the commonsense kitchen
By Tom Hodgens
One day, as I finished cooking lunch for the community of fifty hungry people at Deep Springs College, the wife of a faculty member asked me, “Tom, have you written down any of your recipes?” “No,” I said, “but I really need to start.” “Yes, you really need to start,” she said. And I did. That was twelve years ago.
Stated very simply, Deep Springs is a college on a ranch: a very small, fully accredited, two-year college program for academically advanced young men (only twelve are admitted each year), situated on a real, working cattle ranch in an isolated valley in California’s Eastern Sierra region. In addition to rigorous academic coursework, the students put in about twenty hours of physical labor each week at a variety of jobs on the ranch. Though it’s not a vocational school, the young men who attend Deep Springs get a good taste of many vocations during their two years: rancher, gardener, farmer, mechanic, cowboy, butcher, cook.
Meals are an important part of Deep Springs’ community life, bringing everyone together, marking the rhythm of the day. Deep Springs can be a wonderful place to cook. Fresh beef is always in abundant supply, and four cows are milked by student hands twice daily. There are pigs, lambs, goats, chickens, and geese. Apple, pear, peach, and plum trees thrive in the orchard. In the warmer months, many crops emerge from the garden, including onions, garlic, lettuce, leeks, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, asparagus, and raspberries.
I’ve been lucky enough to attend Deep Springs as a student, to work there as the chef, and to teach a cooking class there. In my student days, I performed a three-month tour of duty as Student Cook, and oversaw sumptuous Thanksgiving dinners for 60 people. After Deep Springs, I immediately began cooking professionally. I cooked for families, private clients, and restaurants, including an amazing year at Chez Panisse in Berkeley.
A decade later, I returned to the valley for three years as Deep Springs’ chef. I did eventually start writing down my recipes…I compiled a small cookbook to give to the graduating students. Each year, with each graduation, the cookbook expanded. A few years later, I returned to Deep Springs once more, this time to teach a seven-week course in culinary arts. I used the old cookbook as a reference, and ultimately edited and expanded it into The Commonsense Kitchen.