Cookin’ with the top down
Butte Creek Canyon women donate recipes and drop their tops to raise money for the preservation of Centerville’s historic landmarks
Fourteen women sit around a television set. To the left of the set is a small boom box that’s rocking out Cindi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” On the screen, a slide show interchanges and synchronizes near-naked images of the very ladies in this room.
I, alas, am the only lad here, armed with nothing more than my pad, pencil and a pensive smile.
Across from me sits Connie (her name has been changed to protect the not so innocent), her face a deep crimson, a full-on blush hidden behind upheld hands. Her photograph slides into view. A chorus of giggles merges with “oohs and ahhs.” Racy banter shoots across the room. With every passing photo, these women seem to get a bit louder.
And here I am, voyeur to it all.
Real estate agent Linda Cruces’ living room is stuffed with “Canyon Ladies,” a group of Butte Creek Canyon residents set to publish revealing images of themselves in a soon-to-be-released cookbook entitled Making It With the Canyon Ladies. As the television flashes (sorry about the pun) flesh—tastefully, of course—I have to appreciate the underlying reason why these women removed their clothes: love of their neighborhood and the history packed into it.
There’s something about those natural walls of ancient lava flow scythed by thousands of years of relentless Butte Creek weathering. Here natural history merges with ‘49er history, as this creek was once home to outposts with names like Diamondville, Whisky Flats and Helltown. During California’s gold-mining heyday, the town of Centerville had a larger population than Chico.
All that remains of those 19th-century ghosts are a PG&E powerhouse (still operating) and the one-room Centerville School house. The adjacent Colman Museum houses other 19th-century artifacts, from mining equipment to Civil War memorabilia and more.
Proceeds from the sale of the cookbook will go to the Centerville Recreation and Historical Association (CRHA), which is charged with the promotion and maintenance of the Colman Museum and century-old, single-room school house.
If you think it sounds like shades of the 2003 movie Calendar Girls, you’re not that far off. There are, in fact, more connections between Butte Creek and the British women in that movie than you might think.
That’s where Rachel Westlund comes in. Warm, friendly, 71 years young, she has an energy level that rivals any young university student’s. She’s down to earth, with a wry sense of humor, and if cut she bleeds optimism. And wow, can she cook!
Knowing that background, we can begin to understand why this spry septuagenarian removed her clothes—and convinced more than a dozen others to do so, too.
“She’s the ringleader,” states Diana Dean, a Chico area mortgage assistant. All the other women nodded in agreement. Rachel slapped my arm in play and chuckled.
Born in Scotland, Rachel met John Westlund, an American veteran studying at the University of Edinburgh on Uncle Sam’s G.I. Bill. Within six weeks, John and Rachel had wed, and off to America they went. The Westlunds settled in Chico, and Butte Creek Canyon in particular in 1958.
Westlund still has family in Scotland, and it was through her sister Sheila that she heard of the WRI calendar.
“One day Sheila told me that the ladies of the Women’s Rural Institute had made a calendar,” reminisces Westlund, “which was quite a surprise being how uptight that organization can be.”
When news accounts confirmed her sister’s story, Westlund quickly shopped local bookstores for the calendar. It took a couple of days, but once she saw it she was convinced that the same thing could be done in Butte Creek Canyon.
Westlund approached several women. Interest was uneven and spotty. Then the movie Calendar Girls came out.
“Fifteen of us ladies went to see it,” Westlund says, “and you should have seen ’em. I knew we’d be doing that cookbook soon.”
Soon is now. Set to be released May 1, Making It With the Canyon Ladies will tantalize in more ways than one. Sure, there’s the food …
But there are also the photographs, which were taken by Durham’s Teri DuBose. Old-fashioned in appearance, each vignette image captures a “Canyon Lady” holding or wearing a Colman Museum piece … strategically.
“At first, I was really reluctant to pose. But Teri made it fun,” says Fern Askim, the oldest of the Canyon Ladies at 88. “It’s just amazing how comfortable she made us all feel.”
Comforting, friendly, outgoing: such adjectives are uttered by nearly all of the Canyon Ladies in reference to this 40-something mother of four and amateur photographer. Dressed in tight blue jeans, cowboy boots and a white shirt adorned by a neckerchief, DuBose grins when I tell her what all the women say about her.
“Are you kidding?” she scoffs, “I thought those ladies made it easy for me!”
Shutter-bugging for five years, DuBose landed this assignment by word of mouth. And it wasn’t until this meeting that the topic of how much to pay DuBose for her services even came up.
“You know,” DuBose says as she glances across the room, “I think this cookbook is going to be big, bigger than they think. Maybe even Oprah big.”
Listening to the juicy details, I am inclined to agree. The cookbook is packed with over 250 recipes, food served at more than 50 years’ worth of neighborhood potlucks.
It’s part of a canyon culture that’s hard to define. Many of these women live miles from each other, yet they share the canyon and their love for it. They are neighbors, whether they reside in China Camp or in Lower Honey Run. They are friends, meeting often, sewing quilts, exchanging recipes, kayaking or biking and occasionally exchanging gossip. It’s a close-knit group despite the many square miles that define the canyon. This cookbook project is a reflection of that.
The book will sell for around $15.
“I hope to get it into some of the local bookstores,” says Rachel Westlund (above), as her photograph on the television comes into view. She holds two loaves of her Irish soda bread scarcely covering her breasts. She’s posed leaning out of a window as if to cool the loaves but heat up the countryside.
“In the meantime,” she says—my eyes riveted to the TV—"the cookbook will be available on the Colman Museum Web site.”
She slaps my arm, “You got that?”
“Yeah,” I say, colmanmusem.com. What could be simpler?”
She smiles. I melt. I can’t wait for the cookbook to come out.