This Chuck Wagon Chef Followed His Heart—and His Stomach

He's dedicated his life to keeping the art of cooking for cowboys alive and well. 

Posted in , Jul 27, 2020

Chuck wagon chef Kent Rollins

Texas’s Palo Duro Canyon gets mighty cold in December. Especially at 3:45 in the morning. My hands, my whole body, felt frozen as I rolled out of my 1876 Studebaker chuck wagon. I could barely hold a match to the lantern, the wind blowing from the north. “God, let this catch,” I muttered.

The cowboys were still asleep, though they’d be stirring before long. It’s my job as cook to be up first, firing up Bertha—my 385-pound, wood-burning camp stove—and get enough eggs and bacon going to feed a small battalion. An army moves on its stomach, they say. A cattle drive is no different. Without a hearty breakfast…brother, we’ve got problems. It’s all riding on me.

I gave up a good-paying, secure job to become a chuck wagon cook. At the time, it felt like what I was meant to do. But on mornings like this, a warm bed sure did seem inviting. I went to the barrel to get water for coffee, but it was frozen solid. I’d have to chop it to get some in the percolator. Lord, what am I doing here? I wondered. Just then, the lantern blew out.

My whole life, I’d been around cowboys. I was the youngest of four children, and my daddy ran about 250 cows on a small ranch in southwest Oklahoma, some of the most beautiful and desolate land on God’s earth.

When I was eight, I went on my first cattle drive, moving a herd 10 miles. Just like here in the canyon, it was still dark when we saddled our horses and led them out of the pen. We paused, and Daddy said, “Let us not forget we all have Someone beside us, Someone to help us as we ride along. So let’s cowboy up and get it done.” It was a long, hard day, and there were times I wanted to quit, not that I ever let on. The next morning, my entire body was sore. Still, I stood a little taller that day, even if it made my muscles ache more.

There came another day when I awoke and the temperature was barely five degrees, the wind blowing something fierce. Daddy and the other cowboys went about their chores regardless, but my mama held me back. “Why don’t you and I make a chocolate cake today?” she said.

I took another look outside, the men bracing themselves against the cold, and quickly agreed. Mama told me the ingredients I needed to find and began spooning flour and sugar into a bowl. “How do you know how much to use?” I asked. I’d never seen her look at a recipe to cook anything.

“Each ingredient has a purpose,” she said. “It’s like a team that works together. It’s about finding the right balance. You’ll make mistakes at first, but that’s how you learn.”

Soon the house was filled with the sweet aroma of rich, velvety chocolate. The heat from the oven was warm and welcoming.

“You know what comes next?” Mama asked me.

“Eating!” I said.

Mama laughed. “First comes cleaning up,” she said, filling the sink with hot soapy water. Hmm, even fun jobs required hard work. “The joy of cooking isn’t about the eating. It’s about seeing the smiles on people’s faces.”

I didn’t quite see how a smile could beat a piece of chocolate cake until I was a few years older. I was 15, and Daddy, my brother and I were pitching in at a friend’s ranch, an annual custom called neighboring up. Around midday, I heard an old feller, sweat running down his face, say, “We better get paid well today.” Wow, we’re getting cash money, I thought.

Then I looked up to see car after car coming down the driveway, wives and moms bringing platters of fried chicken, breaded pork chops, salads of all kinds, cakes and pies. The cowboys were grinning from ear to ear. To this day, I remember how good that food tasted after a morning of hard work.

That afternoon, the cowboys worked twice as hard, laughing and cutting up. Me included. I thought about what Mama had said about why she liked to cook. To be able to give folks that much pleasure, well, that seemed pretty special. I knew there were men who specialized in cooking for cattle drives. I set my mind to figuring out how I could do that.

That’s how I found myself on cattle drives in places like Palo Duro. Now the lantern was lit again, and it was almost toasty with Bertha throwing out her mesquite-fueled loving. The cowboys gathered round the table, warming their hands on cups of coffee. “Let’s bow our heads,” I said. “Dear Father, we thank you for all you’ve given us. Bless this food and help us get through this day without any bad accidents. Amen.”

The fellers ate quickly. When they were done, they tipped their hats. “Mighty good,” one cowboy said. They mounted up, the sun barely peeking over the horizon. “Let’s hit a trot,” I heard someone say. “We’re burning daylight.” I felt a tinge of sadness watching them ride off. As important as I know breakfast is, it still seemed like I was on the outside looking in. How much could a plate of eggs and bacon really matter?

My first chance to cook for cowboys came after high school. An uncle in New Mexico who worked as a hunting guide invited me to cook for his clients. I jumped at the chance. I didn’t have Bertha then. I cooked over pits I dug in the ground. The wind blew dirt and burning embers over me. And I quickly learned how much I didn’t know about cooking. Such as how elevation affects how dough rises. Where we were camped was more than 3,000 feet above sea level.

One morning, I made biscuits for breakfast, the way Mama had showed me. But they hardly rose at all and tasted like shoe leather. “Is this flatbread?” an old-timer asked.

“It’s the only bread we’ve got,” I said. I felt like a failure. Still, hadn’t Mama said mistakes were part of learning? I tinkered with the ingredients, and the next time they came out better, still not perfect but more recognizable as biscuits. Cooking was hard work, but I loved the camaraderie with the other men, seeing their smiles as they dug into breakfast.

But Daddy was getting older and needed my help at the ranch. I moved back home. There was no time for cooking, especially after Daddy was diagnosed with cancer. Running the ranch fell to me. I worked 20-hour days trying to keep things together.

After Daddy passed, the pressure on me only grew. I took a job operating a road grader for the county highway department to make ends meet. The pay was good and came with a retirement pension. I wasn’t happy, though. I missed cowboy culture, the joy I got from cooking. But how could I give up the security of a government job to chase after a dream? Besides, cattle drives weren’t exactly common anymore. Maybe I’d just been born at the wrong time.

I told Mama everything I was struggling with. “You need to do what makes you happy,” she said. “We’ll trust God with the rest. He’ll see us through with the ranch.”

It was nearly dusk in Palo Duro. It had been a long day for all of us. We’d moved the herd 10 miles, no mean feat in freezing temperatures. In the distance, I could see the cowboys coming back into camp. Bertha was throwing off a ton of heat, the hickory logs inside her crackling. Soon she’d be cooking platters of chicken fried steak to perfection. I already had potatoes and blueberry pie going in my Dutch ovens.

My menu offerings had grown more sophisticated since my days in New Mexico, cooking over open pits. My world had changed dramatically. Word had spread, and I was traveling all over Texas and Oklahoma, cooking for cowboys. The governor had named me the official chuck wagon of Oklahoma. Still, every meal I cooked felt like a new test. Especially in these conditions. The cowboys rode in. One of them—a crusty sort—dismounted and shuffled over to me, sniffing the air. The other men would be following his lead.

With no warning, he wrapped his arm around my neck. “You sure do make a feller feel at home,” he said.

Home. I couldn’t have imagined a bigger compliment. We were nowhere near the comforts of civilization, and yet through my cooking, I’d done my part to create a feeling of family, of belonging. A reminder, that even on a cold December day in Palo Duro, we had Someone helping us as we rode along. God would see to it, just as Mama said.

“The pleasure’s all mine,” I said.

Try Kent's prize-winning recipe for Cowboy Chili at home!

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