Monday, March 29, 2010

Dead mule sourdough biscuits, part 2

Continued from yesterday ...

I'll let Stella continue the story in her own words:

"Rowdy was directly behind Preacher John, a cantankerous jack who brayed loud and often, when a rock squirrel skittered onto the trail, saw the mules, became confused and foolishly darted between Rowdy's feet.

"That did it! The little mule climbed right on top of Preacher John's back. The Preacher humped up and let fly with both hind feet, catching Rowdy under the chin with one shod hoof.

"That hurt! Rowdy spun half around, collided with Little Orphan Annie behind him, and in the melee fell off the trail and tumbled end over end a hundred yards down the mountain. The pack came loose, and pots and pans, knives and forks fell like metallic rain among the chollas and rocks."

It was immediately evident to Jeff and Herman that Rowdy was dead, laying at the bottom of the canyon with "his head ... twisted sharply under his shoulder ..." The pair set about that task of salvaging what they could from the wreck and moving the pack train up to the camp.

Each reacted differently to the accident. Jeff seems to have had a soft spot in his heart for the cantankerous mule. "Jess felt bad about loosing the spunky old mule," wrote Stella.

Herman seems to have channeled his grief toward his precious starter, now plastered all over the canyon. Stella continued, "Old Herman was beside himself with grief over loosing his sourdough starter."

Not one to mourn the loss of Rowdy, Herman jumped into action while Jeff tended to the surviving animals. His immediate concern turned to recovering as much of the starter as he could.

No cook, regardless of his reputation, wanted to serve flat biscuits, those devoid of any life. Even rough and tumble cowboys had a hart time devouring biscuits that have more value as a weapon than sustenance.

Next comes my favorite paragraph in Chuck Wagon Cookin'. It's not a favorite because I relish eating contaminated biscuits.

I enjoy the story because it embodies the character of the Old West. Some cooks did what was necessary to get the job done, even when it meant scooping a working sourdough started from the carcass of a dead mule.

Like Jeff, who watched Herman's sourdough started rescue operation, I would've skipped his biscuits the next morning. Jeff knew from experience that Herman's biscuits were suspect.

What Jeff observed next was enough to sure him of eating Herman's biscuits forever. Let's join Stella as she finishes the story:

"Old Herman was still working around Rowdy's body, busy with a pan and a large ladle he'd managed to salvage. Jeff then relates in wonder the scene he witnessed. For old Herman was scraping sourdough that had spilled onto Rowdy's face, covering the little mule's head with a messy shroud.

"Herman managed to get several spoonfuls of the stuff into his pan and climbed back over the cactus and boulders to his horse, with a triumphant smile on his bearded face.

"Next morning, in camp, old Herman served sourdough biscuits to the crew as usual. All except Jeff, who passed."

This is one of many stories in Chuck Wagon Cookin', a book that celebrates the lore from a bye-gone era, often learned in the "College of Dutch Oven Cookery."

Biscuits anyone?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dead mule sourdough biscuits

I've always held a special place in my heart for those with whom I share a birthday. Among those is camp cook and celebrated horsewoman Stella Hughes.

Unfortunately, I didn't learn of our association until 15 months after her death. Stella died at 92 in her adapted state of Arizona on December 16, 2008.

"Stella could feed 100 hungry people as easily as she could a small dinner party," wrote writer Suzie Cox in the Eastern Arizona Courier.

"She worked hard right alongside [husband and stockman] Mack [Hughes], many times helping to drive the cattle on long drives down the Nantac Rim to Calva, always packing a camera along to document the day."

I first learned of Stella over 10 years ago when I found a copy of Chuck Wagon Cookin’ in a Placerville used book store. The University of Arizona Press first published the book in 1974.

More than a collection of 112 recipes, many of which come from an era of down-home cooking, are the stories of chuckwagon cooking on the range. Like Ramon F. Adams' Come and Get It: The Story of the Old Cowboy Cook, Chuck Wagon Cookin’ is a must-read for anyone interested in the lore of Old West wagon cooking.

Belated news of Stella’s passing gave me a chance to take a fresh look at her story of the range cook that "rescued" a few drops of sourdough starter from the carcass of a mule named Rowdy. The story "points out most vividly to what great lengths a cook would go in order to perpetrate his precious starter," said Stella.

Sometime in the late-1920s, the JF Ranch, located in the Superstition Mountains east of the Phoenix metropolitan area, moved the roundup kitchen throughout the rugged range via pack train. The train packed the "cook’s kitchen, cowboy’s bedrolls, horse feed, the whole works."

Like all cowboy cooks of the day, JF's cook, a less than clean character only identified as "Herman, an old Dutchman," kept his sourdough starter in a large earthen crock, "tucked carefully in a corner of one pack box" on Rowdy’s back. The lid to Herman’s crock was tied on with a "less than clean towel."

As the primary leavening agent for biscuits, pancakes and bread, the cook guarded his precious keg of sourdough. "The loss of a starter was classified as a major calamity."

Rowdy was one of a number of "'characters,' mostly bad," from among the mules owned by the JF. For months, Rowdy would act the part of a perfect pack mule. Once the mule-skinner relaxed, said Stella, "Rowdy would pull his caper."

On this day, Herman accompanied cowboy Jeff Lauderdale, one of the hired hands of the JF. Jeff told the story to Stella sometime in the intervening years.

Several hours out of the ranch, the pack string approached an "extremely narrow and steep" section of the trail. One slip of the hoof would send the pack animals hurling down to the rocky canyon below, a fall of several hundred feet.

To be continued ...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Fire control

No, CS1 Sugai isn't on fire!

U.S. Navy Culinary Specialist 1st Class Jason Sugai controls a fire at Fort Lee Va., on March 6, 2010. CS1 Sugai represents Team U.S. Navy in the Contemporary and Practical category in the 35th Culinary Arts Competition.

U.S. Army photo by Spec. Phil Kernisan.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Coast Guard breaks Army hold on culinary competition

By Petty Officer 3rd Class Mark Jones

The Coast Guard has, for the last four years, hand-picked and sent eight food service specialists to represent the entire Coast Guard against the greatest gastronomical talents of the U.S. military at the Annual Culinary Arts Competition at Fort Lee, Va.

Teams that attend the competition travel from all over the world, and most come from single units or installations. Many of them train together consistently for months at a time and have been competing year after year.

The Coast Guard team met each other for the first time at this year's competition, but that didn't stop them from becoming the first non-Army team in 35 years to place in the top three in the event's most prestigious Installation of The Year competition. The team earned third place.

According to Petty Officer 2nd Class Ed Fuchs, the teams captain, all interested and qualified food service specialists were solicited to apply for the team by submitting command-endorsed packages including detailed information about how good they are at what they do.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Justin Reed, an administrator of the competition and also a competitor in previous years, personally selected the members based on criteria such as what they have done in the Coast Guard, what they have done before joining and outside the Coast Guard, what schools and training they have attended and what their strong points are.

"We got more involved," said Reed. "We put our heads together and we wanted to show other services that we can do it – that we've got the skill level. We entered last year and placed fifth, so we knew we had a chance to get it this year."

The week-long event comprised several individual and team competitions in skills such as hot and cold food preparation; a field kitchen exercise in which five-person teams were required to cook a four-course meal for 80 using an army burner, a water truck, and a tent; "mystery basket" competitions which required the chef to prepare an artful and nutritious meal out of randomly selected food items placed in a covered basket; an ice-carving competition; and others.

Participants competed against a standard, and how they did against that standard determined whether they earned a medal for the event. Each gold, silver, or bronze medal earned added a set number of points to the overall team score in the Installation of The Year competition. The Coast Guard's team earned a total of 17 gold, 12 silver, and three bronze medals.

"We medaled in every event that we competed in," said Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Bishop, a member of Team Coast Guard.

"Third place in four years – some of these teams have been doing it for 35 years," Reed said. "For us to reach third place in four years is unbelievable, but we did it. To me, it's incredible what we've accomplished."

"Last year we were fifth, this year we're third," Reed said. "First place is almost within reach."

Photo caption: The U.S. Coast Guard's FSC2 Edward Fuchs separates mussels during the second day of the Field Competition held March 6. The field competition was of several cooking events that took place during the 34th Army Culinary Arts Competition held at Fort Lee March 2-13. (U.S. Army photograph by T. Anthony Bell).

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Eatin' on the range ...

Here's an interesting tidbit from The Outing Magazine in 1911:

The difficult-to-please Easterner who drops in at Delmonico's or the Cafe Martin and glowers through the list of dishes in search of a fresh delicacy to tempt his appetite would receive something of a jolt if he should be confronted suddenly with the menu of an Arizona cowboy. It runs about like this:

(at 5 a. m.)
Fried Veal Steak
Potatoes, fried raw
Sour-dough Biscuit

(at 11 or 12)
Fried Veal Steak
Fried Potatoes
Cold Sour-dough Biscuit

(anywhere from 4 o'clock on)
Fried Veal Steak
Fried Potatoes

Source: The Outing Magazine, October 1911 (Volume 58, No. 1), page 714.

"Outing was a late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American magazine covering a variety of sporting activities. It began publication in 1882 as the Wheelman and had four title changes before ceasing publication in 1923," according to Wikipedia.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

You needs no teef to eat my beef ... part 2

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.

Click to read part 1 of the story.

The camp kitchen

Sanders is a master of his decade-old trade and camp kitchen, which includes a 300-pound Bushrods smoker (that's pounds of meat, not steel) that's full of pork butt with a spicy barbecue rub. A few feet away, stands a line of 12- and 14-inch Dutch ovens with cornbread and scalloped potatoes. And hanging from a 14-foot set of irons is no. 8 Lodge Dutch ovens with sweet rice pudding.

Sanders' signature dish for the evening -- pinto beans with ham hocks -- hang over red-hot coals in two no. 10 Lodge Dutch ovens (the kind with rounded lids and flat bottom). The beans were the hit of the evening, because in Sanders' words, "People just don't take time to cook them anymore."

They've the "best beans we ever made," says Sanders. At the last minute he dumped leftover breakfast sausage, ham and bacon into the beans.

But be warned Sanders' beans don't favor those with tender noses. He's aptly named them Gossiping Beans, so-called, "'Cuz the beans are pleasant to your face, but then they talk behind your back."

Sanders became a cowboy in the early 1990s to fulfill a life-long dream. By the time the new millennium dawned, he said, "I don't want to be a cowboy any more." He had worked "until I got it out of my system."

A cowboy does more than punch cows, Sanders learned along the trail. As his decade-long quest subsided, he says that he farmed hay, irrigated fields, mended fences and repaired ranch machinery. And he cooked over the open fire at roundup time.

So you might say that being a camp cook is the realization of Sanders' cowboy dream. After all, old cowboys don't die. They become camp cooks.

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 ...

Sunday, March 07, 2010

I know times are tough ...

I found this note on the bulletin board at the Missouri Flat Road parking lot for the El Dorado Trail. The address has been removed to protect the innocent.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Flank steak

Flank is one of my favorite beef cuts ...

SEOUL, Republic of Korea (Feb. 28, 2010) -- Chef Trevor Hamilton prepares grilled flank steaks at the Navy Club for single Sailors stationed in Seoul, Republic of Korea. Since 1999, Hamilton has been a part of the Adopt-a-Ship program, a partnership between Naval Supply Systems Command and the American Culinary Federation.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Bobbie G. Attaway.