Family Food Fun

The mystical Manchaca Rancho Winslow Supper Club

Family Food Fun
Art by Jessica Deahl

To call the home of Chris and Diane Winslow in far southwest Manchaca a ranch might be a bit of a stretch. It's an immaculately maintained rambling house sitting on five acres at the back side of Elliot Ranch. It does have six horses (five of which are completely worthless miniatures), three dogs (the best of which is Hershey), some parrots, a herd of angry and disrespectful chickens (looking right at you, Dwayne Jr.), rat snakes in the barn, a cat or two, and coyotes in the distance, but it's probably not a true ranch in the grandest expression of Texas parlance. I take credit for coming up with the name Rancho Winslow while recounting our culinary exploits on my blog and in the Chronicle; "ranchette" doesn't quite roll off the tongue. It's not even really a supper club in the strictest sense. It is a clubbish group that partakes of supper, but it's more a gathering of close friends and family centered around a food event of one sort or another, calendar-related or otherwise.

When a Rancho Winslow article gets mentioned or reprinted in the Hays Free Press, or posted to the It's About Thyme website, CBoy and Di get hounded by folks wanting to know how they can buy "tickets" to the supper club, or when the next "event" is, or how can they get added to "the list." After several drinks, we've often joked that it might be a good way to raise some extra cash for a fishing trip, but we don't need the extra pressure, and commercializing it would sully the experience. It's all about camaraderie and joie de vivre.

Chris Winslow and I first met back in the ponytailed, early Seventies. He had just started building his plant empire at Mar­bridge Farms; I had heard of his nursery and was a houseplant freak living at the legendary Bean Palace on West Sixth Street. We met and became fast friends, and have been ever since. His much better half Diane, who owned It's About Thyme Nurs­ery before Chris left Mar­bridge and moved over there, has long been known as the Martha Stewart of Manchaca. Di is the queen of decorating and handicrafts, and certainly knows her way around a kitchen. Chris cooks exclusively on the outside grill or the smoker. Di and I clicked immediately and she and I began to collaborate on meals for one event or another, first at their old house on Cat­tle­man Drive and later at Rancho Winslow.

It's a function of Chris' chatty, gregarious nature to invite too many people, and once invited, no one ever passes up the opportunity. I remember one blisteringly hot afternoon at the Cattleman house where I had agreed to deep-fry an especially bounteous harvest of redfish and specks that came from several fishing trips to the coast, for what grew to a crowd of 60. The danger of my cascading sweat hitting the cauldron of hot oil almost surpassed the threat of me collapsing from heat exhaustion, and I had batter up to my elbows most of the day. But matched with a squeeze of Mexican lime and the homemade tartar, rémoulade, and sinus-searing cocktail sauces that Di and I had concocted, the fish was sublime. We ate fish until the beers were burpless.

I had to use all four layers of my two big commercial Chinese duck steamers to cook hundreds of pork dumplings for one crowd. The bonus was that I forced them all to learn the proper way to fold a pot sticker; I'm no fool when there is free labor just standing around. At that dinner there was also a huge pot of some particularly hearty and zesty hot and sour soup – one of the better batches I have ever made. I had used that same steamer to presteam some pork riblets, which then got marinated and grilled, slathered with a black bean barbecue sauce. The intensely concentrated pork rib stock at the bottom of the steamer was the base for the soup.

I've done a lot of soups through the decades, because they're a really good filler for the menu, and also a way for me to show off. I remember a silky Mexican sopa de elote made from fresh corn right out of the fields at Marbridge, loaded with roasted and peeled poblanos, topped with Monterey Jack and tortilla whiskers. There have been pots of rich, spicy posole loaded with Hatch green chile and fall-apart pork. In the summer, the go-to soup is an ice-cold gazpacho, made using the aromatic, scarlet tomatoes and crisp cucumbers from right outside in the garden, but there has also been a chilled, seductive vichyssoise loaded with garden spuds and King Richard leeks. Pots of Cajun chicken and sausage gumbo, fiery chili con carne, Romanian Székely goulash, huge, simmering vats of reducing demi-glace; the list goes on.

One advantage of the Cattleman house was that right next door to the west was where Wally lived, a great cook in his own right. He always wanted to help, and learn something he didn't know, so I had extra prep and cooking help. Ditto for Mike, who lived directly across the street, and Chuck: both admirable cooks eager to contribute. The kitchen at Cattle­man was smaller and more constrictive than at Rancho Winslow, and when there was a group to eat, they would all migrate to the kitchen, squarely underfoot. I had to throw a few hissy fits in the Cattleman kitchen to scatter the herd. Too bad I didn't have a cattle prod. The Rancho kitchen has a huge island that serves as a barrier to the operations-side of the layout, keeping the crowds at bay.

Two things I hate to do in the kitchen are carve the turkey and do the dishes. When Di's father Surly Earl was still with us, he was the one that always dealt with the turkey. Earl could seldom be persuaded to eat, and he hated roast turkey with a passion. Dude could flat-out cook his ass off, but his appetite was for bourbon, not food; he needed the drink to politely tolerate the crowds around him.

Robert "Empty Leg" Abraham is a dear friend of the clan, and a retired veterinarian. The nickname comes from his incredible capacity to consume superhuman quantities of food; Robert has seconds on dessert when the rest of us are packed full and letting everything settle. He's still peckish and thinking à la mode when we're swollen-up like Mr. Creosote considering the wafer-thin mint. Robert is professionally trained in vivisection, so he's a natural at carving a turkey. Thankfully, after all these years, he brings his grandfather's carbon steel carving set to dinners now and rolls up his sleeves. Truth be told, he knows I'm going to beg him to carve, and the darkest secret of Rancho Winslow is that it's the place where knives go to get dull. Robert brings grandpa's blades out of self-defense.

The true constant through the life of the Rancho Winslow dinners has been Nancy, Di's mom. Nancy is of good, stout, Ohio German stock, and she grew up baking; she is the consummate master of the dessert course and never shows up without at least two fantastic desserts – sometimes three or more. Nancy likes to experiment in the kitchen; she's the kind of cook that will just throw stuff together to see what it will taste like. She always acts like it's a serendipitous crapshoot, but we all know better. Decades of mad kitchen skills lead to the deliciousness of those desserts.

Di and I go through periods of organization with categorized lists, and at other times, it's a toss-up of whatever's in the garden, the pantry, and the reach-in. She plans in her mind; I plan on paper. Back in December of 2012, we did a Mayan end-of-the-world party; all the dishes were old Mayan treasures, which seemed fitting for the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar. I had never cooked a single one of the recipes, but the organization was spot-on, and the prep and mise en place went like clockwork. Everyone loved the experience, and we discovered a new favorite dip, sikil p'aak; think of it as a smoky, spicy pumpkin seed hummus.

Rancho Winslow is really just a homing beacon for a bunch of old friends to gather around and drink mass quantities of beer and wine (and occasionally spirits, as well), cook some great-tasting stuff, and feed our faces. It's our way of reconnecting with best buds – buds that are really family in every sense of the word. Imagine a family gathering where nobody argues, everyone contributes, and mutual love abounds. That's Rancho Winslow. It's kinda like culinary heaven, with chickens.

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Rancho Winslow, Chris Winslow, Diane Winslow, It's About Thyme, Mick Vann

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