Pawhuska or Bust: A Journey to the Heart of Pioneer Woman Country
I recently purchased my first piece of camouflage. It's a powder-blue tunic with pale flowers cascading down the fabric that I bought on Amazon for $8 after reading in Food Network star Ree Drummond's new magazine that a "floral top" is an essential part of her daily uniform. My new shirt may not provide tactical cover as well as the splotchy green-and-brown print associated with hunters and soldiers, but I was hoping it would help me blend in on this trip to an America very different from my own.
Northeastern Oklahoma is not only hot in the middle of June but humid, and I can attest that sandals would have been a much wiser packing decision than the camo top. But I hadn't endured two flights and a 3.5-hour drive in a compact rental car to get here from New York City to complain about the torrents of sweat drenching my knock-off Vans. I'd come to eat hefty portions of chicken-fried steak and biscuits drowned in gravy, and specifically those served up at Drummond's restaurant in the tiny town of Pawhuska.
Pawhuska has just 3,600 residents and one traffic light (and it only blinks red), but that didn't stop Drummond, better-known as the Pioneer Woman, from opening a sprawling two-floor "destination bakery, deli, and general store" in an abandoned building on the corner of Kihekah Avenue and Main Street last October. The Mercantile -- or the "The Merc," as it is fondly referred to by customers and staffers alike -- is essentially Drummond's glorified take on a Cracker Barrel, only with better coffee, fewer rocking chairs, and a three-hour wait for a table.
The restaurant is an important addition to her ever-expanding comfort-food empire, which originated in 2006 with the cooking blog that put her signature folksiness on full display. ("Howdy! I'm a desperate housewife. I live in the country. I'm obsessed with butter, Basset Hounds, and Ethel Merman. Welcome to my frontier!" reads the blog's welcome note.) Since then, in addition to landing the Food Network show, Drummond has published cookbooks, teamed up with Walmart on a line of home goods, gotten into the denim game, announced plans to open a hotel, and launched the print magazine that inspired my decision to dress in florals today.
My hopes to interview Drummond in her natural habitat didn't pan out -- she was in meetings at Walmart's Arkansas headquarters. But I did get to talk to her briefly on the phone as she drove back from the airport to her sprawling ranch just outside Pawhuska, and she was every bit as genial and modest as she is on TV. When I asked about the restaurant's success, she said, "When we planned the Merc, I never imagined there would be a line out the door! I hoped that the tables would maybe be full. The fact that people are waiting in line really makes me want to continue to make sure everyone's experience is wonderful."
Drummond's devoted fans -- whose passion for all things Ree nearly caused the debut issue of The Pioneer Woman to sell out in less than a week -- are now making pilgrimages to Pawhuska in surprising numbers. I was curious about what types of people were flocking to a place that multiple locals described to me as "a ghost town" and how quickly things change when a celebrity restaurant opens for business.
The lobby of my hotel, located 30 minutes outside Pawhuska in the small city of Bartlesville, was sanitary and sunny -- a pleasant-enough space to graze on the free breakfast included with my room as part of a "Pioneer Woman Special" before heading off to the Mercantile. As I picked at the unremarkable omelette on my plate, I couldn't help but listen in as four white women sitting nearby talked in thick Texan accents about their plans to visit Drummond's restaurant later that morning. They'd built their annual mother-daughter trip around an expedition to the "mer-can-teel," as they pronounced it, even though it was a six-hour trek from their hometown of Turkey, Texas.
When I introduced myself, making sure to enunciate my name clearly, one of the ladies responded with disbelief. "Khushbu? Aren't you mad your momma gave you a name like that?" she asked, bursting out in laughter at the combination of syllables that made up my very Indian name. She then informed me that Turkey is even more rural than Pawhuska. "I have to drive nearly an hour to get to a real grocery store," the woman said. "That's why I like Ree, she is just like me. She has to cook all of her meals."
"And she makes real food," drawled another member of the group.
"It's nice to see someone like us on the TV. It's rare," the first woman added. "Plus, she's really clean and wholesome -- what is there not to like?"
Similar sentiments were later echoed by every Pioneer Woman fan I spoke to, the vast majority of whom were white and from the Midwest or the South, like the three tall and husky female friends who told me they'd driven 13 hours from Indiana because Drummond makes "real American food" and "the stuff you actually want to eat." That message is even echoed by Drummond's staff. "Ree promotes a way of life that is so relatable, or it takes you back to that [nostalgic] time and place that is so family-centered and agricultural," Taylor Potter, the Merc's director of operations, told me. "It's authentic. It's America. It's that true small town, in the middle-of-the-country feel." Drummond's fans yearn for the good old days of homesteading and the pastoral farm, a "real America" where recipes are free from "scary, foreign" ingredients and made by hard-working "prairie folk" with "good Christian values."
Drummond has never gotten overtly religious on The Pioneer Woman, but the success of her brand very much centers on her appeal as a good Christian. In a strong marriage, with no children born out of wedlock, and given to replacing swear words with terms like "Oh, my gosh!", she's wholesome to the extreme. She might not always quote Bible passages while she's making her recipes on TV, but her pastor will come up in conversation and the Mercantile does sell bracelets stamped with prayers like, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace."
Drummond has filled the deep-fried hole left by the ousting of Southern butter queen Paula Deen.
At 48, Drummond is arguably Food Network's biggest star right now, a feat she's accomplished under the artifice of a traditional, stay-at-home wife cooking for a hard-working, manly husband and their four well-behaved children. Her house is always pristine, her signature red hair is always perfectly shaped into loose curls, and her food is always plated in some extremely photogenic form of cast iron. The mistakes she makes are never catastrophic, but are instead presented as "teehee oops! silly old me!" moments that only serve to endear her to the audience more.
In many ways, she's filled the deep-fried hole left by the ousting of Southern butter queen Paula Deen following a slew of racism scandals. Not even a controversy of her own, after a resurfaced clip from an old episode of The Pioneer Woman in which Drummond disparages Asian hot wings made the rounds online earlier this year, slowed the rise of the Food Network's new queen of "down-home cooking." That's in part due to building a career on aspirational relatability; her fans don't just want to be friends with her, they want to be her, and may even believe that they can be. After all, she's just a cattle-rancher's wife running a little internet blog where she shares recipes and stories of her family that just happened to blow up into a multi-million dollar empire.
But the perceived Pioneer Woman image is at constant odds with Drummond's backstory. Born Anne Marie Smith, the daughter of a prominent surgeon right here in Bartlesville, she was reared in a home that overlooked a golf course. Drummond went to college at the University of Southern California, and had dreams of becoming a lawyer and moving to Chicago after graduating in 1991. But that changed when, as recounted in the memoir The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels -- A Love Story, she met a "Wrangler-wearing cowboy" with "big and strong" hands. That cowboy, who she married in 1996 and affectionately refers to on her blog as Marlboro Man, was Ladd Drummond; as of 2013, he and his cattle-ranching family owned more land in the United States than all but 16 others, with 433,000 acres throughout Oklahoma. But if the giant economic canyon between Drummond and her fans bothers them, you'd never know it.
To understand the passion of Pioneer Woman disciples, it's important to note that getting to Pawhuska is neither easy nor quick. The closest airport, located in Tulsa, is more than an hour away. Other options include flying into Oklahoma City and driving two-and-a-half hours north, or flying into Kansas City, and tacking on a three-and-a-half-hour drive across three state lines. To get to the area from New York City, a colleague and I had chosen the latter route, which cuts through hundreds of miles of mesmerizing Kansas farmland. (Did we do this so that we could blast “Wide Open Spaces” by the Dixie Chicks while recording an Instagram story? Maybe.)
And just when fans think they've arrived, they're told they still have hours to go.
I learned this as we pulled up to the Mercantile after the short drive over from Bartlesville. When I spotted the line snaking around the building, I was thankful to have eaten the mediocre hotel omelette. It was just past 10am and already the wait to be seated was two-and-half-hours long.
"Oh, honey, people frequently line up at 5am," said Linda*, the tall, sturdy woman stationed at the large, wood-framed glass door leading into the Merc, when I expressed surprise about the wait. Linda -- a gravelly voiced former oil worker with shoulder-length jet black hair who asked me to keep her real name private and jokingly demanded that I credit her as the Mercantile's "door greeter, concierge, docent, historian, storyteller, and bouncer" -- directed food traffic while fielding endless customer questions, and prodded new and departing diners through the door using two phrases: "You can go on in, folks" and "You can come out, folks." While dutifully taking a photo of a mother-and-daughter duo, she said, "I came out of retirement for this job, but I didn't expect to be this busy. The waits are usually around three hours, but between Christmas and New Year that number got as high as six hours."
While not typical, it's not unheard of for 15,000 visitors to descend upon the Mercantile in a single day, said Linda. (The city has addressed this onslaught of tourists with upgrades to its infrastructure, including the installation of a new public toilet for line-waiters to use.) The majority of customers are out-of-towners from various corners of the country. In its first week alone, Potter informed me as she walked me into the dining area, the Merc received at least one visitor from each of the 50 states. But Linda told me that she'd also been seeing a steady influx of international vacationers, and recalled meeting people from Germany, Sweden, and Australia.
This swell of customers has made Drummond the second-largest employer in town, after the Osage Indian Nation. While a handful of high-level employees -- such as the Merc's pastry chef and culinary director -- moved to Oklahoma to work here, most staffers are locals. "Ree doesn't talk about this much," Potter said, "but she has gone out of her way to ensure that everyone is being paid living wage." According to MIT's living-wage calculator for Oklahoma, that works out to at least $10.15 per hour, nearly three dollars above the federal minimum wage.
And it isn't only employees who are feeling the extra money in their pockets these days. Nearly a dozen new businesses have opened up downtown on or just off Main Street in the past year, and the success of the Merc has also been a boon to existing businesses in town, including restaurants. Directly next door sits the Brick Teepee, a cluttered establishment selling, according to a placard displayed in the window, "shabby chic" and antique items. The line to get into the restaurant portion of the Merc frequently extends past the Brick Teepee, and bored diners-in-waiting take turns browsing the shop to break up the monotony and get out of the glaring Oklahoma sun. The woman at the store's register told me that the owner had initially planned to put a salon in the space, but decided on opening a vintage store to take advantage of the foot traffic.
Across the street from the Mercantile at The Prairie Dog, which has been selling hot dogs and self-serve frozen yogurt since 2011, owner Marlene Mosely told me that the change has been notable and swift. "When I first opened my store, there was nothing really around me," she said, while finishing up a bowl of fro-yo. Mosley, like Drummond, is married to a cattle rancher and has lived in Pawhuska for decades. "Most of my clientele these days are the annoyed and hungry husbands, fiancés, and boyfriends of the women who dragged them to the Merc," she said with a laugh and a wink. "It's been very good for business."
Since the Mercantile's opening, the city of Pawhuska has seen a 33% rise in sales-tax revenue collectively across all businesses, said Joni Nash, the executive director for the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce, adding that the city finally has enough money to fund their long-gestating "streetscape" program, aimed at beautifying the area around the storefronts. "We're very thankful Ree opened the Mercantile," she said.
"You never stopped. You never said, 'Oh, let's go through Pawhuska,' by choice."
For years, Pawhuska has been a town that needed saving. "For the longest time, we've only had two industries: oil and cattle," says Nash. With the Merc, Ree's brought back a crucial, third industry, one chicken-fried steak at a time. "For the state of Oklahoma, tourism is the third largest industry, so we're finally parallel with the state in that," Nash adds. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, the town is the most sizable community in Osage County, the state's largest. At 2,304 square miles, Osage is nearly twice the size of the state of Rhode Island. It's also home to the Osage Nation, who opened a settlement in 1872, naming it after a local chief named Paw-Hiu-Skah (meaning White Hair). By the time Oklahoma's statehood became official in 1907, Pawhuska had a population of just over 2,400 people.
By 1908, the town was home to 20 retail shops and four separate banks to go with its thriving cattle-ranching industry. Then came the oil boom, and for a brief and flitting juncture in history, Pawhuska was one of America's wealthiest places. The town spent the majority of the 1910s and a large chunk of the Roaring '20s flush with cash. While the streets weren't paved with gold, they were lined with tall buildings and luxury retailers -- including an outpost of Tiffany & Co. and Rolls-Royce's first dealership west of the Mississippi River. Money seemed to be flowing in as rapidly as the oil gushing from the wells, and at its height the city was home to 6,400 people. But when the money drained out during the Great Depression, so did the people, kicking off a continuous decline.
The luxury stores and opulent car dealerships are gone. There aren't even any chain restaurants except for a solitary Sonic on the outskirts of town. There used to be a Walmart, but even it struggled to thrive. The corporate succubus, which usually feeds off of small rural communities, gave up on Pawhuska and retreated out of the town in 1995. There are also no hotels to accommodate visitors, only a handful of quaint B&Bs. "It's pretty much been a ghost town for a long time," says Angie Terronez, an Oklahoma native and the director of sales for the Hilton Garden Inn in Bartlesville, where I was staying. "When I was married, we would have to go through Pawhuska to get to my in-law's house. You never stopped. You never said, 'Oh, let's go through Pawhuska,' by choice."
That might still be the case had the Drummond and her husband not purchased, in 2012, the downtown building that now houses the Merc. Built in 1903, it has been home to the Osage Mercantile Company, a telephone company, and a popular department store chain, but, like many structures in Pawhuska, it was eventually deserted and left derelict. The renovations on the 22,000-square-foot building had taken four long and trying years to complete, but upon completion, there stood the town's salvation, equipped with a grab-and-go deli, a sit-down restaurant, and general store on the bottom floor, and a coffee shop-cum-bakery on the top.
The abandoned Walmart now serves as Drummond's warehouse, where she stores boxes of the nearly 4,000 different items she sells in the retail portion of her store. The Mercantile has no storage space of its own, and because it sells through so much product, trucks haul full loads of goods to the store nearly four times a day. This helps ensure that the shelves are always stocked with home, kitchen, and "fun" items like pastel ruffled cake stands, Mason jar shot glasses, and magnetic finger puppets of famous historical figures. Which is another way of saying that, in less than a year, Pawhuska has transformed from a quiet, sparse town into a place where people from thousands of miles away come to buy adorable Benjamin Franklin and Helen Keller puppets for their fingers.
I'd regretted pairing the blue tunic with black leggings when I'd put them on in the morning, but at 4pm, I was silently praising the genius who invented stretchy, elastic waistbands. I was on my second meal of the day at the Mercantile, and it would also be my final meal there, so in went my order for yet another round of comfort foods that only seemed to be served in punishing portion sizes. I felt like Joey showing up to Thanksgiving dinner in maternity pants in that infamous Friends episode.
After a young and jovial server, who looked better-suited to be in a boy band than working the floor of a rural restaurant in Oklahoma, took my order, I gazed around the room. Though there were still long lines out the door, many of the seats were empty and waiting to be filled. My co-worker and I had somehow won the seat lottery and been seated at a small round table in the corner, where the two walls of cushioned leather benches intersected, allowing us to avoid the awkward dance of figuring who would sacrifice their gluteal comfort and sit in the stiff wooden chairs. The dining room consumed nearly half of the lower level and sported just enough coffee-colored wood and woven Navajo print pillows to be the envy of anyone's "Rustic Home Decor" Pinterest board. At every turn there was a piece of decor to remind you that you were in "cowboy country," lest anyone forgot.
Even though I'd been in this room earlier in the day, my eyes still darted distractedly from one piece of decor to the next: the bright yellow espresso machine on the pine green counter up front, the semi-open kitchen with arachnidian lamps dropping from the tin-tiled plafond to my right. But the most ineluctable feature was the large wall to my left that acted as a barrier between the dining and retail area. The bottom half was covered by distressed wood paneling, broken up by a prodigious laser-cut floral pattern, and the top half was an exposed brick mural advertisement for the National Biscuit Company (the earliest iteration of Nabisco), discovered during the renovation of the building. It's all very "antique farmhouse," an aesthetic that feels less disingenuous here then when executed in a high-rise New York City apartment.
The servers fastened a table for 10 by cramming together the remaining two-tops that lined the Nabisco wall. An all-female church group -- part of the GLOW women's ministry, as a chatty member later explains -- piled into their seats, relieved to be inside after nearly a three-hour wait in the blistering Oklahoma sun. I saw more church groups in the dining room of The Mercantile in two days than I had seen in my entire lifetime. Our server later revealed that these groups frequently leave religious pamphlets instead of tips.
"Many people have saved for months to be able to come and see us."
The woman sitting at the end, closest to my table, patted down her graying hair, in an attempt to tame the frizz that appears when someone stands in palpable humidity for hours. A member in the middle of the table, who had her long salt-and-pepper strands pulled back into a thick braid, kept tapping her friend's shoulders in an attempt to take a group selfie, not realizing that she would need the wingspan of Kevin Durant to make it happen from her seat. I walked over and offered up my photo-taking services. While the women, all of them from neighboring towns, hadn't traveled as far as many of the other customers I met during my time here, this outing was clearly a big social occasion for them. Not counting wealthy superfans who can afford to jet into Pawhuska aboard a private plane, most visitors to the Merc need to plan ahead to afford the trip. "Many people have saved for months to be able to come and see us," said Potter.
The women thanked me and I sat back down, offering to pray for us to have a smooth journey home. (They maybe cursed us instead -- it took 30 hours, instead of three to get home.) We agreed, and focused our attention toward the cast-iron skillet of macaroni and cheese, alfredo-drenched lasagna, vaguely Asian-inspired "Ginger" salad, and a chicken-fried steak that is large enough to make four separate chicken-fried steaks the server had just dropped off at my table. Having been there just five hours earlier for breakfast, I could still feel the remnants of my order -- an elephantine breakfast pork chop, a biscuit sandwich with a bowl of thick gravy for dunking, a stack of pancakes armed with three flavored syrups, and a spinach-and-mushroom breakfast burrito ordered for the sole purpose of having a vegetable -- sticking to the inside of my digestive tract. But I was on a mission.
The majority of the Mercantile's menu is designed to keep the customer planted firmly within their comfort zone -- it keeps her clientele happy without challenging them to expand their horizons. That is except for the store's coffee program. The restaurant is outfitted with not one, but two, top-of-the-line espresso machines that would make any hipster barista's heart soar, and Drummond worked with Topeka, a popular Tulsa roaster, to make her own signature coffee blend. But the clientele tends to struggle with the espresso-based menu. Jackie Cade, a barista (and now the bakery manager), became visibly giddy when I asked if they could make my standard summertime order of an iced Americano.
"We never get to make those around here," she tells me. "I love getting to use the espresso machine." What does sell, however, is the Spicy Cowgirl, one of the Merc's signature drinks. Made with espresso, chocolate, cayenne, and a heavy pour of sweet cream. Drummond is the first to admit that the iced drink is more like milkshake than a coffee. She also later admitted to me that she'd built the coffee program largely for herself. "I felt that I really did this whole thing, just so that I could have a good cup of coffee everyday," she said.
I was washing my hands in the Merc's cavernous bathrooms, when a gaggle of three women rushed in. They hurriedly painted fresh coats of lipstick onto their lips, while attempting to add extra volume to their hair at the same time. "I can't believe he is upstairs!" exclaimed one of the women, referring to Ladd Drummond's unexpected arrival at the bakery on the Merc's second floor. "He is so handsome. We have to go get a picture with him." The trio bolted out the door.
Though it may come as a surprise, Ladd is deeply involved in the Pioneer Woman brand. It was he who convinced Ree to go ahead and start a magazine. He was also behind the design and construction of the Mercantile and is heavily embedded in the store's day-to-day operations. "Ladd is here the most of them all," Linda later revealed to me. And though the menu is technically all Ree's recipes, he is involved with the food to a degree, too.
Virginia Fistrovich, the Merc’s Executive Chef of Bakery Operations, who once worked with famed chef Thomas Keller, recounts the story of Ladd insisting she figure out how to make a "flat" strawberry pie, a dish she had never heard of. (It looks like she figured it out.) Together, Ree and Ladd carefully manage the image of the brand, which is more manufactured than it might seem. Every single item sold at the Merc is picked by Drummond herself, and they are direct representations of her brand. Ceramic colanders sporting a vintage design (Americana vibes) are just as at home next to the decorative wall piece proclaiming "Cowboys are my weakness" (a Ranch lifestyle) as they are to the collection of bacon- and pickle-shaped bandages (low-brow humor) Drummond also hawks.
This is especially evident when it comes to operations at the Mercantile. I was not allowed to take any photos of dishes the kitchen hasn't plated for me. The story of Paige Drummond, Ree's youngest daughter, working in the Merc as a barista, is slightly exaggerated. ("She's here maybe once a month," said Linda.) And Ree insists on running the social media for the Mercantile herself, even though the staff always offers to help her out, Potter said. Drummond even went so far as to write the directions given to visitors looking to drive out to Drummond Ranch, so that every facet would be in her voice.
"The Ree you see on television is the Ree you get in real life."
But none of that seems to matter much to her fans, who are deeply loyal, almost to the point of being militant. Write one thing that can be perceived as slightly negative about Drummond and brace for an onslaught of defensive comments. Anything she sells, they are willing to buy. When I spoke with Drummond, she admitted with a laugh that many people doubted the finger puppets would sell, but she was obsessed with them. It turns out her fans are, too. I personally saw three people add finger puppets to their overflowing piles as they browsed the store during my two days there. I never witnessed one person walk out with fewer than two bags of purchases from the Merc. One of the most popular items? A $5 roll of plastic wrap, called Chic Wrap, that Drummond uses on her show and her fans were lining up to buy. I picked up a roll and stared at it. There was nothing remarkable about it, except that it is endorsed by Drummond herself.
But Drummond also goes out of her way to repay her fans and her community for their loyalty. "The Ree you see on television, is the Ree you get in real life," Potter told me. And I believe there is definitely some truth to that. She seems genuinely flattered by her own success. And both Ree and Ladd are deeply obsessed with ensuring that visitors to the Mercantile feel taken care of. There are staffers tasked with doling out water bottles and umbrellas to ensure that the people in line remain hydrated and cool.
And this summer, the Drummonds opened up tours to The Lodge, the posh guest house located on the family ranch that serves as a guest house and luxury studio space for her Food Network show. The tour is free, and only requires the patience to drive 20 miles west of town, through the twists and turns across the bumpy gravel roads that outfit the Drummond Family Ranch. "Opening up The Lodge was actually 100% my husband's idea -- most of the good ideas are his," Drummond told me. "His thinking was that so many people have traveled from so far to come to the Merc, we should just add another little layer of memory to the trip. I'm glad he stuck to it."
This past Fourth of July, the Drummonds even went so far as to throw a Fourth of July party for the town of Pawhuska out of their own pockets. The family usually hosts a soiree at their ranch, where attendees include the who's who of Northeastern Oklahoma, including a number of local politicians. But this year, they moved the affair to the center of town across from the Mercantile, where Ladd and his brother personally set off a fireworks show for the town, according to Nash. "Ree got up and addressed the crowd that evening from the stage before the fireworks... and had her pastor pray," she added.
For as far back as Nash could remember, Pawhuska had been a "ghost town" on Fourth of July, with everyone dispersing after the yearly parade held in the morning. But this year's festivities were packed. "We hadn't seen the town that alive at night," she said. "There was traffic leaving, and it was so exciting. It was a rekindling of a town that has seen those times before and it's exciting to see those times again."