Welcome to cowboy country.
Here, beans are known as “whistle berries,” cooking a pork chop instead of a steak might get you run out of camp, and nobody eats until the cook says so.
Kent Rollins cooks on a cast iron stove named Bertha that weighs 385 pounds, and his kitchen rolls into camp on a working 1876 Studebaker wagon.
Based in Hollis, Oklahoma, Rollins and his wife, Shannon Keller Rollins, travel in the fall and the spring to far-flung ranches to cook for hardworking cowboys.
“Are there still cowboys?” asked a friend of ours in all seriousness when she heard about them.
When we told Rollins about it over the phone, he laughed and said, “The cowboy will always be here as long as there’s cattle somewhere.
“I’ve been in places so remote, cooking on ranches that weren’t on a map and that you sure wouldn’t be able to find on GPS.”
No matter where he is, his kitchen is always outdoors.
“I tell folks I have the best view in the world out my kitchen window. Mother Nature gives me everything, but she can also take it away from me pretty quick,” he said.
Rollins has cooked in storms, in 70-mile-per-hour winds, and in 107-degree heat, standing by an open fire to cook.
“It can be miserable sometimes,” he said, “but in a way there’s a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that whatever Mother Nature threw at you, you still were able to do the job, because there’s 12 to 13 people on the crew that were counting on you.”
Grim were the days before the cowboy cook. The man who changed this was the famed cattle rancher Charles Goodnight, who, after serving as a Texas Ranger and fighting in the Civil War, hit the trail and invented something that immortalized him in cowboy song: the chuck wagon.
“Chuck” means food in cowboy slang.
According to Don Edwards, a cowboy singer and folklorist inducted into the Western Music Association Hall of Fame, the average meal before the days of Goodnight was whatever cowboys could fit in a sack or their saddle pockets. “They’d travel lightly and just have what they needed to eat,” he said in a phone interview.
Goodnight built the first chuck wagon out of an old military wagon, Edwards said. Along with the chuck wagon arose the more poetic side of cowboy life, as they gained some extra storage space for a fiddle or a banjo.
“They’d get together and play a little music in the evening after supper was over,” Edwards said. “That part of the culture is what people thought of as the romantic part of it.”
Many of the old cowboy songs, which Edwards dedicated much of his career to gathering, tell of the rambling lifestyle of the cowboy, the satisfaction of hardship, and the beauty of the open plains.
Much as city commuters might chat about traffic, conversations turn to the day’s events, like a wayward cow that went off track, for example. “There’s always something funny in the bunch,” Rollins said.
According to Waddie Mitchell, co-founder of the Cowboy Poetry Association who worked professionally as a cowboy for 26 years, the cowboy life hasn’t changed much since the old days, and in his experience, the food has always “totally depended on the cook.”
Some of the cooks served lots of spaghetti; others served Wonder Bread in place of biscuits. And here and there, they’d get a cook who made mealtime an experience to be savored.
“There was a cook we called Big-Nosed Jim, and he was an old casino cook,” Mitchell said. Big-Nosed Jim had a drinking problem, had to get out of town, and then found himself on the trail with the cowboys. As his name suggests, he had a “big ol’ nose” that, when he’d been drinking, “was kind of this big red knob on his face,” Mitchell said.
“But he could cook,” Mitchell said, noting Jim’s sourdough pancakes.
The heart of cowboy cooking lies in its simple ingredients. Forget about fancy microgreens.
As for Rollins, he said he doesn’t need all that much to make a meal happen—with a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, jalapeños, garlic, onion, salt, and pepper as his flavorings, he’s set.
There is, for sure, a heaping dose of ingenuity. Canned beans, when doctored properly, turn into a lip-smacking, smoky, hearty dish. Raspberry Jell-O provides tartness to an apple crumble.
In his cast iron Dutch oven, Rollins churns out dishes that are downright comforting. He shares his recipes in a cookbook written with his wife, Shannon, “A Taste of Cowboy: Ranch Recipes and Tales From the Trail” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).
The book includes recipes for sourdough cinnamon rolls with brown sugar icing for breakfast, Green Pepper Frito Pie for dinner, Wagon-Wheel Steak for supper, and lots of cowboy wisdom in between.
Speaking of the Green Pepper Frito Pie, it’s a dish for which ground beef, onions, and green peppers are simmered in red enchilada sauce (from a can), and then layered with shredded cheddar cheese, which acts as glue for the Fritos on top. When we made it at home, it was met with friends’ cries of “Amazing!” in between sighs of nostalgia.
But Rollins’s most requested recipe is actually for his coffee. He wakes up before everyone else, as early as 3 a.m., to get Bertha—which he sometimes calls “a hunk of burnin’ love”—stoked and going, so he can have coffee ready and breakfast on the table around 4 a.m.
He recounts in his book how a self-proclaimed coffee snob, after downing several cups, asked him the provenance of his delicious coffee. “I knew it was going to break the poor feller’s heart when I told him Wal-Mart, and that I always serve Folgers,” he wrote.
Rollins’s secret is to boil the coffee grounds. It gets rid of the acidity and results in a smooth coffee.
It was a technique we put to the test at home recently. In a moment of desperation, we had bought one of the cheapest bags of coffee available from our nearby drugstore. Lo, after a few minutes of boiling the grounds, the coffee was an entirely different creature than we’d expected: silky and eminently quaffable.
Rollins has even more coffee tricks up his sleeve. By looking at the bubbles inside the cup as the coffee is poured, he can predict fair or rainy weather. During a cooking class, he peered into a cup and predicted a storm. The next day, everyone was running for shelter from the pouring rain. There really should be an expression like “storm in a coffee cup.”
Don’t Mess With the Cook
Regardless of the cook, however, mealtime for a cowboy is a very civilized endeavor. Mitchell said that when cowboys set up camp, they also set up a table “and everyone eats half-dignified.”
There is a pecking order in the seating arrangement, and cowboys keep to the etiquette of a well-cultured home. While the men would often put their arms down on the supper table and “gobble it up,” Mitchell said, “I never saw bad manners.” He added, “You never sit in another man’s place, and you never reach in front of another man—you’d get a fork in your wrist.”
According to Rollins, the cowboys “respect each other, but they respect the cook even more, because when they come to the wagon to eat, that is my territory; that is my house, my home.”
There are rules of camp that all hands abide by. For example, don’t ride into camp, or you’ll kick up dust around the cook and the food; and don’t walk through the hallowed ground between the fire and the chuck box—only the cook can go there, according to Rollins.
Given the rules of camp, you’d figure no one would be foolhardy enough to challenge a cook like Rollins on his home turf—unless that someone is a certain Bobby Flay, who one day showed up with a camera crew.
“Bobby said, ‘I heard you cook the best chicken fried steak in the world,'” Rollins recalls.
“He said, ‘I’d like to challenge you.’
“I said, ‘Today? In my kitchen?’
“He said yeah.
“I said, ‘Welcome to the land of hot and heavy,’ ’cause it was 97 degrees before we even built a fire.
“Bobby said, ‘It’s the hottest I’ve ever been in my life.’ His face got all red. I said, ‘If you’re going to pass out and fall down, don’t fall on the stove.'”
You can probably guess who ended up winning this challenge. Rollins has since made appearances now and then on the Food Network.
Learning to Cook
Rollins learned to cook from his mother, his grandmother, his aunt, and neighbors. “I never used a recipe. It was always just, you put this, you just put that in it,” he said.
Lessons extended far beyond cooking, though. “My mother told me that you cook with your heart. Your hands are connected to your arms, which go to your heart,” he said.
There were lean times during his childhood, but the family plates were always full, and he and his siblings were always taught good manners.
Apart from cooking, one of the biggest influences in his life has been cowboy heritage: “how you present yourself, how you carry yourself, you take pride in what you do.”
For those who aspire to learn his cooking ways and enjoy the simplicity of cowboy life, he and Shannon run the Red River Ranch Dutch Oven and Chuck Wagon Cooking School every spring and fall. But you’d better have patience—it’s booked through 2018.
See recipes from “A Taste of Cowboy”: