Z7 Bar Ranch is a 3,000-acre spread in the rolling hills of Osage County on the Osage Nation Reservation. The picturesque setting could easily serve as the backdrop for a Hollywood blockbuster, so it’s understandable that owner Debra Zinke, who resides in Tulsa, has found herself spending increasingly more time on the ranch.
Four years ago, Zinke created a more permanent space for herself when she converted part of an old barn into an elegantly appointed apartment. The small space contains all the modern conveniences, and interior design from Doug Campbell and SR Hughes mixes high-end and modern furnishings with humble artifacts of the West.
Make no mistake, though. This isn’t the sort of playground ranch that a movie star might own. This is a real commercial ranch, producing registered Salers, Angus and Optimizer cattle. The operation is steeped in the traditions of Green Country ranching, and Zinke is a hands-on owner that is involved in every aspect of the business. However, her favorite role may be that of the ranch’s head chef and hostess.
Zinke’s ranch home has a small kitchen, but she says the majority of the cooking happens in one of the best-appointed outdoor kitchens you’ll find anywhere, which was built for her by Don Mo.
“I wanted an outdoor kitchen that had everything you could possibly need and where I could feed a crowd,” says Zinke. “We use it all the time. It’s such a beautiful and peaceful place to relax at the end of the day or entertain guests.”
Zinke jokes that ranch food is all about packing on the calories, and she frequently cooks big meals that are sure to satisfy a cowboy appetite. She also takes the same approach to food that she does to interior design. Her favorite dishes are decidedly gourmet, but, at their heart, they’re honest dishes made from simple ingredients – local beef, chicken and abundant fresh vegetables. And there’s always dessert and, hopefully, great wine.
“There’s nothing better than a campfire and food always tastes better when you’ve cooked it on the ground,” says Martha Armitage.
Along with her husband Mike, Armitage owns A Bar Ranch, a cow-calf ranch and marketing company with operations in Rogers and Mayes counties in northeast Oklahoma. In addition to running a successful ranch, they’ve gained more than a bit of local fame for their chuck wagon cooking.
Armitage says she’s always enjoyed campfires, so when she and her family encountered a chuck wagon at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, it wasn’t long before they bought their own wagon and outfitted it for cooking. Things really got going when they entered a chili cook-off organized by Hammett House Restaurant in Claremore. After winning that event for several years, they started getting requests to cook at special events such as the Christmas Train at Dry Gulch, weddings and family celebrations.
The A Bar Ranch chuck wagon might well be a booming business of its own, but Armitage says it takes too much time away from the nonstop business of a working ranch. However, food is an integral part of this business and lifestyle.
“Sometimes we eat dinner late,” Armitage says. “In the summer, it may be 9 or 9:30. When the work is done, that’s when you get to eat.”
A Bar Ranch employs four full-time ranchers and is a family affair. Their son Merrit manages the family’s Squaw Creek Division in Mayes County, and son Turner, a junior at OSU, pitches in when he’s on break. Even Merrit’s wife Michelle is drafted during cattle sales.
“[Meals are] the way we stay connected, both as a family and for the business,” says Armitage. “We discuss what went on during the day and what are the plans for the next day.”
Like most ranchers, Armitage is a tireless evangelist for the benefits of beef, and she’s quick to point out that despite being hearty, stick-to-your-ribs food, ranch cuisine is healthy.
“Beef is healthy and quick to prepare,” says Armitage. “People think it takes a long time or is hard to cook, but it’s really not, and there are a lot of simple, economical recipes. If you take a little time to prepare, it’s so much healthier than getting something at the drive through.”
When you live on a ranch that’s 17 miles from the nearest grocery store, food is always on your mind. Not only is the production of food your livelihood, feeding your family requires planning.
“We don’t have the luxury of going out to eat any time we want,” says Lisa Kubik. “My daughter-in-law Heather and I do a lot of cooking, and we have to be organized. You can’t just run to the store if you don’t have something.”
Lisa, a self-confessed city girl, married into the Kubik family, which owns a cow-calf ranch in the foothills of Kay County. Ranching is in the Kubik DNA. Lisa’s husband, Jeff, is a fourth-generation rancher, and he’s surrounded by family every day. His brother Mark and sons Ross and Matt work on the ranch, and his 88-year-old father, Lynn, also lends a hand.
Lisa owns her own CPA business but also holds the title of “gopher girl” on the ranch, running errands, making trips to the veterinary clinic and such. Heather is a fourth grade teacher in Ponca City, operates her own photography studio and cares for two small children, but she doesn’t escape ranch work.
“When Ross needs to doctor a cow, I help out. I do whatever I can. We all do,” says Heather.
But for Heather and mother-in-law Lisa, their chief contribution to the ranch is keeping everyone fed. That means cooking nearly every day of the week and making sure there are leftovers or other quick but filling foods to eat for lunch.
“On Sunday, we always have family dinner at my house or Ross’ parents’ house, and we cook together,” Heather says. Those meals include family favorites such as meatloaf and potatoes, Cowboy beans, lasagna and roast beef – anything with beef, an ingredient that is always in abundance.
While many of these dishes require preparation and considerable time in the kitchen, these two busy wives and mothers are always happy to find an easier way to provide healthy foods for their families. Heather scours the internet for recipes that can also make a quick meal or snack for the kids. One family favorite that she found on Pinterest uses low-fat packaged crescent roll dough, a little butter, spice and an apple slice to create a bite-size pie that does double duty as a tasty dessert or quick snack on the go.