Saturday, March 13, 2010

You needs no teef to eat my beef ...

Leonard "Wagon Cook" Sanders posted this photo of his 400-pound smoker on Saturday. It reminded me of an article that I wrote for in 2001.

Sanders is the chef/owner of the Chuckwagon BBQ Company in Oroville, California.

You might wonder how a man who tended boilers on a Navy destroyer during the Vietnam War, changed tires in his father's Oroville tire shop and wrangled cattle at a Sierra Nevada cattle ranch became a professional camp cook.

You'd expect him to be driving the lead wagon in a living history event instead. When you ponder Leonard Sanders' adult life, he's the quintessential camp cook.

Leonard has followed the in the foot steps of hundreds of trail drive and roundup cooks -- men (and a few women) who had taken up cooking after their cow punching days reached the end of the trail.

Like the Nineteenth Century chuckwagon cook, Sanders has no formal training in the culinary arts. That's unless you reckon the endless hours reading Ramon F. Adam's Come An' Get It: The Story of the Old Cowboy Cook as "formal training."

Dozens of Dutch oven and cowboy cookbooks -- like those by Stella Hughes (Chuck Wagon Cookin' and Bacon and Beans) and sisters Sue Cunningham and Jean Cates (Chuckwagon Recipes and Others) -- have shaped his style and chuckwagon fare.

Evolution of a wagon cook

I caught up with Sanders at the encampment of the 2001 Historic Sonora Pass Wagon Train at Kennedy Meadows.

Located on a 15-foot bluff overlooking the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River, Sanders' large frame donned a black and white plaid flannel shirt tucked neatly inside a pair of bib coveralls.

With a black broad, flat-brimmed cowboy hat squarely fitted on his head, the camp cook's straightforward approach to camp cooking keeps some 60 living historians filled meal after meal.

Sanders started barbecuing in Santa Maria some 20 years ago. For this cowboy-turned-camp-cook, Santa Maria, located just inland from the Central California coast, was ideal. The Santa Maria Valley is home to some of California's oldest cattle ranches and tri-tip barbecue and deep-pit cookery.

Like Sanders' cooking, Santa Maria style barbecue is known for its simplicity. It's prime cuts of beef roasted over the coals of red oak wood and seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic.

Then about 1985, Sanders purchased his first Dutch oven. Today, this oven has grown into a collection of "about 50." When asked what prompted him to start cooking in the black cast iron pots, Sanders only says that it's "historic research" into cowboy life.

It was a book like Adam's Come An' Get It that probably inspired Sanders. Sometime after reading about the camp cook of Western lore, he was asked to cook for a cattle roundup and branding in the foothills above Oroville, Calif. Cowhands ate his food, and to his surprise, "Nobody died."

Next word of his camp cooking spread throughout Butte County. The food must've been good. First it was a wedding of a cowboy to a cowgirl.

Today, Sanders caters several large events throughout the year. They all have one thing in common: Each event celebrates the Western lifestyle.

To be continued ...

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