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Chuck Wagons Serve Up a Taste of the Past


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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Chicken-fried Steak Made to Your Tastes


Chicken Fried SteakPlaywright, novelist and poet Ntozake Shange remembers her very first chicken-fried steak, which she had in Amarillo in June of 1974. “I was totally unprepared for chicken-fried steak,” she writes in “If I Can Cook/You Know God Can.” “All I knew about was chicken fried like chicken or fish fried like fish, but not one animal fried like another kind of animal.” Yet she fell in love with the dish and made it her own. Her recipe is not traditional in that you measure out certain proportions of ingredients. You just follow her lead and make it to your taste:

Chicken-fried Steak

[amazon-product]0807072419[/amazon-product]”I believe in using choice pieces of meat, though that’s not always possible or necessary. Anyway, with a decent piece of sirloin steak that’s been tenderized by piercing with a fork or pounding, cut vertical slits in the rim of fat along the edge so your meat won’t curl up. If you want to be really fancy, this meat can be marinated in Worcestershire sauce, red wine or a mesquite-tinged hot sauce. Meanwhile, fix a batter of milk, eggs, flour, salt and pepper. Dredge your meat on both sides in the batter (then cook) in a thick-bottom frying pan, the old-fashioned kind, I guess. Your oil should be hot so that a sprinkle of water sizzles. The same problem that confronts you when you are frying chicken appears here. We don’t want the crust of the meat to brown too quickly, before the meat is done. That requires you to mediate the range of the fire ‘neath your pan with some focus. I like my meat rare, so my steak is in and out as soon as the crust is a fine brown. I don’t know what to tell you if you want your meat well done. I imagine you’ll be at the stove a bit longer.”

From “If I Can Cook/You Know God Can” by Ntozake Shange

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WalkerSpeak: History Outshines Schnitzel in Old Vienna


wienerschnitzelIf I thought the flavor of Wiener Schnitzel in Vienna restaurants would be a revelation, I was wrong.  It was ambience in that historic Austrian city that gave us our money’s worth.

Wiener Schnitzel is a simple dish, made of thinly pounded veal scallops, breaded, fried and served with wedges of lemon. In Vienna, it was much like what I’ve had in the United States, and something like what I’ve made at home— only bigger,  much bigger.  It filled the plate and draped itself over the sides.  I’ve seen  chicken-fried steaks in Texas that would look puny in comparison.

But where the dish fell short of our expectations, the atmosphere took over.  On our first night in Old Vienna, my sister, Marcia, and I claimed a table outside on the sidewalk area at Café Leopuldo. Under a big, striped awning, we had glasses of cold Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s famous, crisp white wine and watched the stylish Viennese hurrying home from work, or out to play. Having both come from the drought-parched Western United States we lingered as long as was decent, soaking up the coolness of the evening and enjoying a light rain that came and went.

Cafe Leopuldo’s Wiener Schnitzel was dramatic in size but flat in taste. Lots of lemon juice and some salt made it more palatable.

The following evening, after a concert and a long walk through narrow streets, we came to  Zwölf Apostekeller, a restaurant in an old house at Number 3 Sonnenfelsgasse.  Once again the meal would consist of Wiener Schnitzel, this time accompanied by big plates of German potato salad. The folks who had planned our concert tour of several Central European cities had chosen this venue. Wiener Schnitzel was served to us all; once again, it was a plain, straightforward dish that I’d guess ranks among that country’s comfort foods rather than its haute cuisine.

But the place where we dined was remarkable.  After dozens of us crowded into the structure, we were led down several flights of stairs. We came to the cellar, then kept going. Finally, in a sub cellar, we found our seats for the late meal. Tables lined narrow aisles that ran the length of the space. Strings of twinkly lights cast a glow in the subterranean gloom.  Above us was the awe-inspiring sight of a brick vaulted ceiling, said to be part of a rebuild of this cellar in 1561. The house itself dated back to 1100.  Wrapped up in that kind of history we really weren’t overly concerned with food.

Later, describing Austria’s famous dish to friends, I mentioned that the breading was bland. I’d have added some salt.  Of course, Americans are famous for their salty food, which Europeans visiting here sometimes have trouble with.  So, it probably was just a matter of taste.

And let’s face it, where in the U.S. can we sit down to dinner in a house built more than 900 years ago?

Wiener Schnitzel

1 1/2 pounds sliced veal scallops, pounded thin (see note)
1 1/2 cups flour
1-2 teaspoons salt
Pinch of white pepper
4 eggs
1 1/2  sleeves Saltine crackers, crushed, or 3 cups cracker meal
1 teaspoon salt, if desired
Canola oil, for frying
2 lemons, cut in wedges, for garnish

Note:  I like to order a piece of veal and slice it at home, then pound it thin. I think this makes a more tender cut than the ultra-thin slices of veal scallopine you find already cut at the store. If you don’t want to slice your own, just ask the person at the meat market for slices between 1/4-and-1/2-inch thick.  Flatten with a mallet and put slices on a plate.  Veal is expensive. If you want to spend less, you can substitute pork for veal.

Put the flour in a large, flat bowl or plate; add salt and pepper and blend in well.  Scramble eggs in a large, flat bowl.  Put crushed Saltines or cracker meal on a large plate and blend salt, if using, in well.

Pour oil to the depth of about an inch-and-a-half in a good-sized skillet. (Preheat oven, too, to 150 degrees. This is so that if you are doing the schnitzel in batches, you can put the fried pieces on a large plate or baking sheet in the oven to keep warm. Don’t stack pieces on top of each other and don’t cover them; they’ll get soggy.)

To bread the veal pieces, press each piece in the flour, turning to flour both sides. Shake off excess. Dip each piece in the beaten egg, to thoroughly coat.  Then, press each slice into the cracker meal, turning to coat all sides.

When the oil is hot, but not smoking, gently slide the bread pieces into the oil. It should sizzle energetically, but not foam up or threaten to fry over the side of the skillet.  Fry one side of each piece to a deep golden color, but not to dark brown.  Turn, and fry the other side until it is gold. Each side will take a minute or more.  Take out of the oil and blot lightly on paper towel.  Sometimes, if the oil gets too thick with crumbs that have fallen off, I pour the oil off, clean out the crumbs with a wadded up paper towel, and then reheat the oil. If you leave crumbs in the pan they will get brown and bitter, and stick to your veal cutlets.

When all the pieces are fried, put on plates, garnish with lemon wedges and serve.

Serves 4.

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