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 StahlKent 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