Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Real Cowboy

A facebook friend of mine recently asked me where she could introduce some foreign exchange students to a real cowboy.  I gave her the short and convenient answer-Stockyards City on sale day.  What I really wanted to tell her was to seek out Kent Rollins.

The first time I became aware of Kent Rollins was 13 or so years ago.  I was watching a video of Kent on a cable TV cooking show.  He was demonstrating his famous Sparklin' Beans recipe for the show host.  She heard him say, "Now, add a can of Sprat."  She said "Spart, what's that?"  He said, "Sprat, sprat, you know, sody pop."  Of course, it was Sprite.  After my laughter ceased and I got up off the floor, I knew I had to meet this guy.  When I finally got the chance I reminded him of the incident and he said, "Yeah, some folks don't understand cowboy."
In a world of guys with big hats and no cattle, Kent Rollins is the real deal, an authentic, born-a-century-too-late cowboy.  He owns the Red River Ranch outside of Hollis in southwest Oklahoma.  It is a working cattle ranch and his hat isn't big, but it is well-worn, with sweat stains honestly earned, and creases no hat maker applied.  He is also a poet and humorist, but his real passion is cowboy cooking.  Real cowboy cooking-Dutch ovens over open flames and smoking coals.  Twice a year, in spring and fall, he brings students to the edge of the Red River to learn the Cowboy Way.
He explains it this way.  "People that come, we’ve had all types.  We’ve had people that are chefs and we’ve had people that are outdoors people but people come away with a different aspect of life as to how they, people, actually cooked back in the 1880’s.  And to learn to cook something in a Dutch oven that you can cook in a conventional oven, they think it’s one of the greatest things in the world."
At the Red River Ranch, students live in tepees, rise at the crack of dawn, fix breakfast, lunch and dinner the way it used to be done and get a chance to experience some cowboy learnin'.  Rollins is a throwback to the time when cowboys lived all day in the saddle and it was the camp cookie who was king on the trail.  The cowboy life was working, eating, and sleeping.  The chuck wagon and the cook's creations were the only things to look forward to at the end of the day.  Bad cooks didn't keep their jobs long.  Good cooks were the stuff of legend. 
In the world of chuckwagon chow, Kent Rollins is a star.  He's gone head-to-head with the likes of Chef Bobby Flay and he travels America teaching eager students that there is nothing you can't cook in a Dutch oven...mostly.  I'll let him tell you in his own words.
"We were doing schools on the coast of Alabama one time and I tell ‘em when we get through every day, Somebody bring something to cook tomorrow and I don’t care what it is, we’ll cook it in a Dutch oven.’   And a lady brought something the next day in an ice chest and she brought it up there and I said, ‘Ma’am, what’d you bring us to cook and she said calamari, and I said what, and she said calamari, and I said Ma’am, if I can’t spell it, I ain’t gonna cook it, I promise ya’.’  I didn’t have a clue what it was and she dug it out of there and I said, ‘No ma’am, we ain’t puttin’ that in none of my cast iron, I promise you.’
So, forget about the calamari but by the time his students finish the course, they have learned that it doesn't take a modern kitchen to produce outstanding food, that you don't need your cellphone or your IPad to learn something exciting, and that there are still some real cowboys out there.  Kent Rollins not only cooks like a cowboy, he ambles the walk, drawls the talk, and recreates a way of life that might disappear if it were not for the likes of him.
He told me, "I can sit out here beside this river 365 days a year and not ever have to go to town, not ever see nothin’, but I’m glad that changes have been made.  Not all of them have been for the better, but I’m glad that I was raised up in an era that I know what it used to be like and them values are still important to me today."
 Photos by Ron Stahl
Kent Rollins' next Cowboy Cooking School is set for March 23-27 at the Red River Ranch.  You could probably find no better use of your time...and you get to meet a real cowboy.
Kent Rollins website  

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Heaven on a Plate

I have eaten some spectacular meals at some of the finest restaurants in Oklahoma, but if you want to find the way to my heart through my stomach, make me a cheeseburger.  It is, in my humble opinion, the perfect food.  Got protein, got some carbs, and, with lettuce and tomato..a salad.  Culinary balance in one delicious package.  Oh yes! I am salivating right now.  Don't just take my word for it, look to Jimmy Buffett for advise on how to reach Paradise on a plate.  Or, consider this, when Waylon Jennings asked his wife, Jessi Coulter, where she wanted her 25th anniversary dinner, she told him Hank's Hamburgers in Tulsa.  Hank's is one of Oklahoma's great burger joints, boasting a giant four-patty monster, The Big Okie.
The Big Okie burger is not for the fainthearted or the diet-conscious but it could provide four days rations in case of emergency.  If that isn't enough, if you ask them, they will make one bigger than that.  Oh my!
Around lunch time in Mangum, Oklahoma, the town square fills with wonderful smells radiating from the Hamburger Inn.  The aroma of grilling meat is an intoxicating path to the Inn and makes it almost impossible not to follow your nose.  In fact, you might find that your feet don't touch the ground as you are pulled toward the source.  Mangum's Hamburger Inn has been feeding hungry folks for 80 years and was the first in what became a chain of Hamburger Inns around the state.  
 Bonnie Parker & Amy Darden show the Hamburger Inn's creations
Owner Bonnie Parker and her crew know how to turn out near-perfection on a bun.  The restaurant has expanded far beyond the original 15X15 space and added an extensive menu that includes lots of other things besides burgers, but the burger is still king here and you can have it your way.
Hamburger Inn, Mangum, Oklahoma 
You can't mention hamburgers in Oklahoma without talking about the legendary Meersburger.  The community of Meers, on the north side of the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, consists really of only one thing, the Meers Store and Restaurant.  The Meersburger will stun you when they deliver it to your table, totally covering the plate and cut into four pieces because it really is that big.  It also is made with longhorn beef, 97% lean, so you get a modicum of healthful intentions.  As big as it is, it really is only 8 ounces of meat-longhorn beef doesn't shrizzle, so it is an honest 8 ounces.  Owner Joe Maronto has a legitimate claim to serving the best burger in Oklahoma and one of the best in America-really.
Meers Store & Restaurant  
There are some outstanding Oklahoma-grown burger chains that serve mouthwatering burgers.  Sonic, on a large scale, (come on, admit it, Sonic makes some tasty burgers), Ron's Hamburgers and Chili, born in Tulsa and expanding, and Irma's Burger Shack in Oklahoma City.  Ron's features a gigantic big-as-a-plate burger, half beef, half sausage, covered in award-winning chili and topped with cheese.  Gut-buster, indeed!
Ron's Burgers & Chili 
 Irma's Burgers
The signature Irma's burger is made from all-natural beef from the No-Name Ranch.  The two Irma's locations in Oklahoma City are packed for lunch and, yes, despite all the other things on the menu, the burgers are the most popular.  Irma's has transformed a simple dish into art.
Irma's Burger Shack
These are just a few of Oklahoma's outstanding burger joints and there are far too many to write about in one short blog.  For instance, I didn't even touch El Reno's famous onion burger spots.  I'll save that for another time.
People ask me all the time about my favorite restaurants and I find it hard to answer that question because it all depends on where I am when I get hungry. 
There is no hesitation when I am cornered about my favorite food, though.  I love to wrap my hands around a bun filled with ground beef, topped with cheese, garnished with lettuce, tomatoes and onions, dripping just slightly with enough grease to add flavor...I think I just killed any latent vegetarian thoughts I might harbor.  RIP veggie burgers.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Disappearing Dance of Life

It may still be winter but beneath the howl of the frigid wind you can almost hear the stirring of the heart of spring in northwest Oklahoma.  In about 60 days, the lesser prairie chicken breeding season will begin and so will a mating ritual older than recorded history.

     Historical journals tell us that when settlers arrived in Oklahoma lesser prairie chickens were so numerous that wagons could not avoid crushing nests along the trail.  Loss of habitat, red cedar encroachment, over-hunting in the early days, and predation have reduced the distribution of the creature to southwestern Kansas, a portion of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, and a small area of west Texas.  In Oklahoma, the lesser prairie chicken population may be just over 2,000 birds and they are nearing the brink of extinction in our state.
     The Selman Ranch, near Buffalo, north of Woodward, is one area where you can see the lesser prairie chicken in a natural habitat.  The mating season can begin in late March and continue through April and into mid-May.  Owner Sue Selman conducts tours to see the birds as their mating ritual plays out in the leks, or booming grounds, on her property.  It is a spectacle that can be life-changing. 
     Selman says, “It’s hard to describe what it’s like, sitting there in the blind and listening to them come in in the dark and seeing them dance and prance.  They’re beautiful little birds and they’re so fun to watch, and it’s a very unique experience. You have to be there to truly appreciate it.”
     Selman’s tours are generally conducted through the month of April when the mating season is in its peak.  Visitors sit in blinds in the lek while the prairie chicken roosters bob and weave, dance and pose, in hopes of attracting the attention on an amorous female.  The male birds come back to the same lek year after year and the boundaries were established long before man disturbed the cycle.  
 The dance is familiar and after a while you realize that you have seen it before, even if you have never seen the lesser prairie chicken version.  Plains tribes adopted the intricate steps of the ritual into dance and you see variations of it in Native American dance competitions.
    Sue Selman has marked her fences with white plastic strips so that the birds can avoid flying into them.  She has become a champion for the lesser prairie chicken in Oklahoma.  For her efforts, the Oklahoma Audubon Society named the Selman Ranch as one of the first two Oklahoma Important Birding Areas.  The other was the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge.  She is a woman on a mission to call attention to the plight of these endangered natural treasures.
   “It just really makes me heartsick to think that they would be gone,” she says.  “Some people don’t understand why you care or why should we care but you start losing species, it’s not long before we’re in trouble. And it’s more than just another bird or a bird, it’s a way of life and it’s saying a lot about the way we take care of the land or don’t take care of the land.”
    There are many species of birds on the Selman Ranch and bird watchers and photographers are becoming more aware of its pristine opportunities for filling life lists and photo albums, but the prairie chicken is still the star.
     The prairie chicken viewing tours on the Selman Ranch have drawn visitors all over America to witness this vanishing spectacle and the City of Woodward and the Oklahoma Audubon Society have teamed to create the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival to educate others about the species.  The 2011 festival is set for April 15-21, with field trips and workshops.
    People who come are anxious to see this natural dance of life before it disappears and the call of the lesser prairie chicken is heard no more in the rolling hills of northwestern Oklahoma.
All photos by Ron Stahl

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I Wasn't Born Here But I Was Born To Be Here

This may surprise a lot of people who know me now, but I an not Oklahoman by birth-I am Oklahoman by choice.  This next revelation surprises even me sometimes-I was predestined to be here at this place, in this time.  I was born in Piggot, Arkansas, where the hospital was, and lived the first 18 years of my life in Rector, Arkansas.  Like every boy child who grew up in the time of Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and Lash LaRue, I spent a lot of time in a kid cowboy hat, a holster with a cap gun, and riding a stick horse.  My friends and I played Cowboys and Indians-who you were depended on whether you had the cowboy gear or the feathers and tomahawk-and when you tired of one character, you swapped gear and went to the other side.  We imagined ourselves in No Man's Land, it had such a dangerous ring to it, galloping across the Red River, running the banks of the Cimarron, moving cattle along the Chisholm Trail, or chasing bad guys in Indian Territory.  I grew up, I have come to realize, in virtual Oklahoma. But my involvement with Oklahoma was not all kid games.
My father was an Arkansas boy who lied about his age and went early into the Civilian Conservation Corps. He helped build State and National Parks in Idaho and Washington State.  He was a child of the Great Depression and took the route of many dirt-poor children of that age.  The CCC gave him a chance to earn money for himself and his family and it took him beyond the boundaries of northeast Arkansas.  This was fortunate for me.
My mother was an Iowa farm girl who grew up in the country near Cresco, a small town a stones throw from the Minnesota border.  She earned an Associates Degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and taught at a one-room country school when she was barely older than some of her students.  It was a long path between an Arkansas boy and an Iowa girl in those days but that path intersected for them in unlikely times in an unlikely place-Norman, Oklahoma.
World War II forced millions of young Americans to reevaluate their lives and, therefore changed them forever.  Olan Stahl, from Rector, Arkansas, and Dorothy Walker, from Cresco, Iowa, met at Norman Naval Air Station, Norman, Oklahoma.  Dad was in fireman training and went on to the war in the Pacific.  Mom was an aircraft mechanic and had to leave the Navy after she and dad got married.  She waited out the end of the war with her family in Iowa until dad was back in the states.  On one of her last visits to Oklahoma, I drove my mom through the site of the old Navy base in Norman.  She pointed to a building and said, "I was sitting on the steps of that building the first time I saw your dad.  He was marching in a parade and he was so handsome." She told me about dates to go dancing in Oklahoma City, taking the Interurban Trolley there and back and the process of falling in love, the loneliness of waiting for her young sailor to come back and the fear that he would not.  But he did and they raised their six sons and daughters in northeast Arkansas.
Mom and Dad are both gone now, but their oldest son moved to Oklahoma in 1978, married a girl from Norman, raised two Okie children, and made a life in the land of his childhood games and the land that germinated the seeds of love between that Arkansas boy and that Iowa girl. 

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Eye to the Winter Sky

As we now know, winter in Oklahoma can be hit or miss.  One day sub-zero temperatures and a blizzard and then sunny days in the 60's.  The uncertainty of Oklahoma winter weather and the natural wish to avoid it is a direct cause of cabin fever and there is a cure....get out of the cabin once in awhile.  One of the most popular winter activities in Oklahoma is eagle watching.  Some years as many as 2,000 eagles make their way south to the (relatively) warmer climes of Oklahoma from the frozen north.  In the western part of the state, golden eagles cluster around open water and share space with magnificent bald eagles.  In eastern Oklahoma, the bald eagle is predominant. 

Out west, the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge near Jet is home to wintering eagles and many times you don't even have to leave the car to see them.  On one trip, my photographer, Tommy Evans, and I got great video of a mature bald eagle soaring high overhead.  Down the auto trail a bit later, Tommy got out of the car to shot some video of a flock of waterfowl, mostly mallard ducks, on a pond beside the road.  Our naturalist guide and I were standing beside the van when the guide caught my eye and pointed up.  Almost directly over Tommy's head sat an immature bald eagle (no white feathers, yet), in the tree also watching the ducks.  Tommy got some great video of the bird and when it finally got tired of the attention, it launched itself from the tree.  Terrified ducks flew in every direction but the eagle kept on going.  In northeast Oklahoma, the trees below the Keystone Lake dam often hold bald eagles.  The water holds fish, bald eagles love fish, people love to watch eagles.  Everybody's happy...except the fish.  The bottom of the food chain is a place joyless and scary.

  Along the Illinois River near Tahlequah, on some winter days, more than a dozen bald eagles drape tree limbs along the river bank and can be easily seen with little effort on your part.  One of the most spectacular sights I have seen was at Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge near Vian, Oklahoma.  It involved not so much an eagle, but an eagle's nest.  Many people think they have seen eagles only to be fooled by large hawks.  Once you have really seen an eagle you will never be fooled again.   The size of the bird is amazing...massive wingspan..huge body..and then consider the size of the nest this big bird builds.  At Sequoyah, my wife and I gawked at a nest in a tree barely a hundred yards off the road.  With the binoculars you could see a head peek from the nest occasionally (I think..or it might have been my vivid imagination) but the nest alone was awe inspiring.  With the sunset blazing bright orange, flocks of birds flying past, and that massive nest in a skyscraper tree, I took a picture to last a lifetime.  It wouldn't have happened if we hadn't gotten out of the cabin. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Extremes of Oklahoma

Trout Stream Beavers Bend State Park

I am fascinated by the physical extremes of Oklahoma.  I moved from Texas to Oklahoma in 1978 and thought I was moving to a smaller state but I quickly discovered that Oklahoma is not small at all.  If you start in the southeast corner of Oklahoma, Idabel or Broken Bow, you are in pine forests and mountains, with the swampy Red Slough Wildlife Refuge in the extreme southeast.  Red Slough has resident alligators.  Beavers Bend State Park, Broken Bow, Oklahoma, has trout streams and outstanding forest vistas.  It is very easy to believe that you are in Colorado or Wyoming instead of Oklahoma. 
If you get in the car in Broken Bow and drive to Oklahoma City, stop and have lunch, get back in the car and continue through the Oklahoma Panhandle, you will see the landscape undergo an extreme change.  The land becomes flat and on clear days you really can almost see forever.  Highway 3 is straight as an arrow pointing west toward sundown. 
At Boise City in Cimarron County, you angle northwest and head to the highest point in Oklahoma, Black Mesa, near Kenton.  You are almost guaranteed see a herd of antelope along the way.  The flat land gradually changes to mesas and western-movie perfect canyons.  You almost expect to see a posse in pursuit of bandits come galloping over the rise.  At Kenton, you are literally a stone's throw from New Mexico, and from the top of Black Mesa, you can see Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.  How odd that the highest point in Oklahoma is a mesa, not a mountain. 
Black Mesa, Kenton, Oklahoma  
 When you arrive in Kenton, you will have driven twelve hours (counting lunch and potty breaks), gone from the forests and swamps to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains without leaving the state, and when you spend the night, you will fall asleep and awaken in Mountain Time, because the town of Kenton operates in a different zone, in more ways than one.  But that's another story.
Photos of Beavers Bend and Black Mesa by Ron Stahl