Meet the camp cook

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or
whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”
1 Corinthians 10:31

Meet the camp cook
I've long envisioned myself a nineteenth century camp cook. I can see myself cooking for an El Dorado County ranch as it drove cattle drive to summer pasture in the Lake Tahoe basin each spring. Everything about the job appeals to me: family atmosphere, outdoors and good old country cooking.

Chuckwagon cookin' in the rain
Yet, I've one problem: I was born 50 years too late. And I grew up in Fresno and Bakersfield. Those who know me will tell you that I'm a city boy who’s loved the Sierra Nevada high country ever since his father carried him to Peter Grub Hut in 1954.

I’ve only ridden a horse three times in the last forty years and have never driven a chuckwagon or fed a beef-centered diet to cowboys on the Western prairie. Nor have I piled flapjacks onto chipped enamel plates meant for hungry Sierra Nevada lumbermen or slopped biscuits and gravy on trays for a railroad gang.

At this point in my forty-year cooking career I could never call myself a “wagon cook.” While I've cooked in the shadow of one or two chuckwagons, it takes a special breed of cook to wrangle pots like Ramon F. Adam's “Sultan of the Skillets.”

The first time I cooked near a chuckwagon was at Leonard “Wagon Cook” Sander's 50th birthday bash in December 2002. Since that experience – cooking Dutch oven scalloped potatoes and baking bread in driving rain on a porch – I’ve only had the honor to view a couple other chuckwagons.

Seabee cooks of NMCB-17
I prefer Seabee Cook, a moniker earned after years of service in the U.S. Navy Construction Battalions. Like the wagon cook, who was at home on the range, feeding Seabees was special skill developed over a two-decade-long career in the Naval Reserves. I was known as the “field mess guru” during my tour with the 3rd Naval Construction Brigade and Pacific Fleet Seabees.

My large chuckbox, stained in a reddish hue and built to impeccable detail, draws folks to my camp. Since 2001, it has been the signature item in my camp cooking reparatory. Like the back end of the chuckwagon, the chuckbox has become the center point of my camp kitchen.

While the label of wagon cook may be something to aspire, I can only accept the moniker “chuckbox cook” (somehow “box cook” doesn't run off the tongue like Seabee Cook). I'll certainly answer to camp cook any day of the week. The title has an unpretentious ring to it. It's as if you’ve described me as a cook who harkens back to a simpler time, one born in the wrong century.

The chuckbox
For years I compensated on our annual camping trek to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I lived out a week-long fantasy each summer. You'd think I was fixin’ to feed a crowd of hungry hunters and fishermen. My outfit carried enough cookware to feed a baker's dozen or more. Give me a canvas A-framed cook-tent, a swamper and hungry outdoorsmen that appreciate good old camp grub, and I'm in the right setting.

In the end, my life will have spanned the back end of one century and front end of another, far removed from the glory days of the chuckwagon. As a retiree, I’m free from the day-to-day drudgery of a career. I now can pursue my life-long ambition to be a camp cook.

Each spring, my lovely bride and I journey to Oakland Feather River Camp in Quincy, Calif., where I’m the camp cook and chef for three and one-half months. Around the time I tire of 12-hour days and six-day work weeks, we return home to eight months of relaxation. I’m then free to cook for the El Dorado Western Railroad or camp at my leisure.

Artisan bread in camp
I bake bread in cast iron camp ovens just to give it away. While my camp may not always lodge under canvas, family and friends benefit from camp cuisine. Those who eat vittles ‘round the chuckbox share in my forty-year quest to replicate the life of a camp cook.

Welcome to my camp. From one camp cook to another, enjoy ‘Round the Chuckbox, where we cook delicious camp meals in frying pan, Dutch oven and grill. Cook with passion and “Come an’ Get It” will draw hungry diners to your chuckbox. Give thanks to God, settle into flavorsome grub and take pleasure in good companions.

MSCS Steven C. Karoly, USN, Retired
Camp cook and editor of ‘Round the Chuckbox