Tag Archives: 1800s baking

Baking 1800s Style at the Chuckwagon Cookoff in Pigeon Forge, TN

Using cast-iron pots over campfires beside his vintage chuck wagon, Lexie Dean bakes old-fashioned fruit pies, cornbread, and biscuits.

by Bakery Boy

Lexie Dean prepares to serve cowboy vittles from Dutch ovens at his Ramblin’ Rose Chuck Wagon. Photos by Bakery Boy

Lexie Dean bakes like it’s the 1860s. He bakes like he’s the camp cook on a cattle-drive, stirring up hearty grub for hungry cowboys on the dusty trail. He bakes like, at the latest, it’s the 1880s, just before railroads replaced cattle-drives and rendered chuck wagons obsolete.

Obsolete maybe but still appealing to hobbyists such as Lexie—who calls his rig the Ramblin’ Rose Chuck Wagon—and others who keep chuck wagon traditions alive. They set up at festivals, rodeos, scout camps, church picnics, vacation bible schools, and anywhere else they’re invited to re-create authentic cowboy cuisine.

As he bakes biscuits, cornbread, and lattice-topped fruit pies to go with the chicken-fried steaks, beans, potatoes, and sawmill gravy that round out his menu, Lexie uses ingredients, tools, and techniques true to the period. He does this because he’s a stickler for authenticity, because people gather to watch how things were done back in those days, because he’s a fan of cast-iron cooking, and because he’s being judged.

Chuck wagon cooking, it seems, has become a competitive pastime as well as a nostalgic hobby.


Impressive sight: Lexie and Katy Dean cooking and baking with more than a dozen heavy cast-iron pots.

Look for Lexie wearing his trademark stovepipe hat, muttonchop whiskers, cowboy boots, and bandanna at the fourth annual Chuckwagon Cookoff in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, in late February. He and Katy, his wife and trusty sidekick, will be busy among more than a dozen big, heavy, scalding-hot, cast-iron pots and a string of campfires. Their Ramblin’ Rose will be among six chuck wagon teams—with names such as Grumpy’s Grub, Cow Camp, Fairplay Cattle Co., Double X Ranch, and Wish Bone—competing for prizes, honors, and bragging rights. It’s a highlight of the 11th annual Saddle Up!, a four-day celebration (February 24-27) of the old American West that also includes Western music and dancing, cowboy poetry readings, mechanical bull riding, storytelling, and a cowboy church service.

As he geared up for this year’s Chuckwagon Cookoff from his home in Greenville, North Carolina, Lexie was glad to talk to the Bakery Boy Blog about 1800s-style campfire baking.

Lexie cuts strips of pie dough for a lattice top crust.

“First of all, everything I cook or bake is done in cast-iron pots,” he says. “For contests I take 12 of the big 16-inch-diameter Dutch ovens with the flat lids so I can pile hot coals on top [to get more even temperatures inside]. Each one weighs more than 30 pounds empty and costs about $120 to $160. I also take two 26-inch skillets, two 18-inch skillets, and two 10-gallon bean pots. Mine are mostly from Lodge Cast Iron in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, and from Cabella’s, the big outdoor equipment company from Nebraska.

“Proper care of the pots is a big part of being successful at this,” he says. “You have to use them a lot to break them in and clean them well after every use. I wipe them with olive oil for storage. Other vegetable oils or any sprays will turn to a glue-like paste and ruin the pots. The acid in tomatoes will take off the finish. But if you treat these pots right, they’re great for camp cooking.”

While steaks, potatoes, beans, and gravy simmer, Lexie focuses on baking: yeast-style biscuits featuring a sourdough starter, thick cake-like cornbread suited to sopping up sauces from the main course, and his specialty—fruit pies.


How Lexie designs his woven pie crust top.

“A lot of chuck wagon cooks make cobbler, but I like pie,” he says. “The difference is the crust. I put a layer of pie dough on the bottom and make a basket weave pattern for the top [see diagram].”

The main ingredient in the filling depends on what the contest organizers supply. “At these events you never know exactly what you’re going to work with. They might give you apples or peaches or dried apricots or blueberries. You have to be prepared for anything, just like camp cooks on cattle drives, where sometimes they had to cook whatever they could scrounge up.”

Flour for the Chuckwagon Cookoff comes from The Old Mill, an historic water-powered mill in Pigeon Forge.

Using rough measurements such as “handfuls” of sugar, a “dusting” of cinnamon, “just enough” fruit depending on what kind and how juicy it is, and “lots of” butter, Lexie mixed his pie filling more by feel and experience than by a strict recipe. Same with the crust, made from flour supplied by The Old Mill, an historic water-powered mill in Pigeon Forge, lard or vegetable shortening, a pinch of salt, and cold water.

Pies, rolls, and cornbread go into aluminum pans that go into cast-iron Dutch ovens perched over beds of hot embers and covered with more glowing coals. “I use hickory wood because it burns hot,” he says. “It’s hard to judge the temperature of charcoal and other types of fuel, but with hickory I have a pretty good idea. I put a third of a cord on my fire the morning of the contest, let it burn down into a humongous coal pit, and then get all the food cooking so it’s ready at noon, when it’s time to eat.”


Piping hot and ready to eat, one of the scrumptious glories of campfire baking. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

Held at Clabough’s Campground in Wears Valley, the cook-off attracts chuck wagon teams from as far away as Georgia and Texas. Hundreds of people wander through camp to inspect wagons and watch cooks at work. Tempted by wafting aromas, many buy $10 meal tickets and line up for platefuls of grub at lunchtime. Judges gather under a tent for an official tasting before awarding prizes in several categories.

The Ramblin’ Rose wagon dates to 1868. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

Last year Lexie’s Ramblin’ Rose won 1st place in wagon authenticity, bread, and potatoes categories, tied for 1st place in cornbread, took 3rd place for meat, and landed 1st in the coveted overall category. Not a bad day for a cowboy camp cook.

“On Friday it’s all about authentic wagons,” he says. “You don’t want anything showing that wouldn’t be found in the 1860 to 1880s. No cell phones or plastic coolers or aluminum foil that judges will see. On Saturday it’s all about the food and there’s a different set of rules. Cleanliness comes first, so it’s okay to have plastic wrap and coolers to keep the food safe.”


“We work hard to make every detail of our chuck wagon authentic,” Lexie says. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

“I’ve been a scoutmaster with the Boy Scouts of America for a long time and starting cooking outdoors 25 years ago,” Lexie explains. “I saw a chuck wagon with a guy cooking the old ways at a charity event, and I was hooked. I started looking for a chuck box to outfit an old farm wagon that has been in my family for generations. It’s a 10-footer with a 12-foot tongue to harness four mules to pull it, built by the Fish Brothers Wagon Company of Racine, Wisconsin in 1868.

“Since I got the wagon from my grandfather, the Ramblin’ Rose has crossed the Mississippi River 34 times going to events and coming home,” he says. “Between contests and scout trips and church functions, I cook about 15 chuck wagon meals every month.”

Lexie works as a mechanical test engineer for NACCO Materials Handling Group, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of heavy-duty lift trucks. “You know those crash test dummies you see in car commercials? What I do is something like. I try my best to tear up the lift trucks we make in order to see how we can improve our designs.”

Ramblin’ Rose includes harnesses for four mules to pull it. Photo courtesy of Lexie Dean

He’s much more cautious with his antique chuck wagon, carefully transporting it on a 35-foot flatbed trailer. “People see it going down the highway and wave me over so they can ask about it,” he says. “Anytime I stop for gas, someone wants to know what it is and where it’s going.”

For years, Lexie’s wife Katy has been his constant companion on this adventure. “If she ever gets tired of doing this, I guess I’ll go on by myself. Most teams have four or five people, but we do fine with just us two. If I had to, I think I could be a one-man show.”

He keeps going because of reactions from spectators. “I let kids climb on the chuck wagon for fun when I’m not cooking. At events people will look at it and say, ‘It’s beautiful!’ or taste my cooking and say, “It’s really good!’ or shake my hand and say, ‘Thank you!’ That makes it all worthwhile.”


Email Lexie Dean about his Ramblin’ Rose Chuck Wagon at agldean@nmhg.com

Learn more about chuck wagon culture from the American Chuck Wagon Association

For more about the Chuckwagon Cookoff and Saddle Up! (February 24-27, 2011) in Pigeon Forge, TN: www.mypigeonforge.com/saddleup

For more about Pigeon Forge: www.mypigeonforge.com

For more about Tennessee: www.tnvacation.com


Winkler Bakery, Winston-Salem, NC

A wood-fired brick oven, hand-mixed dough, and a pioneer spirit mark this historic bakeshop in Old Salem, little changed since 1800.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

Winkler Bakery faces a quiet brick lane in preserved village of Old Salem.

If you want to see how bread was made before modern machinery and taste the all-natural results, go to Winkler Bakery in Old Salem. You’ll find a wood-fired beehive-shaped brick oven and dough mixed in manger-like troughs by bakers gripping long wooden paddles. These period-costumed artisans are as much interpreters as bakers, patiently explaining each step in the process to curious visitors.

Baker Bobby James with honey-wheat loaves fresh from the wood-fired oven. Photos by Bakery Boy.

Every step in the slow-paced process is done by hand.

Established in 1800 by Moravian families from Eastern Europe who settled in what is now Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the bakery uses methods unchanged for centuries. Bakers stack split white oak firewood into little log-cabin-like ricks, shove them into a 9-feet-deep, 7-feet-wide, 10-feet-high oven with a flat floor and a domed ceiling, and light them early in the morning. As fire heats the oven to 600 degrees, the bakers mix dough, weigh, knead, and shape loaves at a sturdy wooden table, and set them near the oven’s warmth to rise.

Split white oak fuels this old-fashioned operation.

They also make sugar cakes and cutout cookies, timing each batch to bake as the oven, swept clear of embers and ashes, slowly cools to just the right temperatures: 450 degrees for bread, lower for cakes, and lowest for cookies. The workday isn’t complete until bakers haul more firewood from a nearby shed and arrange it for the next day’s production.

Glowing embers heat the bricks.

“This is the way bakers have done things here for more than 200 years,” says baker Bobby James. “People can step in, watch us work, and ask questions. They’re always interested in how things happened before everything became so mechanized. It’s really a very simple process.”

Baker Jeffrey Sherrill shoves bread into the radiant oven.

One thing is different. “We use a thermometer now to determine oven temperature,” says baker Jeffrey Sherrill. “In the old days bakers knew from experience. They would toss in a pinch of flour and count how many seconds it took (24 was good) to turn a golden brown.”

ABOUT THE NAME The first bakers to work here weren’t named Winkler. Christian Winkler arrived a few years later in 1807 and baked for 30 years. His descendants ran the bakery until 1926, plenty of time to make the name stick.

WHAT THEY MAKE Winkler Bakery makes three main products daily, all for sale in the next room from women wearing long cotton dresses and neat white aprons and bonnets or from men in suspender-held trousers reminiscent of the early 1800s.

  • Peek into the cave-like chamber to see bread baking. As many as 90 loaves can fit inside at once.

    Bread: They start with the basics—water, flour, butter, eggs, sugar, and yeast—then for variety add honey, rosemary, garlic, and other ingredients to some batches.

  • Moravian Sugar Cake: A dense, gooey coffeecake similar to what some call honey buns or monkey bread, it’s rich with brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon.
  • Cookies: Thin cutouts, often laced with ginger, come in the shapes of flowers, stars, leaves, crescent moons, Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas trees, and more.

In the shop you’ll also find oatmeal raisin cookies, cinnamon raisin bars, banana nut bread, and other treats made at a newer facility nearby. There’s an entire line of construction-paper-thin cookies too, packed in tubes or tins, that feature ginger, lemon, cranberry-orange, apple, maple, chocolate, and other flavors.

Tools of the trade.

MAIL ORDER Can’t get to Winston-Salem soon? Some baked goods, especially a variety of thin spice cookies, as well as Old Salem beeswax candles and other items, are available by mail. Click here to see the mail-order menu.

IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD Winkler Bakery sits at the heart of Old Salem Museums & Gardens, a lively historic village that recalls the community’s formative years in the late 1700s and early 1800s. It includes 100 acres of restored landscapes, heirloom gardens, 80 preserved buildings, a tavern, a gunsmith shop, and the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.

Old Salem staffers look the part. Photos by Bakery Boy.

Also in the historic village stands Salem College, the all-female liberal arts institution founded in 1772 that pioneered equal education for women in this country. Just seeing so many young people (the student population is about 1,100) moving around Salem’s brick streets and grassy paths lends a surprising exuberance to a setting known for showcasing antiquated farming, baking, building, and blacksmithing skills. Their presence reflects the original Moravian settlers’ philosophy, which held schooling in high regard.

LOCATION Winkler Bakery, 525 South Main Street, Winston-Salem, NC 27101

HOURS 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon-Sat, 1-5 p.m. Sun

INFO www.oldsalem.org, 336-721-7302 (Winkler Bakery), 336-721-7300 (Old Salem); for more about area attractions contact Winston-Salem Visitor Center and Visit North Carolina.