Chuck wagon cooks sink teeth into competition

Not only does the food have to be tasty, but the chuck wagon has to be authentic.

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Dan McCaffree of Roundup, Mont., checks on his apple cobbler, made Friday at the chuck wagon cook-off at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in Dayton.

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A participant hefts a heavy pot at the chuck wagon cook-off at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in Dayton.

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Art Russell of Moses Lake relaxes at a chuck wagon camp after the cook-off.

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Smoke and heat waft around a hanging coffee pot, as contestants and eaters mingle after Friday's competition.

DAYTON - In their own way, you could say contestants of the first chuck wagon cook-off in these parts could be considered stubborn as mules.

(Though there were many mule owners at Mule Mania who were quick to point out that mules aren't stubborn.)

About five teams of chuck wagon cookers stubbornly held on to a way of cooking that used an open fire, a wagon, a big cast iron pot and a large wooden container used to carry all the cooking supplies that was called the "chuck box."

"We had this chuck box made when we went to Lubbock. We had it made to period," Lori McGuire said, as she helped prepare dinner for the chuck wagon cook-off during Friday's Mule Mania in Dayton.

It turns out the actual chuck wagon is just as much a part of a chuck wagon cook-off as the food that is served and judged.

In a chuck wagon competitions, like the one held in Dayton on Friday and Saturday, authenticity is a key ingredient.

It is a standard that was set decades ago in Texas and other parts of the Southwest, where such competitions are common, said Bob Ottmar, president of the Northwest Chapter of the American Chuck Wagon Association.

Last year, Ottmar and his colleagues decided to cook up a few local competitions; so they formed their own Northwest chapter and held their first Walla Walla County cook-off.

"Boy. Ours came out good," Ottmar bragged to fellow member Les Myers. "We marinated ours. We used almost two-fifths of Jack Daniels."

A main component of chuck wagon competitions is the food, which must contain ingredients that would have been found on a mid-19th century chuck wagon.

"Yeah. They used a lot of whiskey. But mostly for medicinal purposes they would say," Ottmar said.

All five contestants were given the same ingredients: tri-tip beef, potatoes, rice, beans, apples, flour and oil.

The rest was up to the cooks to come up with their renditions, with one more caveat.

Their chuck wagons, every part of them, had to be as authentic as possible, right down to the 1850s bone-handled forks and pewter knives that Rod McGuire purchased in Tombstone, Ariz.

"I am a sucker for stuff like that," McGuire said.

Then he held up a pre-1860s canteen he bought for about $200 and hung from a post to help make his chuck wagon as authentic as possible.

Many of the items the McGuires and other chuck wagon teams carried had nothing to do with modern cooking.

Still, care was taken to make sure water barrels, two-man hand crosscut saws, ropes, furs, muskets and numerous other items were time appropriate.

Lori McGuire added they lost points at one competition because the screws used to build their chuck box were not like the ones that would have been found from the era.

As for the cooking, the kettles, pots and pans are replicas of what would have been used, and usually are cast iron.

The most popular of these were the dutch oven cooking pots, which were either hung above or put right in the coals to make cobblers, biscuits, pancakes, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, rice, beans, roasts and stews.

"You can make anything in one of these ovens that you can do on your stove. Anything," contestant Dan McCaffree said.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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