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A version of this post originally appeared as José R. Ralat’s November installment of the “Taste of the West,” a monthly newsletter covering all things food and drink across the West. Subscribe below to receive this month’s newsletter, deploying Monday, December 17.
“Despite knowing better, I am completely incapable of letting freshly baked bread cool down before eating it,” Richard Vana, a friend and the owner of the Heritage Table, a quaint American everything-from-scratch-and-we’d-grow-our-own-heritage-wheat-if-we-could restaurant in a 100-year-old house in Frisco, Texas, recently told me. It’s true for me. I think it’s true for most people. Whether it’s rustic crusty loaves that leave no chance of a successful sneaky nosh or the squishy yeast rolls accompanying a holiday meal, bread has a pull on us.
Maybe bread’s pull on our appetite and willpower is found in the critical role grain domestication played in the rise of civilization. Rich thinks so. “It’s a primal instinct that when you smell and taste fresh bread, it’s sustenance at its basest level,” he tells me over the phone ahead of the Heritage Table’s lunch rush. “It’s where things start.” Maybe it’s that well-crafted bread is an addictive marvel. “Professional bakers have learned to overcome the temptation to destroy their product by diving into the bread too early,” Rich says, before poking fun at himself. “I, on the other hand, have a slight proclivity toward baking and am unable to control the urge quite frequently.”
Its vessel of creation does not matter one whit: Bread can be baked in ancient earthen ovens, commercial tray ovens, or, in the case of cowboy chuck wagon cook Kent Rollins, Dutch ovens.
Photographer Robert Strickland and I visited Kent and his wife, Shannon, at a cowboy camp at the Webb Ranch in Hollis, Oklahoma, for a feature story, “Holiday on the Ranch,” in C&I’s November/December 2018 issue. The article focuses on a celebratory menu Kent created mostly from recipes from his cookbook, A Taste of Cowboy: Ranch Recipes and Tales From the Trail. He tossed in a couple of surprises for fun.
Thin-framed and bushy-mustachioed, Rollins moved effortlessly from the 385-pound, custom-made Bertha, covered Dutch ovens cooking up a few courses, and his refurbished 1876 Studebaker chuck wagon. We chatted about his time as a rodeo cowboy and he shared colorful yarns about friends (the one about a quip made by his octogenarian moonshining buddy at the fella’s retirement party was a real doozy and a shade too blue to repeat here). I witnessed in person his approach to cooking, epitomized in the five words printed on his apron: “Can’t Get Full on Fancy.”
As engaging as the conversation and the company was, I couldn’t help but keep sneaking looks at the cast-iron pot containing the baking rolls, slowly darkening from the white of raw dough to the tawny golden hue of fall meadow grass at sunset. Once they were baked, there was only one thing to do: dive headfirst, mouth open, into the honeycomb-shaped network of rolls at the bottom of the Dutch oven.
Rich’s words on the allure of bread came to mind, but I didn’t act on my temptation. My professional responsibilities as a journalist prevented that. Nevertheless, I knew that although what was before me might not be considered “fancy,” it would nonetheless be welcome at any white-tablecloth eatery — even the kind where white-jacketed waiters carry six-inch silver table crumbers and fold your linen napkin when you leave the table to take a phone call.
Such is the effect of Kent’s recipes. The compelling dishes in A Taste of Cowboy will have your holiday guests elbowing one another out of the way for the last bite. The recipes in Kent’s cookbook are not fancy, sure, but they come with plenty of stories, history, and a primer on the Cowboy Code. Mind your manners, and say “excuse me, please,” as you elbow past your cousin while reaching for the rolls.
Get yourself a copy of A Taste of Cowboy. Better yet, give a copy to a loved one, along with one or more of my other recommended cookbooks.
American Cookie: The Snaps, Drops, Jumbles, Tea Cakes, Bars & Brownies That We Have Loved for Generations (Rodale Books, 2018) by Anne Byrn
This cookbook lays out our nation’s history one cookie crumb at a time. A nibble: Did you know the same man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and sent Lewis and Clark on the country-shaping expedition also recorded a recipe for ladyfingers with a bouquet of oranges? Mix up a batch of old favorites here. (Purchase the book.)
Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums That Forever Changed Flavor (Lorena Jones Books, 2017) by Maricel E. Presilla
There’s more to jalapeño — and Hatch chiles and ghost peppers — than meets the eye in this beautiful, expansive tome from the author who put together a White House meal in less than two weeks. (Purchase the book.)
The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays: 140 Step-by-Step Recipes for Simple, Scrumptious Celebrations (William Morrow, 2013) by Ree Drummond
The Pioneer Woman has put together this collection of recipes for New Year’s Day, the Super Bowl, Mother’s Day, and many other special occasions. But, really, is there a wrong holiday for marshmallow pops? No. No, there is not. Recipes from the cookbook can be found here. (Purchase the book.)
Then, click on over to here for more suggested cookbook gifts.
- Kent Rollins Red River Chuck Wagon Cowboy Cooking, kentrollins.com
- The Heritage Table, 7110 Main St., Frisco, Texas 75033, 469.664.0100, theheritagetable.com
What’s Cooking: My conversation with the Heritage Table’s Rich Vana touched on more than how bread is worth burning one’s fingers for. His aforementioned finished recipe, a garlic-parmesan bread, was an experiment with a new recipe, one separate from the breads made by the restaurant’s in-house baker. “It’s a white loaf with a little bit of rye flour and a little bit of wheat,” he says. “Maybe the rye and wheat made up 10 percent of the flour content.” As fancy and technical as garlic-parmesan bread might seem, Rich assures me anyone can make it. “Once you understand the ratios of things, you can mix and match hundreds of different flours and different gluten levels and always come out with a good product — maybe not always something great! — but something that smells good and makes you say on tasting it, “Yeah, this is pretty good bread.” Try keeping your hands off the Heritage Table’s recipe for the loaf, available online here.
Potluck: We want to know what whets your appetites at home. Send us your bread favorite recipes and the stories behind them, and we might just post one right here.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of Taste of the West. My mission is to enliven your mood and your appetite with monthly newsletters. I welcome any suggestions you might have for topics. So drop me a line at José R. Ralat, Food & Drink Editor: email@example.com.
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Photography: Robert Strickland, Adapted from American Cookie: The Snaps, Drops, Jumbles, Tea Cakes, Bars & Brownies That We Have Loved for Generations. © 2018 by Anne Byrn. Photographs © 2018 by Tina Rupp. Published by Rodale Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, Courtesy the Heritage Table