Tag Archives: Pigeon Forge TN

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.

CHUCKWAGON COOKOFF

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.

PIE TIME

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.”

COME ’N’ GET IT

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.”

WHY DO THIS?

“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

_____________________________

Old Mill Square, Pigeon Forge, TN

Stone-ground grains for the baked goods served at two restaurants here come from an historic gristmill right next door.

story & photos by Bakery Boy

Head Baker Jay Connatser sets hot sourdough, honey-wheat, and multi-grain loaves to cool. Photos by Bakery Boy

Talk about fresh ingredients! Much of the grains used in the bakery and kitchens for two restaurants at Old Mill Square in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, come from an 1830 gristmill still in use a stone’s throw away. Not that anyone would throw one of the massive 2,000-pound granite millstones that reduce whole wheat and corn to flour, cornmeal, and grits—stones turned by a giant waterwheel rigged to harness the Little Pigeon River.

Head baker Jay Connatser and his crew work in a corner of the Old Mill Pottery House Café & Grille, a corner that just happens to include floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the nearby mill. “We get fresh flour delivered regularly from where it was milled just a couple of hundred feet away,” Jay says as he pulls large and aromatic loaves from the oven. “As an artisan baker, I like the sound of that, and our customers seem to appreciate it too.”

The Little Pigeon River turns a giant waterwheel at The Old Mill, built in 1830 and still grinding corn and wheat today.

At the Pottery House Café and the adjacent Old Mill Restaurant, a pair of country-style family places popular with visitors to the nearby Great Smoky Mountains, the biscuits, corn bread, pancakes, hush puppies, muffins, grits, and breads all include fresh-milled grains. The bakery also produces terrific pies (coconut cream, chocolate pecan, lemon meringue, peanut butter), rich layer cakes (carrot, chocolate), daily quiches (one with meat, one all vegetables), as well as brownies, cookies, and other goodies.

“Besides supplying the two restaurants and a retail counter so people can take our baked goods home, we also get to experiment,” Jay says enthusiastically. “I came up with the olive bread used for the pimiento sandwiches. Fellow bakers designed the focaccia, onion-rye, cranberry-walnut, and some of the other loaves we make.”

Simple mechanisms that are amazing to watch reduce grains to flour and meal.

TOUR THE MILL Whether you go before or after eating at one of the restaurants or just check it out while passing through, it’s worthwhile to tour The Old Mill & General Store. You’ll see antique equipment—an ingenious system of shafts, belts, millstones, pulleys, grain elevators, chutes, and sifters—still in working order. For 180 years millers have filled, weighed, and tied each sack by hand, stacking bags of yellow and white grits, cornmeal, a variety of flours, and pancake mix. These travel a few feet to the store, a few yards to sibling restaurants, or thousands of miles to anywhere by post. Tours start in the mill store; call 865-453-4628 for details.

If you like the plate your carrot cake comes on, buy one next door at Pigeon River Pottery.

LIKE ’EM? BUY ’EM! The beautifully turned, glazed, and fired plates, bowls, salt-and-pepper shakers, and other serving pieces at Old Mill Square’s restaurants—and even the bathroom sinks—are handcrafted at adjacent Old Mill Pigeon River Pottery. Buy some to take some home if you like.

IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD Pigeon Forge is clearly a tourists’ town geared toward entertaining visitors who come to be near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (just south of town) but who don’t particularly care to spend much time outdoors. Attractions include…

  • Smoky Mountains photo courtesy of Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism

    Dollywood amusement park

  • Dixie Stampede dinner rodeo
  • Elvis Museum tributes to the King
  • WonderWorks scientific marvels
  • Belz Outlets factory discount shops
  • Dixie Stampede photo courtesy of Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism

    Live-performance theaters more than a dozen featuring music, comedy, inspiration, mystery, and magic shows

  • Titanic a detailed partial re-creation of the doomed ocean-liner

These represent just the tip of the iceberg (chilling Titanic reference intended). For a complete rundown of what’s available check with the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism at www.mypigeonforge.com or 1-800-251-9100.

Tall stacks of freshly milled flour await buyers.

Vintage rubber stamps are used to mark flour sacks.

LOCATION Old Mill Square, 175 Old Mill Avenue, Pigeon Forge, TN 37868; 30 miles southeast of Knoxville. From U.S. 441, the main north-south route in town, turn east at Traffic Light #7 (they’re numbered for direction-giving convenience) and go three short blocks.

HOURS The Old Mill Restaurant is open 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. daily; 865-429-3463. The Old Mill Pottery House Café & Grille serves lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, dinner 4-8 p.m. Sun-Thu and 4-9 p.m. Fri-Sat; 865-453-6002.

INFO www.oldmillsquare.com or 865-428-0771