Manners, Chuck Wagons, and Why the Cowboy Is Not Dead

·Food Editor
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Kent Rollins’ chuck wagon, all packed up and ready to go. Photos: Shannon Keller Rollins

“I’ve cooked in every condition known to mankind except an earthquake,” writes professional chuck wagon cook Kent Rollins in his new cookbook A Taste of Cowboy. Rollins has been cooking for cowboys — yes, real live cowboys who herd cattle across vast swaths of land in New Mexico, Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma — out of his 10 foot by 3.5 foot 1876 Studebaker chuck wagon for two decades. His business has now grown into a catering company, TV appearances, and this cookbook, which he wrote with his wife Shannon. But Rollins says cooking for cowboys is “something I’ll never give up, m’am,” even if it does involve being deep in the pastures of one ranch for about 5 ½ weeks at a time.

“I used to spend more time in a teepee than I did in a house,” the Oklahoma native told Yahoo Food. “When you added it all up, I spent seven months a year out there.” The book took about two years to write, but “it’s been blood, sweat, and smoke for 25 years” before that. After featuring the Rollins’ book as Yahoo Food’s Cookbook of the Week, we wanted to know more about those years, and about what it means to be a cowboy — and a cowboy cook — today.

Kent Rollins takes a brief break from cooking. 

Yahoo Food: You talk about the authentic cowboy way of life in the book. What do you mean by that?

Kent Rollins: I tell people first of all, m’am, that the cowboy is not a dying breed. Sure, he may have slowed down a little bit, but just because you can’t see him driving down the interstate at 95 miles an hour doesn’t mean he’s not there. As long as there’s a cow out to pasture, there will always be a cowboy helping him get around.

Cowboys are in constant care of the cattle. In the spring is typically calving time, and they might help pull some calves, and then brand them, vaccinate, ear tag, etc. Fall is usually another big working time for another round of vaccinations, but there’s always chores to be done year ‘round, like building fence or fixing windmills. They sure don’t have a time clock to punch ‘cause it’s 24/7 for them boys.

Cowboys are stewards of land and livestock but also of people. They have a great code of ethics and moral values. There’s a great sense of comradery. I think America could really learn a lot from them. What builds [cowboys’ character] more than anything else, m’am, is hours and hours in the saddle with good people around.

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Hearty “Hodgepodge” stew.

How has the cowboy community changed over the years?

I grew up in a rural community that’s a farm and ranch place, and that little town gave me some of the best values. My mother said, “I gave you manners, so you better use ’em. If you don’t, I’ll instill them in you with a stick.” She never had to use it.  

A lot of America’s rural communities now are drying up and going away. And there’s a lot of change that’s took place in the world. It’s a busy place. But there’s a lot to see out there if people just slow down and look at it. 

Those values are still instilled in true cowboy ranching people, though. The greatest one is the honesty and sincerity that true cowboy ranch people have. I was at a place not long ago — a bigger town, I won’t mention the name — and I went to open a car door for my wife. A man nearby said, “I guess you do that because it makes you look good.” And I said, “No, sir, I do it because I have manners.” His wife looked at him and said, “You could use some of those!” I think it comes from the way you were raised. If you’re on a ranch, man or woman, you say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, m’am.” If you’re a man, you take your hat off when you’re inside, you tip it to every lady when you meet her.

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A cowboy-in-training enjoys Rollins’ pickled okra and cheese dip.

Why did you go into cooking and stop being a cowboy yourself?

I’ve been on both sides of the fire, the branding fire and cooking fire. I cowboyed for awhile and grew up doing it. And I’ve eaten off a lot of wagons in my life, but you didn’t ever badmouth a cook because that was showing no respect at all. And a cook could get even if he don’t like you! But I thought I’d cook for a few ranches between other jobs because it could taste better and because the cook always made twice what the cowboys made. The cooks made about $60 a day then and the cowboys made $30 a day. It grew from that to now, I cater for bar mitzvahs and corporate gatherings. I fed around 22,000 people last year and probably drove around 35,000 miles.

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Pork chops with green chile-chipotle relish.

What is ‘cowboy cuisine’?

It’s comfort food. It’s food that makes you feel good when you cook it, and makes you feel even better after people clean their plates and want seconds.

There are a lot of Southwestern traditions in the food — I put a little bite in my food because I like it to bite back. Otherwise, it’s made from stuff that you have in your pantry, stuff that’s easily transported.

It’s a hard way of life and there’s not a lot of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Are there health issues in the cowboy community?

We don’t shy away from green food. It’s one of those things we dearly love, we just don’t get it often. We’ll take fresh green stuff in the first week on a ranch, but it’s hard to keep a head of lettuce fresh into the fifth week.

We’re a strong breed of people to be able to survive the conditions we work in and the factors we deal with. We get along well.

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What life looks like on ranch land in the American west.

What foods do the cowboys like the most?

Mostly they like things with a little bite and spice. The poblanos have become popular and also lots of taters and casseroles like the Upside-Down Pizza or Spicy BBQ and Bacon Baked Beans.

Why cook off a chuck wagon and not a food truck?

It’s so remote in this country, you can’t get nothing else in there. Some ranches do use a truck, but in a way, that’s more of a hassle because you wonder: Will it start every day? Are you gonna run out of gas? What if you get a flat tire?

The chuck wagon, m’am, was the first meals on wheels ever invented.

But I’m all for modern conveniences, m’am, I really am. There have been times when someone’s hurt and we’ve been able to contact someone to come help with a cell phone. That’s a good modern convenience. You may have to run to the top of a hill to get a signal, but you can get it. But it’s a blessing at times when it don’t work. When we get back on pavement and to what we call civilization, and there’s 100 missed calls and lots of email s… It sure was nice for it to just be quiet.

What does the chuck wagon consist of, in terms of tools and equipment?

All wagons are a little different, and what’s needed to use them today is different from what it was back in the 1800s. My frequently used tools are a sledge hammer, saw, trivets for cooking in Dutch ovens, tarps and fly, and lid lifters for checking the Dutch ovens. 

We cook with wood, mainly mesquite. I load [my oven] Bertha up with wood and let it burn down to a coal to then use that with the Dutch ovens. I can also use Bertha as a stove to fry or heat on, and her top comes off, so I can put a grate on to grill with.

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Kent Rollins heating coals for his Dutch oven, Bertha

What was one of the hardest times you’ve had trying to make a meal?

In the Palo Duro Canyon. It’s second in size only to the Grand Canyon. It was December, and it gets mighty cold in the Texas panhandle. One night, the wind blowed a whole 12-foot tented wall down — ripped it. When it’s three degrees in the morning, them cowboys is used to coming into the tent and [my stove] Bertha keeps everyone warm. So when that blowed down, I sewed it back up by hand. Pushing a big old needle through canvas over and over and cooking three meals that day was hard.

I’ve seen the wind blow dust and dirt so bad I’ve had to light a lantern at 4 o’clock in the afternoon it was so dark.

Mother nature can give you some of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see, but she has a temper at times. But I wouldn’t trade it. I have the best view out of my kitchen window.

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Sourdough pancakes.

Why write a cookbook?

[My wife Shannon and I] wanted it to be more than just a cookbook. Wanted it to be a story that feeds you in the heart and in the stomach. We wanted people to be able to open this up that didn’t know a thing about cowboy or ranching and see it, and to preserve a part of history that’s been going on forever.

There is a simple way of life. You don’t have to complicate it.

What’s next for you?

Darlin’, people ask me every day, ‘Where are you going tomorrow?’ And I say ‘Wherever it takes me.’ As long as she’s by my side, every day is a holiday and every meal is a banquet.

Try some of Kent’s recipes:

Green pepper Frito pie

Kent’s award-winning chicken-fried steak

Find out how cowboys eat sushi