Wednesday, October 09, 2013

TOP STORY >> Chuckwagon dishing out vittles

Leader staff writer

Some men anticipate more time for fishing after they retire, but Johnny Kee from the Beebe area has found a different way to fill his time.

He cooks almost every day in his kitchen, but can frequently be found cooking at festivals, birthday parties and weddings from a wagon he restored and equipped with a box and all the period utensils needed to turn it into a chuckwagon — like those that made the long cattle drives from Texas ranches to railheads in Kansas between 1866 and 1886.

On the last weekend in September, Kee and his team won a cook-off in Mountain View, where he heated up his cast iron pots and made beans, peach cobbler, sourdough bread and chicken-fried steaks from a surprise box of ingredients supplied by the local chamber of commerce, which sponsored the event.

The box contained butter, flour and cornmeal in addition to the meat and fruit, Kee said. But the 20-year-old sourdough starter he feeds and keeps in a crockery jar to make his bread is just standard equipment on his wagon.

The team’s first place win at Mountain View included high scores for the quality of the food, the cooks’ authentic dress and the period-accuracy of Kee’s restored chuckwagon. First place came with a $1,600 purse, which he split with team members Chris Warlow of Carlisle, Roger Start of Hardy and Chris Pfeifer of Jonesboro.

He was also given $200 travel money just for bringing his wagon to the event. But you only have to talk to Kee to know it’s not the money he’s after.

His chuckwagon has been completed for five years, but Kee’s love of the old West and attention to historic accuracy started years earlier.

Now 66, Kee grew his signature, handlebar mustache while he was still in his 40s and showing horses for recreation. “It was just part of the look,” he said.

At some point, Kee replaced the horses with oxen that he trained to pull the antique farm equipment he collects.

“I had the oxen and I wanted a wagon for them to pull,” he said. “So I built the wagon. That took about three years. Then I decided it would be neat to have a chuck box so I built that and went to a friend’s house to make lunch with it. From there, (the competitive cooking) just evolved.”

The wagon was little more than a pattern when he bought it, Kee said. But there was enough wood and metal left to tell what the new parts should look like and how they should fit together.

Like the cooking that he learned from his mother at his childhood home in Hazen, Kee said, he has always known how to work with wood. But he learned blacksmithing from a 91-year-old man in Cleburne County who was willing to pass along what he knew.

All three skills contributed to his win in Mountain View.

“I like creating something whether it’s out of flour or wood,” he said. “And, of course, all this is a lost art. But it’s part of our heritage, and we need to keep it out there or our kids won’t know where they came from.”

The invention of the chuckwagon is attributed to Texas rancher Charles Goodnight, who added a chuck, or food, box to the back of an army wagon so the cook on his cattle drives would have the essentials for feeding his crew.

Although the box of supplies Kee and his crew worked with in Mountain View included tenderized steaks, which he rolled in flour with a little cornmeal added to improve the crunch, Kee said he learned through research that beef was not usually consumed on cattle drives.

“The actual cowboys on the trail ate a lot of wild turkey and antelope,” he said. “And, if they crossed a river, they might kill a wild pig. They didn’t eat a lot of beef because beef was what they were taking to market.”

The Mountain View cook-off was sanctioned by the American Chuckwagon Associ-ation. Kee is among the 350 or so members of the association who participate in cook-offs across the country and educate the public about the history of the chuckwagon.

It’s talking to the public at the cook-offs that he likes most, Kee said. Some people stand around and watch the entire process, from building the fires to filling the plates.

And, without fail, someone will ask about the cowhide that hangs underneath the wagon. “What’s that hide under there for?” Kee said they ask. And he gets to tell them it’s called a possum pouch, that it’s there because wood is scarce on the prairie and the cattle drive cooks had to gather wood when they crossed creeks.

They also picked up buffalo chips along the trail that could also be used to build cooking fires, he added.