I avoided Kent Rollins’s 2016 US election video for as long as I could. Known for the Cowboy Cooking Channel, Rollins has built up an audience of over one million YouTube subscribers with his outdoor cooking videos. Watching him demonstrate the recipes he honed feeding elk hunters in New Mexico – southern fried okra and yellow squash, catfish tacos on homemade corn tortillas, peach cobbler with oat crumble, pozole rojo with four types of chilli – was making me salivate, but I wasn’t sure I could stomach his politics.
He’s a conservative man (his most recent cookbook is Faith, Family and the Feast) raised in the red state of Oklahoma, and towards the end of most of his videos he removes his hat and thanks the troops while the camera pans to the American flag. I feared his views on Trump might stop me from watching his channel, robbing me of my latest distraction.
Rollins brings the fields of Oklahoma to my flat, cooking one-pot meals in heavy pans mounted on a trivet over hot coals. In the background, the Red River flows by, with Texas beyond.
He makes it easy to burn through videos by creating a familiar space for viewers. His two dogs, Beag and the Duke, are ever-present “taste testers”, their approval measured in tail wags. He starts every video with a catchy intro – “You’d better come on, because it is gettin’ ready to go” – and ends with a taste test. “That there is some fine dining,” he’ll say after laying down his spoon, breaking into a side-to-side shuffle, a slightly different jig for every dish. It’s a predictable, comforting pattern.
He has a gift for storytelling, and takes breaks to put one boot on a bench, rest an elbow on his knee and tell you of his time serving pork and beans to tired ranchers in north Texas, or teach you the history of corned beef. His phrases deserve a book of their own: a New York burger joint is “busier than a longtail cat in a room full of rocking chairs”; the crust on fried chicken like “a shell on a turtle’s back – that stuff will repel water if you set it out there, I promise”.
Rollins’s repertoire incorporates Tex-Mex, Mexican, Cajun and hearty US classics; meatloaf one day, tamales the next. It’s rich and fatty: he dumps dollops of butter into his cast iron, adding handfuls of cheese whenever feasible. He’s generous with his seasoning, and as comfortable with Dutch oven baking as he is with slow cooking a giant chunk of pork belly, which comes out of his smoker covered in a dark, caramelised brown sugar rub. He’s pleasingly thorough with his instructions – his 15-minute videos run longer than most recipes, giving him time to explain the basics of brining meat, or how to save money at the butcher’s.
He cooks outside, but his recipes translate well to a smaller kitchen (Rollins converts hot coals into oven temperatures). I keep a batch of his fiery red sauce – made from onions, tomatoes, jalapeños, serrano peppers, garlic and guajillo chillies – in the fridge. The ancho chillies (dried jalapeños) he dices for many of his dishes are now ever-present in my cupboard (they go great stirred into scrambled eggs), while his three-meat breakfast hash, gleaming with bacon grease and flecked with chorizo, is a Sunday morning staple.
But there are moments that make me nervous. In one video, Rollins rants near-incoherently about vegetarian burgers and soy milk (“milk comes from cows, ma’am!”). He calls a Navajo flatbread dish “Indian tacos”, and while I appreciate many others do too, it made me nervous about what I might find deeper into his backlog.
While watching him demonstrate the huevos rancheros recipe he learned from an “old Spanish man” in Silver City, New Mexico, I decided I couldn’t leave it any longer. I scrolled back through his videos, found Cowboy View: Election 2016, took a deep breath, and clicked.
It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, nor as good as I’d secretly hoped, having grown fond of Rollins over so many videos. He rode the fence, urging viewers to “stretch hands across America” and stand united. “There’s so many polls out there that I don’t know where to turn. So I’m gon’ turn to the pole that I’ve always counted on, stood pretty true, and that’s the pole out there in our yard,” he said. “And on that pole holds a piece of cloth… and there it stands, as it gently waves in the breeze: our flag.”
Cheesy, yes, but not abhorrent. It was enough for me to put his potential politics out of mind and simply enjoy watching him cook. For now, I’ll put aside the flag-waving and keep digging. “Turn off the News!” reads the title of a video released last week, a compilation of “feel good” highlights. In other words: ignore the outside world, even if just for half an hour, because a cooking, dancing cowboy is much more fun.