Montana Picnic with a Twist

Is there anything more “Montana” than a good old cattle branding? After all, cattle have a long history in Montana’s relatively short history, and it’s one that somewhat defines this vast state.

A branding is a tradition based on camaraderie. It’s down-and-dirty work that typically requires many hands, and it’s common practice for neighbors, friends and family to help each other during this springtime event. The cowboys and cowgirls round up the cattle on horseback and bring the noisy creatures to a holding pen. Then they rope them, hold them down, and seal the deal when the hot, sizzling brand.

Photos by Lynn Donaldson

Photos by Lynn Donaldson

This tradition is alive and well at the West Creek Ranch in Paradise Valley, where owners Elizabeth and Carl Webb work hand-in-hand with a slew of helpers. On a chilly April morning every spring—come snow, rain or sunshine—the crew rounds up the cattle under the gaze of the snowcapped Absaroka Mountains as the sun starts to rise.

While the cowhands are hard at work, Carol Sullivan, owner of the Livingston-based Mustang catering, starts the post-branding feed. It’s the Webb’s’ way of thanking their friends and family for the long morning of work, and it has also turned into an annual tradition in its own right. Sullivan is well known for her fresh take on classic dishes. She has catered events for families, celebrities and organizations of all sizes, and also runs the Mustang Café on Main Street in Livingston.

“I’ve been catering this lunch for the past 13 years,” Carol explains. “It’s such an amazing setting; rustic but also very warm and inviting.”

The venue is a large pavilion that’s open on all sides but one, offering panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. The guests, kids included, sit at big wooden tables and the roaring fire in a large stone fireplace at one end is enough to take the chill.

The menu features a selection of hearty comfort food dishes that with a spring twist, and they typically feed around 40 people.

Branding Collage 3

“We’ve really stuck to the same menu year after year, because it’s all of their favorite things,” says Carole. “It’s ranch style, with the freshest ingredients.”

Side dishes like Classic Cole Slaw, Calico ranch style beans, and Cowboy Stuffed Potatoes compliment the meat, which is a choice of grilled chicken or steak marinated in Sullivan’s blend of fresh herbs and oil. Another special side dish includes stuffed jalapenos, a well-loved specialty prepared by Carl’s son. Dessert is on the casual side, with Sweet and Salty Pecan Bars and Huckleberry Bars that people can grab without a plate. Sullivan also puts out some hot chocolate and coffee for an extra warm-up.

Branding Collage 4b

“People tend to dive right in; they’re pretty hungry after a big morning of hard ranch work,” Sullivan explains.

For more of Carol Sullivan’s recipes, check out her cookbook, Gatherings Friends and Recipes from Montana’s Mustang Kitchen.

For Carol Sullivan’s Huckleberry Bar recipe click here.

Thank you to Montana Magazinewhere the original version of this story appeared. Pick up the March/April 2015 issue for more great articles from around the state. 

1 Comment

  •' Elizabeth Webb says:

    Dear Lynn,
    Since 2000, we have held our spring branding at West Creek Ranch, with the ” light at the end of the tunnel” being Carole’s delicious feast! For years it’s been an undocumented, yet deeply special, day of team work and comraderie with family, friends and neighbors. Its hard to put into words how appreciative we are of your enduring images of our gathering. With your intuitive, sensitive eye, we will now have memories that will last for generations! This tradition will continue, as will our conservancy of land and our love of Montana. You have an open invitation to join us for another spring day of dust, mud, sweat & Mustang Catering’s fixin’s…also known as our “Spring Branding”.
    Warm regards, Elizabeth Webb

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