Tosh Brown will be the first to admit that he has no business writing a cookbook.
“We were very careful to put ‘photography and commentary by Tosh Brown,’” he said with a smile. “These are not my recipes. There are a lot of people out there that know me that know that I’m not a very good cook. I wanted people to understand that these recipes are coming from some of the greatest cooks out there. They’re not mine. It was just my idea to chase them down and take pictures of them and interview them.”
In Grazing Across Texas: Rod, Gun & Ranch Cooking, Brown serves up a tribute to the culinary diversity that complements the state’s geographic expanse.
The book is divided into regional sections: Plains and Panhandle, Trans-Pecos, Hill Country, Brush Country, Gulf Coast, and East Texas.
In the Panhandle, Brown seeks out “big food for big appetites.” In West Texas, or the Trans-Pecos, he marvels at the region’s geographic “grandeur” and introduces a diverse assortment of food, including some Spanish and Anasazi Indian-inspired dishes. The Hill Country section features some of the region’s indigenous species as well as practical advice in “A Hunter’s Guide to Handling and Preparing Wild Game.”
Deer, quail, and dove play a predominant role in the Brush Country section, which includes Salado Seco Ranch in Spofford, Brown’s family’s ranch. With a nod to his family, Brown includes his sister Ellen McKeown’s cream cheese pastry recipe (she’s also the book’s food editor.)
Some of the finest photography in the book can be found in the Gulf Coast section, and Brown puts a personal touch on East Texas, briefly recounting a youth spent trapping “coons for spending money” and gigging “frogs on a date.”
Brown features the ranches, lodges, and restaurants of the regions with a brief history of the establishments and the stories of the people behind the recipes.
Take the story of Jeff Blank, who started at the Beef & Bun Snack Bar at the Lakeway Inn on Lake Travis, and has established himself as one of the premier game and fish chefs in the world at Hudson’s on the Bend in Austin.
“He’s a real innovator too with game and fish cooking,” Brown said. “The day Jeff called and said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to participate in this book,’ was a big day for us because at that point I could call other restaurants and other chefs and I could say, ‘I’ve got Jeff Blank.’”
Or there’s the story of Blas Gonzalez, who got his start as Blank’s “kitchen helper” at Hudson’s on the Bend in 1987. He worked as a dishwasher and prepped salads before contributing his own culinary skills to Blank’s restaurant. Gonzalez now runs Ocotillo Restaurant in Lajitas.
Though he’s a proficient storyteller and a practiced sportsman, Brown didn’t come naturally into writing and photography. For ten years he owned a travel agency that specialized in hunting and fishing trips. He acquired his photography experience by taking pictures for brochures. The sophistication of his work is apparent throughout Grazing Across Texas, despite his admission that he favors spontaneity over technical precision.
“Everything is emulating others, learning on the fly, being lucky, occasionally getting a good shot because something pops up in front of me,” Brown said.
In the book, he provides readers with an abundance of diverse photos that range from expansive landscape shots to more intimate shots of cooks, animals, restaurants, and lodges. The pictures complement a wide sampling of recipes that vary in style, taste, and complexity.
There are simple culinary staples like peach cobbler at U Ranch in Sterling City to the more challenging “Pig in the Ground,” which requires stuffing the body cavity of a pig with vegetables and cooking it for up to a full day in a pit of hot coals. That particular recipe comes from Johnny Hudman at Stasney’s Cook Ranch in Albany.
“We wanted to do a book that just about everybody could get something out of,” Brown said. “Anything you wrap in bacon and throw on a grill is going to taste good. We’ve got a few bacon-wrapped recipes that are easy and we have some things that are incredibly complex. There are a couple gumbo recipes that literally do take two days to prepare and you’ve got to do it in steps.”
Beyond the recipes, Brown said he hopes his book appeals to readers as an “anthology of Texas hunting, fishing, and cooking.”
“There’s genuinely some great cooking in there, some fantastic ideas and a great diversity of cooking,” he said. “I want people too to enjoy the view. I’m always going at a project like this thinking about the image and thinking about the shot and the view that this book is going to put forth, and I hope they’ll sit down and enjoy the photos. I hope they’ll find something interesting, a little bit of history that might catch their attention, laugh a little bit, and just kind of enjoy the ride.”