It’s the first day of Fall when I drive through rolling hills, covered in tall golden grass that dances in the wind around me. I turn down a dirt driveway, sprinkled with cautionary ditches left over from the summer’s monsoon rains.
Mindy Cottam opens the metal gate to her family ranch in Elgin, Arizona, and greets me. Elgin is a small community in Santa Cruz County near Sonoita. Winding roads are accompanied by ranches, wineries and pastures.
Cottam owns 10 acres of land in Elgin, where she raises her own beef, pork and poultry, grows fruits and vegetables without pesticides or GMOs, and makes her own dairy products, like cheese and butter, with milk from her dairy cows. She also works with her husband, Phillip, to grow grapes in their vineyard to make wine.
Studying in Italy, Cottam learned how to live a traditional and sustainable lifestyle without preservatives, additives or chemicals.
“All through the summer, we’re pretty much just eating out of the garden,” Cottam said. “I put a lot into the freezer.”
Cottam said that while her garden provides for her family almost all year around, in February and March she typically needs to buy more produce from the grocery store, but still sticks to organic.
“The tomatoes grow like weeds,” Cottam said. “The beans too, and the basil.” Cottam grows a variety of produce including squash, strawberries, pumpkins, apples, potatoes and even garlic.
Cottam also grows produce you wouldn’t find at the grocery store, like puntarelle, an Italian chicory.
“I’m a little excited when it starts coming up and I can cook with it,” Cottam said. “I like to put things into my garden that are interesting or that I don’t know about and can learn a little bit.”
The corn, Cottam said, is original, American corn. The artisans she studied with in Italy preserved the kernels, forbidding them to be mixed with other types of corn.
With the few kernels that traveled back to Elgin in the bottom of her suitcase, Cottam planted the American corn in the corner of her garden.
“At least in this little spot, there [will] be some original American corn,” Cottam laughed.
Cottam makes an assortment of cheeses: some with paprika, herbs de Provence, or just pepper. Depending on the size of the wheel, making the cheese takes between four and eight gallons of milk from her dairy cows.
Cottam opens the door to a fridge, tucked inside a shed near her chicken coop. The aroma of fresh milk and spices sift through the air, filling the small room.
Cottam constantly tends to her cheeses, flipping them to ensure a balance of dryness and moisture, brushing off mold and avoiding over-drying by coating them in olive oil. Depending on the age of the cheese, Cottam will flip her cheeses every day or once every week.
In Italy, “they didn’t necessarily use olive oil all the time with their cheeses,” Cottam said. “They aren’t as dry as [Arizona is]. I just kept finding that if I didn’t do that, they’d crack.”
In high school, Cottam began teaching herself how to cook. Through teaching herself new recipes and trying new things, Cottam quickly found her love for making fresh, homemade meals.
Since then, Cottam has taught her four kids how to prepare food for each meal of the day by using only fresh food. In doing so, she created a family surrounded by a love for good food.
“When I put out a meal and everything is from here, and then to sit down and it’s beautiful outside, it’s just this incredible feeling of peace and satisfaction that comes from the beauty of growing everything and doing everything,” Cottam said. “It’s mine.”
For Cottam, who doesn’t even own a microwave, food is more than just fuel.
“I don’t want to eat blah food,” Cottam said. “I want supper to be a celebration. I want it to be a reward at the end of the day.”