Showman. Innovator. Entrepreneur. And as humble and down-to-earth as they come. Don Strange became a legend in catering, and by his side, throughout it all, was Don’s wife of 48 years, Frances. And though Frances and many friends and clients kept telling Don he should write a book about his life, he was always too busy doing what he did best — planning and pulling off spectacular events. Frances and Don eventually came to the conclusion that she should write the book from her perspective.
The project began in the spring of 2009, “a very providential decision” says Frances, as “Don passed away on Nov. 11, 2009.” No one could have captured the man — his dreams, his accomplishments and his bigger-than-life, can-do approach to any challenge — better than Frances.
The resulting book, Don Strange of Texas: His Life and Recipes, is much more than a cookbook. It’s a fascinating and heart-warming account of their journey together, filled with over 100 easy-to-replicate recipes, unique ideas for presentation and beautiful photographs by photographer Tracey Maurer. This book, written by Frances along with renowned cookbook author Terry Thompson-Anderson, is a gem.
Early on, Frances and Don agreed that she would be a “stay-at-home wife and mom” to their three sons — Brian, Matt and Jason — and that her role would be one of support. Family was always a priority for them both, but Don was also consumed with building his parents’ small restaurant and their Strange Party House into one of the largest and most lauded catering companies in Texas. “Even when times were tough and I would ask him if I should get a job, he always told me that I was most valuable at home so he could bounce ideas off me,” says Frances. “Of course, I knew enough about it to jump in and help in any department if I had to because Don always kept me in the loop and treated me like a partner.” But, she says, “As the business began to really grow, I found myself taking on more roles.” Bet she never dreamed she’d become an author! Discipline of the boys fell to her, but Don was determined to “play an active role” in raising the young boys. Amazingly, Frances made that happen. She would get them ready for bed, then drive them to the catering job where Don was working. He’d come out to the car and spend time with them — a unique and memorable experience that benefited all.
Don catered parties ranging from six people to 35,000. Without Frances by his side, maintaining a home life and being an integral part of the family would have been impossible. As they were growing up, all three boys worked alongside their dad, eventually taking on “active roles in the operation of the business. Don began to rely on them, as well as his experienced staff, to be the eyes and ears of the company,” recalls Frances. “The boys brought their own strong work ethic and entrepreneurial skills to the business.” Frances’ mother, Mary Singleton, also worked in the company, starting in the office, but moving on to kitchen operations. She developed “many of the dishes that remain client favorites today,” says Frances. Their home was always open to guests, many of whom were giants in the food industry. It must have been nerve-wracking back in 1976 when Frances and Don hosted James Beard, the man Julia Child had dubbed “The Dean of American Cooking.” Don admired James Beard immensely, and a few months after the reception, Beard wrote a glowing account in his syndicated newspaper column that proved “the admiration must have been mutual.”
Frances writes, “”What an honor it was to Don to have his hard work and creative efforts extolled by a man of such great stature. I believe it was a turning point in his life.” It “gave Don the confidence to expand and grow the company, using his endless innovative and entrepreneurial skills to create ever greater events.” And greater events there were! “From the White House to the Hollywood Hills,” Don Strange continued to outdo himself, always striving to exceed expectations. During the halcyon days of the Texas oil boom and cattle industry, Don’s business grew exponentially, and he began to cater out-of-state. It was a stress-filled life for the Stranges. There were many ups and downs over the years — Frances describes it as a “roller coaster ride” — but they remained grounded and always gave back to the community. For several years, Frances had been urging Don to bottle and package a variety of their popular items, including sauces, Grilled White Wings, Christmas Bacon, even Don’s customized grill, Texas Grill Pardner, and sell them online. In 2009, it was she who launched the e-commerce business, www.donstrangemarket.com, selling their signature products around the world. Heading up the Don Strange Market Place was just one more role for Frances.
One of Frances’ favorite recipes in the book is the Fried Fresh Corn. It’s easy to make, and the flavor is the very essence of summer.
The Stranges have been blessed with wonderful staff members, including Di-Anna Arias, who joined the team in 1985. As director of sales and marketing, Arias has become a member of the family, (all but the DNA, Frances quips). Arias weighed in on some of her favorite recipes in the book, and she included the ones below.
Frances recalls the many ways her mother used this custard for her “marvelous desserts.” Vary it by adding nuts, berries, coconut, or use it for banana pudding, layering it with bananas and vanilla wafers.