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Chuck Wagons Serve Up a Taste of the Past

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Glenn Dorn has no idea how old his chuck wagon is. He bought it back in 1967. At that time, it was at least 80 years old, according to the earliest documented mention of it. But it’s likely to be 10 years older, he said.

In the 43 years he has owned it, the St. Hedwig resident has traveled with his restored wagon to countless shows around the area, meeting up with other chuck wagon enthusiasts, all of whom love to haul out their collection of cast-iron pots and pans before preparing a meal under the open skies.

Last Saturday, Dorn’s was one of seven wagons on display at the Medina County Fairgrounds in Hondo. This Saturday, he’ll take it to at the Heritage Gathering Chuck Wagon Cook-Off in Boerne.

These are generally charitable events, with last Saturday’s benefiting the D’Hanis Independent School District, while proceeds from the fifth annual Boerne Chuck Wagon Cook-off and Heritage Gathering go to support the city’s Agricultural Heritage Museum.

“All of these wagons are old,” he said of the gathering. “I’d say all are over 100 years old.”

All have been taken care of with the same love and respect that Dorn has shown his. The wood gleams in the light, Each has a collection of antique tins, scales and other equipment you’d have found on a wagon stationed on a ranch in the late 19th century or one accompanying a trail ride. They also have a variety of humorous touches adding to the hominess of the camp site.

Dorn, for example, had a pair of red long johns hanging on a clothesline outside the tent.

The menu at each chuck wagon cook-off reflects what the cowboys ate back then: meat and potatoes, beans, bread and peach cobbler. The meat is chicken-fried steak with gravy. The beans seasoned with specks of pork fat. The cobbler made with canned peaches.

Yet that’s where the similarities seem to end. Some pound their chicken-fried steak out thin, others opt for a thick cut. One cook may produce a cobbler with bits of doughy dumplings, another might add a touch of almond or a little extra butter. One offers a cobbler made with dried apricots on her catering menu.

Some show up specifically for the competition. Dorn likes being a part of the scene, regardless of who wins. “We just come for the camaraderie,” he said.

Dorothy Douthit brought her Fiddle Fire wagon, built in 1606, down from San Angelo. She has had it since 2003.

On one level, having the chuck wagon gives the teacher a chance to bring a part of Texas history alive to her students and help them understand something of life on the trail during the westward expansion.

It’s also a chance to offer a Texan-style catering set-up, with a menu that goes beyond the cook-off list to include fajitas or even a turkey dinner prepared over an open fire.

She throws in her fiddle playing as part of the experience.

Douthit won’t be able to make the Boerne event because she plays in the San Angelo Orchestra, which has a performance scheduled for that evening. On those occasions, her fiddle becomes a violin.

But she would love to be there, and at any cook-off. “We love to come to competitions,” she said. “It helps us to stay in the loop.”

On the side of her wagon is a stuffed buzzard, aptly named Buzz. “We let him take care of anybody who bothers the cook,” she joked.

It takes a team to operate a chuck wagon smoothly.

Douthit and her business partner had a few students helping them out. Meanwhile, Dorn’s companion, daughter and son-in-law all pitched in last Saturday to make the work easier.

Then the wagons roll off, not drawn by horses. These antiques are too precious to be wheeling down today’s highways. They’re loaded up on flatbeds before heading off into the sunset.

For more information on how to care for cast-iron cookware, click here.

The fifth annual Boerne Chuck Wagon Cook-Off and Heritage Gathering will be from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Agricultural Heritage Museum, 102 City Park Road, Boerne. Tickets including a meal are $20 apiece. Admission to the grounds without the meal is $5 for adults. Call (830) 249-7277.

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One Response to “Chuck Wagons Serve Up a Taste of the Past”

  1. John Griffin says:

    I recently received the results of the cook-off competition.
    Rafter TS, mentioned in the story on seasoning cast-iron, won best overall, first place for wagon, first for steak, a tie for first for potatoes, first for bread and second for cobbler.
    Rafter D, Glenn Dorn’s wagon from St. Hedwig, won a tie for first place for potatoes and third for beans.
    Dorothy Douthit’s Fiddle Fire from San Angelo won third overall, first place for beans, second place for wagon, and second place for steak.
    Calk Wagon from El Paso was named second best overall, and Rockin B Ranch from San Antonio won third place for steak.