Don Strange, who died last Wednesday at the age of 69, was San Antonio writ large in more ways than one. From Aspen to Manhattan and Hollywood to Washington, the image of South Texas was conveyed and enhanced through the food he served at catered events ranging from barbecue on the White House lawn to dos for dignitaries around the country. The best way to get to know any place, after all, is through its food and folks, and Strange and his team made sure the rest of the world understood us in the best possible light. With his death last week, an unparalleled ambassador’s flame was extinguished. (Fires were banked.)
The sentimental beginnings of Don Strange of Texas began with his parents’ grocery store on Bandera Road, an operation that soon grew to encompass “The Party House” next door. That was in the early ’50s, and by 1977 Strange was already expanding beyond Texas — straight to an event on a farm outside of Washington, D.C., in fact, where Texas barbecue was served to a group of retailers, many of whom doubtless were experiencing both real ’Q (not that pulled pork product from the Southeast) and Lone Star hospitality for the first time.
Today, the company website claims “Don Strange can cater just about anywhere in the nation” and can handle intimate parties for 10, complex ranch parties for 10,000, and “international gatherings of 30,000 and more.” That’s Texas-size, for sure. But many locals’ experiences are of much smaller events.
“My consistent memories as a young girl include attending baby and wedding showers at his place on Bandera Road,” recalls Cynthia Guido, full-time foodie and former restaurant/take-out/catering operator herself.
“The first party he did for me was my 10th wedding anniversary (it’s now the 44th),” says food columnist Pat Mozersky. “He’d do things nobody else did. He pushed ‘the wild factor.’ And he was a very hands-on guy.”
And though he went on to offer “popular cuisines from every culture and region around the globe,” it was clear that the popular culture of South Texas was the one he loved the most. A look at current menu options reveals suggestions such as soft spring rolls, oysters Rockefeller, and whole poached salmon with cucumber-dill sauce, but the list is most heavily larded with the likes of grilled Axis tenderloin, venison crepes, grilled white wings, gorditas, and borracho beans. Strange’s curiosity and inventiveness also led to the development and dissemination of such Texas-friendly foods as pan de campo, described as a kind of mixed-dough buttermilk biscuit cooked on a big flat griddle “just as the cowboys did.” He used the floppy bread to cradle meat sliced straight from a spitted side of beef for a segment on the Food Channel. It blew away an incredulous correspondent.
Whole suckling pigs could be had either off the grill or on the hoof at a Strange event, as entertainment options included pig races among such other delights as an actual rodeo, gunslingers on horseback, a rattlesnake roundup, and armadillo races.
“We do a lot of things right in front of the guest,” Strange once said. “Action, action, that’s what makes a party great!”
For those desiring a little less wild west, croquet, washer toss, and a petting zoo were also possibilities. Both chef and showman, Strange’s talents were unique.
And his contributions to local charities were numerous. Many of us attended events at the quintessentially Texas Don Strange Ranch, and whether the cause was the aquifer or a youth program, the attention to detail was always the same, the food never less than amazing. Little wonder the website is full of glowing testimonials from individuals, corporations, and institutions alike. But of all the accolades it’s also easy to imagine that Strange reveled most in the love of family, friends, and staff.
“All of his employees speak highly of his character,” said catering doyenne Rosemary Kowalski.
There’s one more kind of testimonial that Strange must have loved as well — a request to Pat Mozersky’s “Chefs’ Secrets” column that originally appeared in 1997: “Dear Pat: We have recently had the pleasure of attending another party catered by Don Strange. Every time we are lucky enough to go to one of his parties I look for those incredible rolls he serves. I’d sure love to have the recipe. They are the best I have ever tasted! J.G.”
The recipe was originally handed down from his wife Frances’s family, and of course Strange shared it. Just as he always shared himself. •
Pan de campo
We tried our damndest to get Don Strange’s pan de campo recipe, without luck (they’re still in shock over there; we’re not complaining). McAllen’s library to the rescue*, though, so in Don’s memory:
5 lbs flour
1 lb cold butter
4 t salt
4 T baking powder
Preheat a Dutch oven over hot coals. Blend salt, baking powder, and flour. Cut in the butter till the mixture resembles coarse corn meal. Add just enough water to allow the dough to form a ball. Knead as for tortillas. Pat the dough into a flat cake about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch thick and large enough to cover the bottom of the Dutch oven.
Grease the inside bottom of the Dutch oven with oil, lard, or shortening. Put in the bread dough. Replace the lid and cover the top with coals. Cook until done, usually 15 to 30 minutes depending on how hot the oven is. When it is done it is light brown and cooked through.
*Thanks, McAllen. We hereby forgive you for stealing our “Light Channels.”