Cattle rancher Evan Tate is full of big wisdom from the Lone Star State.

The first time we met Evan Tate, he wasn’t standing over cast iron, but instead a massive stainless steel stock pot, filled with 60 pounds of pork, at least one bag of oranges, and a cornucopia of seasonings and spices.

It was a hot summer day in Lockhart Texas, at the first-annual Mill Scale Cookoff, and before a live-fire grill with a wide straw cowboy hat, a thick dark mustache, and a bottle of Asian hot sauce labeled with a piece of painter’s tape that read “not just sriracha,” we knew he was our kind of people.

Of course, it wouldn’t take long to find out that Tate, the third-generation cattle rancher of Tate Farms in Rockwall County outside of Dallas, was a lover of cast-iron cookware, too.

“My favorite things to cook in cast iron are the things that people would not expect to come out of one, especially a Dutch oven,” says Tate, 46, with a slight Southern drawl. “Like to be at an event and somebody comes over and they think I’ve got stew or chili but actually I’m baking a cake. You can cook all kinds of unlikely things in there—biscuits, cookies, bread. And that’s the beauty of cast iron. It works as well with a recipe over a live fire as it does with one in a kitchen.”

About 250 miles north of that fateful meeting, Tate and his wife, Melissa, can typically be found on the roughly 1,300 acres that make up Tate Farms, which his grandfather established on this wide, flat, surprisingly verdant landscape in the northeast corner of the Lonestar State. They’re the last family-owned cattle ranch in the county, with the Blackland Prairie grassland around them being purchased by real estate folk and redeveloped into subdivisions. The Tates are holding out as long as the market and Mother Nature will let them.

“Different moving parts go into supporting the entire system,” says Tate, meaning that you have to diversify to survive as a farm these days, and his family is not only involved in their beef production and horse boarding businesses but also on-farm and off-site cooking events like they did at Mill Scale and regularly do for visiting musicians at Willie Nelson’s private ranch a few hours away in Hill Country.

Tate was not a prodigal son of this operation; he always knew he wanted to take over one day, with fond memories of riding the tractors with his father, playing beneath the wide open sky, and visiting his mother’s restaurant in town—likely a sight, in his dusty boots and spurs, to the ladies who often gathered inside for lunch and tea. He learned how to cook during his childhood years in the Boy Scouts.

“That’s where I really got the first idea about cooking in a fire and on coals with cast iron,” says Tate. “I don’t think there’s any Southern cook who doesn’t have a good cast-iron skillet of some form.”

He now has an impressive collection of antique cookware—more than 70 pieces, from spiders to friers to pans, receiving his mom’s own heirloom when she passed in 2014—which he loves to experiment with—grilled beef cheeks, beef shank osso bucco—when he’s not working the ranch’s 250-head Hereford cattle herd.

Across both owned and leased land, the cows are born and raised on this here land, spending their lifetime grazing across the countryside, which, at the time of this interview, was experiencing an extensive drought. On any given day, they’re feeding animals, farming land, baling hay, fixing equipment, making their way to the butcher, or putting out sometimes literal fires. Just the other day, a lightning strike set an entire pasture ablaze.

As a grass-fed operation, they pay close attention to the weather, as well as to the type of grass they plant and when exactly they plant it to yield ideal starch and sugar content for feed. They wait for the cows to reach a specific size that means the best, most marbled meat, a process that happens faster with animals that subsist on buffets of corn or grain.

If you’ve heard Tate tell a story, though, or watched him cook, it’s clear he knows that there’s no rushing the good stuff. In addition to being pasture-raised, his cows—all ancestors of the original cattle his grandfather brought to this place some 60 years ago—do not consume hormones or antibiotics.

“There’s a debate about the health benefits of grass-finished beef versus grain, about the differences in flavors or fats,” says Tate, whose meat has beautiful ribbons of that good stuff and carries a deep, rich flavor without being overly “gamey.” “The thing that I know is that we have more control over all of the outside inputs—we’re not using as much fuel or fertilizer as other outfits—and we have a smaller environmental, and global, impact.”

From classic cuts like ribeyes and T-bones to trendier options like bavette and coulotte steaks or offal, Tate Farms beef is sold through their website, at local grocers and farmers markets, and to nearby restaurants, including his chef-brother’s two locations in the Big D—Boulevardier and Hillside Tavern—which continue to make lists for the city’s best burgers.

 

For a man who grew up in big country like Texas, it’s no surprise that the way that Tate approaches his cooking is with all five senses, which he likes to think helps form memories, which is what he hopes to create with the food he makes.

Back in the day, his mother ran a cooking column in the local paper, which Melissa now carries on. Her approach was to make complicated recipes more accessible to the home cook, and today, that same essence shows up in the family’s motto: “a crowded table with a spot for everybody,” says Tate. Hell, some of his friends are vegan.

“I have this conversation all the time, be it about barbecuing or using cast iron,” he says. “Learn a little bit, then go make mistakes. Go burn some food. I’ve definitely scraped off plenty of cast iron and thought, well, this is going to take a long time to re-season. And I’ve had the fortune to work with some great pitmasters who don’t keep secrets about any of their hard-earned wisdom. Every one of them is doing a better job now than the first time they tried to make something. I can guarantee the first brisket Aaron Franklin [of Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin] made is surely not as good as the one he makes now.”

And we know, that’s damn good.

 

Read Evan’s hamburger and homemade mayonnaise recipe in Family Receipts, as well his mother’s famous bread pudding.

Photographs courtesy of Evan Tate and Ben Yanto Visuals.. 

 

August 05, 2002 — Dennis Powell