Cook-off serves up good grub

William Thompson

Around 250 people turned out at Ute Lake Saturday to sample homemade fixings cooked in late 1800’s- style cookware over wood coals. The Logan/Ute Lake Chamber of Commerce held the chuck wagon cook-off to raise funds for chamber activities.

Members of the American Chuck Wagon Association, based near Amarillo, provided the meals. There were six authentic chuck wagon ‘camps’ available for people to explore. Members of the chuck wagon association were dressed in cowhand clothing, and they answered the onlookers’ questions about life on a 19th century cattle drive.

Paul Geeslin, of Odessa, Texas, said his great grandfather was a chuck wagon cook on the old Gooodnight trail.
“The wagon we brought here to Logan is very similar to one my great-grandfather would have ridden on,” said Geeslin. “The food we are cooking today is probably a little better than the food he served back then.”

Geeslin noted that not a lot of money was spent on meals for cowboys back during the old cattle drives. “Cowboys ate a lot of pork back then,” he said. “Instead of the chicken fried steak we are serving today, the cowboys would have probably been eating sow belly.”

Each of the six camps cooked food that was later judged in a competition. Each camp cooked chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, beans, biscuits and cobbler. Nancy Sparks, a former secretary of the chuck wagon association, said the competing camps are friendly with each other despite the cooking competitions they engage in throughout the spring and summer. “We aggravate each other, but just in fun,” said Sparks. “It is true though, that we wouldn’t be competing if we weren’t hoping to win.”

Sparks said the key to winning in the food competition is practice. “The smoke from the fire and the wind outdoors have to be dealt with,” she said. “You have to learn how to cook over coals.” Geeslin said each camp received the same quality of food. “Everybody in the competition gets the same food, but it’s up to each camp as to how they want to cook it,” said Geeslin. “Our camp has our own secret spices for the chicken fried steak, and we like to dip the steaks in buttermilk before we fry them.”

Jeanneane Sanchez, president of the Logan/Ute Lake Chamber of Commerce, was relieved that Mother Nature cooperated with the day’s festivities. “Two years ago, the wind was so bad it almost blew everybody away,” said Sanchez. “The weather cooperated today. We hope to raise nearly $2,000 from people buying the meals.” Each chuck wagon at the event had a long history behind it. Geeslin’s wagon was built in 1903. “This wagon was built by the Flint Wagon Works,” said Geeslin. “The Flint Wagon Works later became a company called Chevrolet.”

Geeslin said that keeping the wagon in good shape sometimes involves dealing with craftsmen from the Amish Country in Ohio and Pennsylvania. “If something major happens to one of the wheels, let’s say a spoke gets severely cracked, then we send it to the Amish,” said Geeslin. “They charge us about $800 to fix a wheel.
This was the fourth year in a row for the chuck wagon cook-off at Ute Lake. Guy Smith, a former Tucumcari resident, brought his wife and infant daughter down from Denver for the weekend. His wife Barbara said she wished the event were publicized more widely. “We didn’t see any posters or flyers in Tucumcari for the cook-off,” said Smith. “I talked to several people this morning in Tucumcari who said they would have planned to attend if they had known about it.”