Robert Strickland’s photographs transport C&I readers to Webb Ranch, where he and food & drink editor José R. Ralat visited cowboy chuck wagon cook Kent Rollins for the November/December issue’s Western Gourmet feature.
When Robert Strickland and José R. Ralat visited Webb Ranch in Hollis, Oklahoma, for the Holiday on the Ranch feature, they didn't quite know what to expect. The day before, the frequent collaborators had taken their time driving up Highway 287 from Dallas, keen to explore a stretch of Texas ahead of an assignment.
They took a breather at a historical marker for the Chisholm Trail at a rest stop. The plaque indicating the famous cattle drive passage was several yards in front of a slack chain-link fence behind which was a short concrete stud painted white with the words “Chisholm Trail” in black noting what was likely the actual path drovers and chuck wagon cooks tread en route to Kansas railheads.
Photography: José R. Ralat
They missed the turn for the gravel road that took them through Bonita, Texas, a hamlet that seemed little more than a collection of homes and patches of prairie grass.
Strickland and Ralat stopped in Wichita Falls, Texas, for lunch at Pioneer of Texas No. 3, where they scarfed on the legendary restaurant’s signature Tex-Mex dishes. The enchiladas smothered with chile con carne gravy — not to be confused with the silky red chile beef stew from Sonora or the bowl of red that is Texas’ state dish — was thick and deep and prickly with heat broiled in a melted cheese mixture.
The iconic red tacos of Wichita Falls, said to be originally offered at nearby Casa Mañana restaurant, packed ground beef, lettuce, tomato, cheese into a sturdy tortilla that seemed dyed an un-natural crimson (but is said to be red from a blend of red-colored spices and such). The corn flatbread vessel was puffed slightly from time on a griddle. Taken together, the red tacos were a curious and fascinating example of the hyper-regionality of food, the kind of rabbit hole C&I’s food and drink editor happily dives into.
Photography: José R. Ralat
But it was the queso-smothered chimichanga that was sink-into-your-seat comforting.
It’s 7 a.m., and the prairie is awake. The tallgrass yawns as the wind moves through its blades. Cicadas buzz their high-pitched song. An overweight beagle named Bonehead rests in the warm sunshine. There’s brush and mesquite as far as the eye can see. In that otherwise empty expanse, Kent Rollins is tending to the fire fueling his prized camp stove, Bertha.
Strickland and Ralat next followed the highway north along the Red River on the hunt for ghost towns and on the lookout for more historical markers. Cemeteries, meadows, and plaques were all that were left of some towns.
But the most striking was Clara, Texas. Established in 1886 by German immigrant Herman Specht and named for his wife, the township of Clara was never a bustling settlement. It included schools, a store, a garage, a post office, and a Lutheran church with its adjacent rectory and cemetery. All that remains are the church, the inhabited rectory, and the flower-speckled cemetery, hidden from the road by a whistling barrier of tallgrass.
When they arrived at their destination, Hollis, Oklahoma, they encountered a dilapited town, where piles of rubble are the only indication of building walls once stood. For Sale signs blocked the light from windows. All was quiet. All was what Webb Ranch was not.
As Ralat, writes in the feature that came from that assignment: “It’s 7 a.m., and the prairie is awake. The tallgrass yawns as the wind moves through its blades. Cicadas buzz their high-pitched song. An overweight beagle named Bonehead rests in the warm sunshine. There’s brush and mesquite as far as the eye can see. In that otherwise empty expanse, Kent Rollins is tending to the fire fueling his prized camp stove, Bertha. ... Whenever Rollins, a genuine cowboy and chuck wagon cook, opens the firebox door to manipulate the burning wood or remove ash, flames lap out and arch backward, licking the stove’s surface. All around there is life and movement, and at the center of it all is Kent Rollins.”
As for the rest, well, you’ll just have to read the article, complete with recipes in print (or online next week). In the meantime, the slideshow of Robert Strickland’s photos will give you a taste of what to expect during a holiday on the ranch.
All photographs by Robert Strickland, unless otherwise noted.