By Robert Lucke
Hard to believe it, but out at Cleveland, Montana there is a huge log lodge that caters to hunters all season long. Not only that, but there are folks who come back year after year, not to hunt at all but to eat Doug Mitchell's cooking and share recipes.
While hunting season if going full force, there are usually twenty or so for three meals a day. Mitchell and his crew never tire of cooking and feeding those people.
Mitchell is French and came from a French community in the south Wagner area. He takes up the story.
"My grandmother and grandfather were Will and Ora LaFond. They came from Little Falls, Minnesota and in 1910 settled in the Malta area," said Mitchell. "If my grandmother could have gone back, she would have. She was so depressed. Finally in 1916 it rained and they had a good crop. You know the men had come out first and then went back for the women. And they all originated in Montreal, Quebec."
Mitchell learned cooking from his grandmother.
"You know my grandmother was a really good cook and loved cooking. She would make everything from doughnuts to blood sausage. And in spite of all that fried food, she lived to be 101. I don't know how she did it."
Mitchell has been a Bear Paw rancher for years. His family got old enough to run the ranch and he thought about retiring. Then he wondered what he would do if he did retire from ranching.
"I thought I would really like to cook in the big mountains for an outfitter. Here, they asked me if I would cook and two days later I was cooking and have been ever since. That was in 1994," said Mitchell.
Here is the Cleveland Lodge. It is owned by Nick Faber, and Eric Olson is the outfitter who runs his Bear Paw Outfitters operation out of the large lodge.
Mitchell is quick to point out that he could not run his kitchen without his cooking partner, Barb Swenson, and Blanche Kellam, the housekeeper, and Betty Haldemann, who does the laundry.
But it is the hunters who keep them all happy.
"I just love to visit with people and visit with the hunters. It is a thrill for me. Most of our hunters come back year after year and they all seem like one big family.
Best meal. Both Swenson and Mitchell answer at once.
"That's easy to answer," they said. "Fried chicken!"
"We cut up seven to 10 chickens and fry them," continued Mitchell. "That is a lot of chicken. And usually we are cooking from 20 to 24 each meal, but I swear that some come in off the streets of Cleveland. Especially on fried chicken day."
Favorite dessert is cherry cheesecake and both admit that when they bake cookies, they can't even keep them around for a morning.
Disasters? Never!! Well, there was that one, Mitchell said, laughing.
"We were entertaining the Chinook Garden Club. We had a casserole of some kind and we were trying to get the Garden Club fed that morning before the hunters got here to eat. Just before the Garden Club came in, one of the guides came in from a duck hunt. They had seen a skunk and tried to shoot it, but missed and really got sprayed. When they came in, the whole place just reeked of skunk. That was just a half hour before the Club was to show up. I hurried and put a pan of buns in the oven so they would smell them first - anyway, hopefully before the skunk. But it was bad!"
This was a busy season. They cooked for over 130 hunters who stayed an average of 4.5 days each.
"One thing that is nice is that some hunters even bring their own recipes for us to cook and help out in the kitchen," said Swenson, smiling. "And it is really good to cook here, because we never get any complaints at all."
Back again next year?
"You bet," both Mitchell and Swenson answered.
"If we are asked," Mitchell added.
Seems to be little doubt about that one. They will be asked!