SHELBINA, Mo. -- A love of cowboy poetry led Don Collop of Colony to try cooking the cowboy way, while demonstrating his blacksmithing skill spurred an interest in chuck wagons for Vernon Adkins of Camden Point.
The American Chuck Wagon Association's work with veterans got Rodney Ashworth of Osceola involved in cooking, and training oxen led Johnny and Linda Kee from Beebe, Ark., to restore a wagon to add to their demonstrations, then convert it for cooking.
"A basic chuck wagon meal is five things -- meat, beans, bread, potatoes and dessert. Out of that, a typical meal would be chicken fried steak, brown beans, some kind of potatoes, sourdough biscuits and peach cobbler," said Johnny Kee, president of the ACWA's Mid America Chapter covering 12 Midwestern states. "Everywhere you go, everybody likes that."
And that was the case last month in Shelbina, where chuck wagons from Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa and Ohio gathered to cook and show the public what they do. They partnered with the Northeast Missouri Old Threshers in the Mid America Chuck Wagon Roundup at the fairgrounds to benefit the Honor Flight.
Actual cowboys fed by chuck wagons likely would have lived on wild turkey and antelope, not the beef they were driving to market, supplemented by beans and coffee.
"A lot of people don't realize the first big cattle drives were here in Missouri. When the Civil War started, the rail line ended at Sedalia," Ashworth said.
After the war, the rail line extended to Abilene, Kan., and when a rancher named Charles Goodnight made his first trip to market cattle, he used pack horses. After that, he used a specially-built wagon, patterned after his wife's Hoosier cabinet, to support the drovers on the trip. "Other ranchers saw it, said ‘we want Chuck's wagon,' and it became a chuck wagon," Kee said.
Today's chuck wagon enthusiasts use the same style of wagon -- and the same equipment -- to prepare meals and preserve a part of the heritage associated with the Old West through educational programs.
"A big part of being a chuck wagon enthusiast is gathering up the camp," Kee said.
They search antique stores and flea markets for cast iron cookware like "real legged Dutch ovens," Collop said. "If you find it and think you want it, you better buy it then."
Most of them had rarely cooked until they got involved with chuck wagons, but now they love the challenge of preparing a meal over an open fire -- and enjoying the finished dishes like skillet potatoes, cornmeal biscuits and Linda Kee's prize-winning peach cobbler.
"If you can make it in your oven or your kitchen at home, we can cook it," she said.
The Kees do competition cooking and have qualified for, and placed in, the association's championship show held each spring in Fredericksburg, Texas.
"I'm not into the competition side. I mainly just want to get really good at one or two meats. I've got a good bean, a good potato and my cobbler. That's what I do," Adkins said.
Most do catering for small events, charitable events like the one in Shelbina and demonstrations on what chuck wagons are and how they were, and still are, used.
"We meet people from all over the U.S. We get to enjoy visiting and learning about them and they about us," Linda Kee said. "My husband's always been a wanna-be cowboy, always had horses, always rode horses. This is a way to be a cowboy."
Skillet Potatoes (Linda and Johnny Kee)
1/4 cup bacon fat or vegetable oil, divided
4 cups thinly sliced potatoes, no need to peel
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cracked pepper
1/2 teaspoon rubbed dried sage
1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes, optional
Heat half the bacon fat in a heavy skillet over low to medium heat; add potatoes and onion. Sprinkle with part of the seasonings. Cover pan, and cook about 15 minutes. Lift and turn potatoes, sprinkling with remaining seasoning. Cover and cook 15 minutes more or until done. Turn or stir potatoes once or twice during last 10 minutes so they cook evenly; add bacon fat or oil as needed.
Makes six servings.
Cornmeal Biscuits (Linda and Johnny Kee)
11/2 cups flour
1/2 cup plain cornmeal
21/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cubed
1 cup buttermilk
Mix all dry ingredients. Cut in butter with a fork or pastry cutter, then add buttermilk. Mix well. Place on floured board. Roll out to 3/4-inch-thick, and cut with biscuit cutter. Place on greased pan, and brush top of biscuits with oil.
Bake at 350 F for 12 to 15 minutes, or until done and golden.
Peach Cobbler (Linda Kee)
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2/3 cup butter-flavor Crisco
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water
Cut shortening into dry ingredients with pastry cutter until it looks like cornmeal. Add enough water to moisten well. Chill for about an hour. Then roll out, and put in greased pan.
2 29-ounce cans peaches, drained and chopped into small pieces
11/2 cups sugar
3 teaspoons cinnamon
6 tablespoons flour or cornstarch
2 to 3 caps Amaretto (optional)
Combine together, then add to pie crust. Cut butter in small pieces, and place over filling. Then cover with lattice top or solid crust. Sprinkle cinnamon sugar on top of crust. Bake in a covered Dutch oven set over hot coals, and with coals placed on top of the oven, for 45 minutes to an hour. Check regularly, and turn oven. Alternately, bake at 350 F for about 45 minutes to an hour.