The Good Stuff: Tess Hinn and Carol Vincent Turn Ranch Cooking into Catering Business
From cutting calves to cooking prime rib, Tess Hinn can do it all. But she doesn’t try to do it all at once.
She did, however, take the time to share some stories and recipes while she was cooking a meal for her neighbor’s branding.
“He just called me to up the number,” Tess said when we started our chat.
She’s been cooking for large crews of hungry people for over fifty years and has spent roughly twenty-five years using those skills to run a catering business with her friend, Carol Vincent.
“When my oldest and her youngest were seniors we started the catering business, I guess because it felt like we ran out of things to do as our children got older,” Tess said.
This weekend she’s preparing meals for three graduation receptions, a branding and a wedding rehearsal.
“Next week we have the Angus tour at the Krebs ranch near Gordon on Tuesday, and a branding next Saturday,” she said. “I’ll have a whole week off!”
Tess didn’t grow up cooking.
“I wasn’t very domestic,” she said.
Tess married her high school sweetheart, Bob, in 1972, and she jumped right into the role of ranch wife. Her mother in law Jeanette helped her learn how to cook for a crew of men.
“I got married when I was seventeen,” she said. “I had been out of high school for a year already, and we had been dating for several years. Bob was nineteen, and he ranched with his parents. We got married in May and by June I was cooking for thirty to thirty-five ‘pay men’ every day.”
In those early years of their marriage, they put up the hay crop with sweeps and an overshot stacker, and the labor intensive process required a lot of extra manpower. Now, Tess says, three people accomplish the same thing with a disc mower, a V-rake and a baler. But as a new bride the responsibility of feeding all those men landed squarely on her plate.
“I guess I learned by trial and error,” she said. “My mother in law helped me a lot. We used to make fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy and dessert in the morning, and take it to the field to the haying crew for their noon meal. The minute you got home you cleaned it up and started all over making supper.”
Tess said that learning to cook enormous quantities of food for large groups of people requires knowing how to cook from scratch.
“A lot of people just don’t cook from scratch any more,” she said. “You have to have a little passion for it and be willing to experiment. Sometimes it takes trial and error.”
Tess and Carol have a trailer that they use to carry food and supplies to the location.
“We typically cook at home, then load it all in the trailer, go to wherever the branding is and set everything up,” she said. “We bring picnic tables and take a generator so we can keep the food warm. We do a couple of brandings every year in the middle of godforsaken nowhere. It is usually so dry that the dust gets in.”
Tess said that they raise their own beef on the ranch, but for the business they buy meat that is USDA inspected to prepare. Bob passed away fourteen years ago, and Tess said that her fiancé, Zachary Kraenow, is a big help with preparing the meat these days.
“I don’t know what we would do without him,” she said. “He loves to smoke meat on the grill. He makes amazing pork loin, tenderloin, prime rib and roast beef. He’s a better cook than I am because he is not afraid to try new things. If you have good meat people will forgive a lot of mistakes.”
Tess is a skilled rancher outside the kitchen as well. Her late husband’s grandparents, Jim and Sue Smith homesteaded the place that she and her children and grandchildren call home. Tess raises black Angus cattle with her oldest son Casey and his wife Kylee along with their son Brooks. Casey came home to help on the ranch while Bob fought cancer. And Casey stayed on.
“The ranch has been in the family for over 100 years,” Tess said. “My grandson is the 5th generation here. My kids all rode their horses to country school; Bob put swinging gates in and built a corral at the school for their horses. They didn’t always come home right away but they always got back eventually.”
For their own branding, Tess likes to make steak. The family doesn’t usually do a big rope and drag branding.
“I can cut or brand, my son Casey does either, my daughter in law gives the shots and the hired man pushes the calves up,” she said. “We can easily work 200 head ourselves over a table. And if it rains, we can do it tomorrow. There are so many big brandings in the area that it’s hard to find a day. Some people try to do theirs in the afternoon after a neighbor’s, but when those guys get done working all morning and then filling up on roast and potatoes, they don’t feel like going to work another bunch. They feel like taking a big old nap!”
Tess enjoys all the seasons on the ranch. In the past, everything was done horseback, but now the remuda includes four wheelers and side by sides.
“I love moving cows,” Tess said, “And I like calving. I used to do all the night calving, but now my daughter in law does as they live at the headquarters and I live two miles away.”
In previous years, Tess would go out in the morning to help before returning to her kitchen.
“I would go out and help sort in the morning, then scurry right back into the house,” she said. “It was a matter of principle; your branding meal has to be good. In later years, I would go out and brand or cut. I can do all that stuff but would only stay out if I had someone reliable to help with the dinner. Typically that was Carol.”
Both women are talented cooks, and neighbors say there’s none better.
“I don’t know who makes a better potato salad than Carol,” Tess said. “When they brand they usually have 100 plus people. She makes Angel Food cake from scratch and bakes pies; she is a fabulous pie maker.”
The women have invented their own barbeque sauce, and Tess said that this recipe is the only one they don’t share.
“It’s partly a secret because we don’t do it the same way every time,” she laughed.
They get all the empty liquor bottles from a local pizza place and serve the barbeque sauce in them.
“We get a lot of teasing from folks asking if we drank it all,” she said. “It’s very cost effective and it’s a fun thing that we do. We sell quite a little of it too.”
Like all cooks, Tess has had a few disasters in the kitchen. She recalls a past Thanksgiving turkey that was undercooked but said that was a long time ago.
“I think the worst thing I’ve done recently was drop a whole roaster pan full of Texas potatoes,” she said. “We were catering a dinner at the park in Gordon when it happened. We ran out of potatoes and the last few people didn’t get any, including the guy who hired me. The next week I made him a batch of cookies and his own pan of Texas potatoes.”
The highlights have outweighed the disasters, and Tess enjoys the memories of baking pies and cinnamon rolls for the Sheridan County Fair, serving four hundred guests at a wedding held on the bluffs overlooking White River near Interior, South Dakota, and collecting recipes that she treasures from her many friends.
Today, she’s keeping it simple: pulled pork, corn, salads, brownies.
“I’ll keep the brownies warm by setting the pan on top of the roaster of meat,” Tess said. “We’ll serve them with ice cream and homemade caramel sauce.”
Our visit was cut short by another message: the branding crew had started earlier than planned and would be ready to eat sooner than she had anticipated. Nothing new; many a ranch wife has had to scramble to get a meal on early or had to keep a meal warm for an extra hour—or several—till the men showed up to eat it. Tess has been at this long enough to know how to roll with the punches.
1 c. sugar
3 bananas, mashed
½ tsp. salt
½ c. butter
2 c. flour
1 tsp. soda
½ c. walnuts
Mix ingredients and bake at 350.
Tess frequently uses her mother in law’s banana bread recipe. “It’s a quick, easy recipe, and it’s sweet enough to serve for dessert if I don’t have time to make pie or something more elaborate,” she said.
Stir until well blended:
½ c. scalded milk
3 Tbsp. sugar
½ c mashed potatoes
¼ c. shortening
1 tsp. salt
Add and beat until dissolved:
1 beaten egg
1 Tbsp. yeast
1 ¼ c. flour
Beat well and add 1 ¼ c. flour and mix thoroughly. Let rise 15 minutes. Shape into rolls. Let rise 35-45 minutes. Bake at 400 for 10-12 minutes.
Tess said that her mother in law helped her learn how to make bread. “The recipe I use most often is Carol’s recipe, that she got from her mother,” she said.
Carol’s Pie Crust
4 c. sifted flour
½ tsp. baking powder
½ c. water
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 ½ c. lard or shortening
1 Tbsp. vinegar
Blend flour, salt and baking powder; cut in lard. Beat egg, vinegar and water. Sprinkle over flour mixture. Toss with fork to mix. Gather dough together. Makes two double crust pies or four single crusts.
Homemade Marinated Vegetable Salad
1 lb. can French cut green beans, drained
1 head cauliflower cut into small pieces
1 green pepper
4 oz. water chestnuts, drained
4 oz. mushrooms, drained
1 can corn, drained
4 oz. pimentos (drained)
1 cup diced celery
3 shredded carrots
2 ½ c. vinegar
1 c. oil
2 c. sugar
2 Tbsp. salt
Pepper to taste
Heat to dissolve sugar. Beat together and cool before putting on salad. Stir well before serving.
“This recipe is super easy to make and you don’t need eggs,” Tess said. “You can use whatever filling suits you and change it up.”
Raspberry-Almond Shortbread Thumbprints
1 c. softened butter
½ c. white sugar
½ tsp. almond extract
2 c. all-purpose flour
½ c. seedless raspberry jam
½ c. confectioners’ sugar
¾ tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together butter and white sugar, mix in ½ tsp. almond extract. Mix in flour until dough comes together. Roll dough into 1 ½ inch balls. Place on ungreased cookie sheets. Make a small hole in the cener of each ball, and fill with preserves. Bake 14-18 minutes or until ightly browned. Let cool 1 minute on the cookie sheet. Mix together confections’ sugar, ¾ tsp. almond extract and milk. Drizzle lightly over warm cookies.
1 c. oil
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. soda
2 c. sugar
2 c. flour
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 c. pumpkin
Beat eggs and sugar. Sift dry ingredients together. Add pumpkin, blend well. Bake at 350 for one hour in greased and floured tube pan.
3 oz. cream cheese
1 box powdered sugar
1 stick oleo
1 tsp. vanilla
Cream together and spread on cake.
Calico Baked beans for 100-125 people
34 cans beans (assorted)
5 lb. hamburger
3 lb. bacon
3 large onions
7 ½ c. catsup (3 24 oz. bottles)
3 Tbsp. dry mustard
2 ½ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. garlic salt
6 c. brown sugar
5 Tbsp. vinegar
Western Baked Green Beans
3 cans green beans, drained
6 slices uncooked bacon, cut in pieces
1 c. brown sugar
1 chopped onion
1 c. catsup
Mix all ingredients and place in a covered casserole. Bake at 275 for 4 hours.