whimsical nature comes up, I pursue it . This book is not going to be the Merk manual for headaches—more like an “Eat, Pray, Headache” kind of narrative. But I will say I‘ve probably read at least a thousand diaries and journals from the old West and no one complained about headaches. Not that they didn’t have them; I’m sure that they sallied forth even with a headache. It’s one of those things that people accommodated. I’m looking at all the people in literature who had headaches, like Virginia Woolf, to see how headaches affected their lives. We’ll see. It’s fun to write.
ZR: Will there be photographs?
CL: Not really just text. I don’t see it as visual.
ZR: What are you reading now, and how do you decide?
CL: I am reading Peter Diamandi’s book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. It’s so optimistic. I’m not really a doom and gloom person. I don’t focus on the end of the world and how terrible things are.
I read lots of Mexican and South American books. Rain of Gold, a novel by Victor Villiasenor is one. I like nature writing, too, like Craig Childs’ The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert, for example. I love H.P. Lovecraft, and I keep a Guttenberg text of James Joyce’s Ulysses my desk.
Click HERE for Part 2 of this interview.
Zara lives in Berkeley and is one of the first women to graduate in architecture from UC Berkeley. She grew up along California’s North Coast, attending school in Portland when she was fourteen, and later Mills College and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) for college and graduate school. In her twenties, she traveled, living in Paris, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., where she made a living as a freelance editor and writer, participating for a time in the Capitol Hill Poetry Group, before returning to the West Coast to raise her children.
Early California is a subject of her book Swimming the Eel, just as the drama of family life is the subject of The Book of Gretel. In leaving behind the rural counties, she became a part of the human potential movement of the 1960′s, and that movement perhaps more than anything, shapes her life and her work. Since she was a teenager, she kept journals, and sometimes returns to those early notebooks for ideas. Her poems appear in many literary reviews and magazines, including The Dark Horse, The Evansville Review, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, Nimrod, Dos Passos Review, Arts & Letters, and others. She also review books and writes essays on literature for various publications, including the Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review, San Francisco/Sacramento Book Reviews, and The Boxcar Poetry Review.