For hungry cowboys out on the range, nothing hits the spot like the chuck wagon. Scott Simon of NPR has been sampling the menu:
Kent and Shannon Rollins offer bright smiles and hot coffee on a cold prairie at 4 a.m. (along with eggs, sausage, gravy and biscuits), on the Calthan Cattle Company ranch near the very small town of Seymour, Texas. And company's coming!
Cowboys ride up in trucks, hauling snorting horses in trailers behind them. They warm their hands over cups of coffee and take off their hats under the first streaks of sun, for a morning prayers.
"Lord, I ask you to make us ever-mindful of the little things we take for granted..."
The cowboys fuel up to work hard, the way few people do anymore: herding 500 cows, 500 calves and 30 bulls across 20,000 acres.
"Thank you for all the many things and the blessings in life. Thank you for my little, sweet wife. Amen. Let's eat!"
Kent and Shannon Rollins are cooks prepare who their cowboy meals-on-wheels on an actual, working chuck wagon.
"'Chuck' is a slang word that cowboys or cooks used to use for food -- 'Hey, time for chuck!'" said Rollins.
It's a Studabaker, manufactured in 1876, way before the company made cars. Rollins figures their wagon travels 40,000 miles a year, and tries to keep it orderly:
There's a place for everything -- serving utensils, canned goods, staples, and other stuff. "Everybody's got junk drawer at home? That's junk drawer," Rollins said.
And everything has a purpose, or multi-purpose, like the chopper that's a hash knife, scraper, spatula, dicer/chopper, and windshield scraper.
And then there's Bertha, Kent's 30-year-old wood stove: a 385-pound cast iron hunk o' burning love and heat.
"She puts out a lotta good warmth in the winter," he said. "And she'll burn you up all summer."
The food can't be fussy. Space is tight. "Fresh" is impractical -- you don't roll past organic farmer's markets on a cattle drive.
But Kent Rollins chops, seasons, and gets Bertha to cough up green beans with snap; hominy with green chiles that bite; and grilled Angus beef as tender as a honky-tonk torch song, with peach cobbler for dessert.
Simon asked, "How do you feel about anybody who calls you a chef?"
"Well, chefs are people that have had proper training at school, you know?" re replied. "It sorta goes against my grain. A chef creates fancy food. Can't get full-on fancy. We create food you can eat."
Kent was raised near the banks of the Red River, where his father ran a cattle business in Hollis, Oklahoma.
"So, what do you learn by growing up in a place like Hollis?" asked Simon.
"Simplicity, most of all," Rollins said. "And being able to improvise. We didn't have a lot to get by on. But we never went hungry. Everybody got to eat. And that was the best part of it. There's more to a table than just the legs that hold it up. It's the family that binds it together."
Kent learned how to rope and ride, and how to grill and bake.
"My mother started me cooking when I was probably six or seven years old. She taught us all to cook, clean and sew, you know. She said, 'You'll use 'em someday.' There never was much of a recipe. It was a little dab of this and a pinch of this. But I learned a valuable lesson from my mother at that time: She said, 'Cook what you love. Love what you cook.'" And that's what we've always done.
Cowboy cooking may not look like haute cuisine, but there are time-honored rules: Cowboys tip their hats and watch their language.
"There's no foul language at a camp when there's a woman present," Rollins noted.
And Shannon Rollins is nearly always present. She runs the business, and the Dutch ovens:
"He's taught me to be patient and just persevere," Shannon said. "Because they're counting on you."
They met seven years ago at Kent's cooking school, and have been married almost four. He taught her how to cook, while Shannon taught him to eat food that isn't cooked.
How, Simon asked, did she get Kent Rollins to eat sushi? "It was a long process," she said. "There's been a lot of things that Kent Rollins did not eat before I expanded his palate! One of them was avocado. He told me he had stepped in too many things in a pasture that looked like avocado!"
Cowboy cooking has to make the most of what's at hand. They once ran short of supplies in a Texas blizzard, and had mounds of potatoes, but no cooking oil:
"Dug around there and found me a bottle of Sprite sittin' over there under the table that one of them cowboys had. I thought, I bet you can't fry with it, but I bet you can bake with it. I knew it was a keeper."
Sparklin' Taters is one of the recipes in Kent's new book, "A Taste of Cowboy." It also features recipes for:
- All-Night Sourdough Pancakes
- Green Pepper Frito Pie
- https://www.cbsnews.com/news/recipe-green-pepper-frito-pie/Bread Pudding with Whiskey Cream Sauce
- https://www.cbsnews.com/news/recipe-bread-pudding-with-whiskey-cream-sauce/Throwdown-Winning Chicken-Fried Steak -- this last one named for his win over Bobby Flay on a Food Network challenge (see below).
Simon asked, "Are there vegetarian cowboys?"
Rollins laughed: "Vegetarian cowboys! Did you know I was a vegetarian, Scott?"
"I didn't. Are you?"
"Cows eat grass and I eat cows, you know so I guess that makes me a vegetarian! I've never seen one show up at the wagon. I don't think you'd live long!"
The Rollins have rolled their chuck wagon into a catering firm that feeds an estimated 20,000 people a year.
At this year's Saddle-Up Cowboy Festival in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Kent and three kitchen cowboys spread his special Red River Ranch Rub into a hundred cuts of Angus to feed cowboy performers.
He's also catered ranch parties, corporate parties and even Bar Mitzvahs.
So what does he make for a Bar Mitzvah? "I didn't even know we had a Bar Mitzvah in Oklahoma till the phone rang that year! So, this lady called, and she said, 'Hey, could you do a Bar Mitzvah?' And I said, 'I'm not familiar with that cut of meat, ma'am.' And she laughed. And she said, 'You're kiddin'!' And I said, 'No, ma'am.'
"We had brisket, you know. Beef brisket, beans, sourdough biscuits, peach cobbler."
L' chaim, y'all!
Twice a year, in Hollis, Oklahoma, Kent teaches cowboy cooking to city folks. He makes certain all students get the points:
"You're going to get a fork. A fork is something that you will use here every day, every time we cook somethin'. It is a sacred fork! Do not ever come to camp without your fork!"
Rollins says it's just a school about learning to cook: "This is a school about learnin' about life, too."
Because the chuck wagon is also where cowboys bring their troubles, from nasty cuts (which Kent tries to sew up with dental floss) to aching hearts.
"I'm not a Dr. Phil. Don't get me wrong! But you learn a lot from wisdom that's passed down from generation to the other. I ain't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I'll sit and listen. If I can help somebody out, I'll sure do it. Because that's what a friend does."
These days, Kent and Shannon Rollins cook on ranches just a few weeks a year. Cattle drives are disappearing. Most herds are now moved on trucks.
A lot of cowboys -- and cowboy cooks -- may be headed for the sunset.
"There's not many left," said Rollins. "I don't figure, you know, I know of just three, other than me, and one of them is 77, and he's wantin' to quit."
"Lot of people think there aren't cowboys anymore," said Simon.
"You can't see 'em drivin' down the interstate 75 miles an hour," said Kent. "I tell people we've been in a lotta places that ain't on a map, sure ain't on a GPS. And as long as there's cows out there somewhere, and thank the good Lord that there's still wide-open country, there's gonna be a cowboy gotta take care of 'em.
"And then, you gotta have an old cook to feed 'em."
For more info:
- "A Taste of Cowboy: Ranch Recipes and Tales from the Trail" by Kent Rollins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
- Kent Rollins Red River Ranch Chuck Wagon Catering and Cowboy Entertainment
- http://www.kentrollins.com/Follow @Kent_Rollins on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube
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