C&I catches up with the Pioneer Woman to mark the release of her latest bestselling cookbook, The New Frontier: 112 Fantastic Favorites for Everyday Eating.
Julia. Martha. Emeril. Ina. They’ve all cooked in front of the masses with confidence and shown us the intrinsic value and joy of the process. But they’re so much more than cooks or chefs. They’re teachers who reveal their own cultural wisdom and attention to detail in the service of making the rest of us better. Their shared talent is not just about food; it’s about living with passion for something beyond the mundane.
Go ahead and add Ree to the list of names. That’s Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, a homemaker and resourceful blogger who in a little more than a decade has quietly risen to the upper echelon of lifestyle celebrity. But again, a word like celebrity does Drummond no justice. She’s a teacher, like those who captured our culinary imaginations before her. And unlike some of the giants of her industry, she exudes the vibes of a best friend or small-town role model.
To the affable 50-year-old Oklahoman’s credit, she’s set herself apart from her predecessors in meaningful ways. This has all happened naturally. Ten years after marrying Oklahoma cattle rancher Ladd Drummond in 1996, she started an earnest blog about raising a family on a working cattle ranch. Drummond took to the habit of using personal photography and a charmingly informal writing style to create step-by-step foolproof recipes. There was a picture and a simple explanation for every move. From steaks to sauces to sweet treats, she took us through every turn, and made jokes along the way. The blog’s popularity then spawned beautiful cookbooks, which eventually landed her at Food Network, gave her the opportunity to develop home and kitchen products, and now affords her the ability to invite her hordes of admirers into her Pawhuska, Oklahoma, small-town life for a meal and some shoppin’.
The Pioneer Woman has become a brand, but Drummond is an unquestionably authentic person who — aside from the odd book tour — still spends her days on the cattle ranch with her cowboy husband and “ranch hand” kids, works diligently to make life richer and more delicious for those she loves, and humbly shares her experience and wisdom with everyone else.
If you want the best and most substantial representation of Ree Drummond, spend some time with her cookbooks. The recently released The New Frontier: 112 Fantastic Favorites for Everyday Living is a solid start. You’ll find that Drummond hasn’t abandoned her step-by-step, no-guesswork approach to cooking, and you might also be surprised at the different culinary styles she’s presenting through the frontier lens. But how these books are written is as important as any one dish they explain. They carry the emotional weight of old plastic-bound church or family recipe collections, balanced by beautiful design and entertaining setups for each dish that crackle with Drummond’s ranch-weary wit. And lots of fun photos of Ladd, the kids, and the dogs, too.
While there’s certainly business acumen and ambition behind what Drummond is doing with The Pioneer Woman empire, reading her is really knowing her. Every page brings you back to the blogger, mother, wife, and friend we’ve all come to know.
C&I corresponded with Drummond recently during a crazy time in which she left her own frontier to spread the good word about The New Frontier on a breakneck national book tour. We wanted to know how she viewed her own work, who her teachers were, and what she’s learned about the art of entertaining.
Cowboys & Indians: When I read through any of your cookbooks, I get the same feeling I’d get when reading old church cookbooks and photocopied family recipe compilations. That warmth and familiarity is there — with exponentially better step-by-step directions. What inspired the informal format of your books, and did you have any challenges in achieving or communicating your vision with editors and publishers in the beginning?
Ree Drummond: The step-by-step format of my cookbooks is a reflection of my blog posts from Day One. Whether I was sharing a morning of Ladd and the kids working cattle or a recipe for chicken-fried steak, I always posted photos of the entire process, rather than just one representative photo. I’m a very visual person, so that’s how I like to see and learn things myself. And yes, the warm, familiar family recipes are the ones I have shared from the beginning. It’s the food I grew up eating, and it’s food that resonates with many people who have vivid memories of the meals their mom and grandmother made.
C&I: When you work on a book, what is the bulk of the writing and prepping process like for you? Is it similar to blogging, where you are trying things and photographing and cooking every day? Does it consume you in a way that prevents you from doing a lot of other things?
Drummond: Writing a cookbook is absolutely all-encompassing and, yes, it completely consumes me for the better part of a year. Coming up with the general recipe list is the first — and probably easiest — step. After that, it’s about writing the first draft of the recipes, then scheduling the shoot days. On the shoot days, I have four people helping me: one shopping, organizing, and prepping ingredients; one coordinating props; one helping with cleanup; and the other assisting with food swaps and making sure we don’t forget to turn on the slow cooker! It took 14 shoot days, spread out over about five months, for us to cook and shoot 112 recipes, and during those days I’m overseeing the cooking and taking all the food photos. Then, once we finish shooting, a whole other phase begins for me: I select and edit all the photos I want to use for each recipe; then I create a document for each recipe, inserting the photos as I go, and send them to my editor as I complete each one. It’s about a three-month process of writing, editing, and finalizing recipes before the layout process even begins. After that, it’s about reviewing the layout and copyediting the final pages, retesting recipes I might have a question about ... as I said, it completely consumes me! I’m simply unable to delegate it to others, because I’m so emotionally attached to it. So, in the end, I can always feel proud that the cookbook is 100 percent mine ... even though I’ve probably shaved a couple of years off my lifespan in getting it done.
C&I: How does book prep compare to filming the TV show? What are those days like?
Drummond: Both are very busy; the difference is that I can work on the cookbook at home in my yoga pants, while the TV show requires that I look a little more presentable (i.e. brush my hair). I do think the TV show is the most challenging in terms of having to balance the time demands with my daily life. The production crew comes to Oklahoma for one purpose only — to shoot my TV show. On the other hand, my world goes on turning and I have to navigate my home life amidst this whole other factor. But the flip side is that once the shows are filmed, they’re out of my hands! So, while it’s crazy during the time the production crew is here, once they’re gone, I can quickly pivot to other projects.
C&I: And to speak to that insane organization that goes into each project you take on … have you always been a hyper-organized person? What traits do you possess that fuel the ability to share tips and recipes and entertaining wisdom so succinctly and so naturally? How-to writing is a lot more complicated than any novice would imagine.
Drummond: I’m not being self-deprecating when I say that I have always been a naturally disorganized person. I can also be very scatterbrained, and my mind can wander if I’m bored. What I have found over time, though, is that if I am passionate about the subject matter, I stay engaged much more easily. I love writing and sharing how-tos and the goings-on with my family, so it’s easy for me to chat naturally about those things. As for being organized, that is a skill I have had to learn over time, through much trial and error — and tears and forgotten appointments. I am defensively organized, let’s put it that way. But I’m always skating on the edge of disaster in terms of becoming a complete mess.
C&I: More on what made you you — tell me about Ree as a child. What were your obsessions growing up? Were you ever drawn to figures who operated in a lifestyle-guru space, like the Marthas and the Julias? Who were your own Pioneer Women?
Drummond: I wouldn’t say the lifestyle space was an obsession of mine growing up. I was a ballet nut, so that was my interest and my discipline. Speaking of obsessed, Mikhail Baryshnikov had my heart for the majority of my youth. In the home space, I wasn’t into crafts, sewing, or decorating — but I always loved food and cooking. My mom was a great home cook, and I took my cues from her. As a young adult, I indirectly got ahold of a huge volume called Weddings by Martha Stewart. It was published in 1987 and was a full-color glimpse into the weddings she catered (she started as a caterer!) throughout the ’80s, and it is simply the most delicious and glorious book. I have always loved and appreciated Martha.
C&I: The new book is as light and entertaining and lovely as the others, but I also picked up on some heavier emotional themes. “New Frontier” isn’t just about bringing global eating trends into your down-home kitchen. You refer to the new emotional frontier, having lost loved ones and having said goodbye to daily time with your daughters as they make their way into adulthood. Aside from the work you’ve been doing, which never stops, how have you adjusted to the new (and more masculine) energy at home?
Drummond: Yes, The New Frontier is really about the new direction for our home. When Alex, my oldest, left for college in 2015, it was sad and difficult as is always the case when the first kid goes to college. But I still had my second daughter, Paige, at home, so while we experienced a void where Alex had been, the vibe in our household was still the same. But when Paige went to college in 2018, all bets were off. There was an immediate difference in the culture of our house. It was suddenly, very noticeably, a man cave, where ranching and football were (and still are!) the primary focus. So I’ve definitely had to fight to keep the female strength and energy flowing around here ... while also learning to appreciate the quiet spans of time in the Drummond house, which allows me a new avenue for creativity and focus. The glass is half full around here!
C&I: By that same token, your projects and businesses have continued to expand along with your audience. Whenever things get too chaotic, what’s something you do to get grounded again or center yourself?
Drummond: After completing six cookbooks and some 300 episodes of my cooking show — not to mention the projects my husband and I have had in our small town here in Pawhuska — I have (fortunately) learned to detect when things are getting to be too much. I can usually see the wall ahead before I hit it. I cling passionately to evenings at home, even if it just means watching The Walking Dead or Monday Night Football with Ladd and the boys. There has to be a really compelling reason for me to be out in the evenings (usually a Pawhuska football game!), because it’s my favorite time of day. I also stick close to my faith, whether it be prayer time or reading Psalms, which is my true north.
C&I: What do you most look forward to when you go out on a book tour?
Drummond: It sounds clichéd, but interacting with people is the primary thing that drives me when I leave home for a book tour. Some folks who come to my book signings know me from my Food Network show, but many know me from the old days of my blog. I always feel like I’m interacting with old friends. We aren’t all exactly alike, but we share an appreciation for life, humor, family, and food. The Pioneer Woman has expanded my world, and has definitely expanded my perspective, because of the people I have gotten to meet.
C&I: Beyond cooking, what are your approaches to and best tips for entertaining guests or family and making them feel comfortable in your home? What should every guest room have in it?
Drummond: It may sound counterintuitive, but I think the best approach to entertaining is to be OK with imperfection. In our social-media-driven world (of which I am a part!), the standards are set so high, for not just food, but also for décor, for the state of our homes, for everything. In reality, if we wait for everything in our environment to be perfect, we’ll never have anyone over — and if we do, the tension will be palpable. I never want my guests (or visiting family) to feel that vibe, so I try to take the imperfect and just make it (look, taste, feel) as good as possible. Ladd and I live in the home he grew up in. I love this house, but it’s pretty old. We have some water spots on our living room ceiling, we have occasional mice in our walls, and our cedar siding has seen better days. Our kitchen cabinet paint has areas where it’s peeling, all of our window screens have long since blown off and disappeared, and sometimes we have manure in our yard (ha!) thanks to a wayward ranch horse. But if you come over, I will make you the most delicious pot roast I can possibly make. And you’d be surprised at what a vase of sunflowers can do.
C&I: Let’s take you back, back, back for the final one. Do you ever “Sliding Doors” your life in your own mind and think about what you’d be doing had you not walked into the bar and met Ladd that night? Say you’d continued on your city-fied path: What is the alternate-universe Ree doing now?
Drummond: My previous boyfriend was from Newport Beach, so I might be a Real Housewife of Orange County. But I don’t really dwell on the what-ifs or whys. I live very much in today, and I trust I am where God intends for me to be at this moment. I’m going to keep trusting that, while always staying open to what’s next. There’s no way to know what tomorrow brings … but to me, that’s the fun part.
More on The Pioneer Woman
Photography: Courtesy of Mike D'Avello
From the January 2020 issue.