Putting the finishing touch on a pan of cherry cobbler, Bobby Joe Wood rekindles the romance and flavors of the old west with his authentic chuck wagon. Photo by Phil Houseal
by Phil Houseal
When families and friends get together, they always seem to gather in the kitchen - even when that kitchen happens to be the back of a wagon rolling across the prairie.
That is why you will find the hungry crowd around Bobby Joe Wood’s chuck wagon, set up this Saturday on the grounds of the Pioneer Museum for Founders Day in Fredericksburg.
It’s not hard to understand the draw. A black coffee pot bubbling over a sizzling fire, cobbler cooking in the ash-streaked dutch oven, and all the fixings of fresh biscuits spread on the sideboard - a bag of Pioneer Floor, Clabber Girl baking soda, Argo corn starch, a jar of local honey and a bucket of lard.
Especially on a frosty morning, the alluring smell of oak smoke mixed with sweet scent of rising yeast makes for a powerful pull on the chilled, the hungry, and the lonely.
So there I stood, cradling my cup of cowboy coffee, watching as Wood punched and rolled up another batch of biscuits.
It’s the appeal of the old west and simpler times, according to the cook/philosopher. Wood learned cowboying and cooking at the flour-dusted knees of the best. His dad was a cattle rancher, and Wood grew up working cattle ranches, riding, and branding alongside real cowboys.
“I fell off lot of bucking horses when I was younger; I rode with a lot of guys who could ride them. I worked with some good cowboys on some good ranches.”
These days, Wood and his wife, Beverly, make a living built on those skills. In Wood’s world, he can’t differentiate between a hobby and hard work.
“If I wanted it, I had to learn how to do it. Eventually it becomes making a living.”
Wood considers himself fortunate to have lived in a time when he was able to go out with the wagon and work on real ranches. He got to learn from the best cooks in the business, by doing what his dad told him - “Sit there and be quiet and you’ll learn.”
“You learn an awful lot when you cook for 12 boys a day, three meals a day for 30 days, living in a tipi,” Wood said, rolling out the springy dough with a solid wood rolling pin. “It’s just like the old days. For me that’s living a dream and getting paid for it.”
Cooking on the range goes beyond beans. A typical day starts off with eggs, bacon, and biscuits. Lunch is some type of meat, with potatoes and bread. Supper is a roast or stew. The cowboys especially appreciate a good dessert, and any kind of cobbler is a big hit. And always coffee - Arbuckle’s is Wood’s brew of choice.
Living and cooking and eating with a cantankerous crew has its share of challenges, such as coming up with a varied menu. But there is also a strange symbiosis.
“No matter how bad the meal may be, a cowboy can’t say it’s bad,” Wood said, cutting out disks of dough and tucking them in the bottom of his seasoned dutch oven. “Even if he throws it in the brush, he comes back and tells you how good it is. I guess that’s because he knows you are going to be cooking for him the rest of the trip.”
These days, Wood’s cooking is for banks and banquets, hunters and boy scouts. His rewards come in the reactions from kids and grownups. Wood places the covered oven in the fire, scooping hot coals onto the lipped lid. He pulls out another oven, lifts the top, and drops biscuits, dusky brown and steaming, onto the serving board.
“It is amazement; it is nostalgia,” he said. “Most of what you hear is ‘this is like my grandmother made.’ It brings back memories of happier times.”
For the kids, biting into a fresh-baked biscuit slathered in butter and honey opens their senses to the flavor and romance of the old west.“Cowboys weren’t going to be anymore for the last 100 years,” Wood observed. “But there are always going to be a certain number of cowboys. That’s it, I guess. The satisfaction is that some people get to see it, and maybe they’ll go home and live it.”