Competitors fire up dutch ovens for chuckwagon cook-off

CNJ staff photo: Kevin Wilson Wayne Calk, owner of the Calk-Clark Wagon of El Paso, Texas, scoops up some peach cobbler in Saturday’s “Duke of the Dutch Oven” Chuckwagon Cook-Off at the Curry County Fairgrounds.

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

All the coals and cast iron skillets couldn’t change Bryan Fullingin’s mind. Whether served in an air-conditioned Clovis restaurant or under the sun-baked Curry County Fairgrounds, the best part of a meal is dessert.

Fullingin’s Circle F and seven other competitors served up their best peach cobbler, and the country meal preceding it, in Saturday’s third annual “Duke of the Dutch Ovens” Wagon Cookoff.

In the competition, teams cook a meal of chicken fried steak, beans, potatoes, gravy, biscuits and cobbler, with each event judged separately.

The stoves and microwaves of today are replaced with Dutch ovens and cast iron pots, with coals providing the heat. Teams get up at 6 a.m. to start preparing the feast, and each of the eight teams cooks enough to feed 60 people. Of those meals, 20 go to the judges.

“Pick a pretty one,” Maulsby Angus Wagon cook Emory Mann said to his helpers as he flipped over a chicken fried steak. One of those steaks ended up on the judging plate of Dewey Pierce.

Pierce, who likes his chicken fried steak with some crust on the outside, was one of three meat judges and 18 overall because, “It’s a matter of taste (and) people like different things.”

Foods are judged on different categories — for chicken friend steak, it’s up to five points each for texture and appearance and up to 10 points for taste — and the highest combined score is awarded a locally sculpted bronze statue.

This year the statue went to C Bar C Ranch of Hartley, Texas.

What’s left of the 480 meals becomes lunch for the attendants, with a $15 ticket paying expenses and benefiting the Miss Rodeo New Mexico pageant.

Though the history behind the cooking dates back more than a century, the duel in Curry County goes back just a few years to when Wilma Fulgham and Joe Rhodes of Joe’s Boot Shop noticed the annual calf roping event was growing and needed an event to compliment the growth.

Enter the chuckwagons, and it was just one more draw for Ken and Cordella Jeter of Friona.

“We’ve made a day of it,” said Cordella Jeter, who gave the meal a thumbs up. “Grandkid’s soccer game at 9, (multiple sclerosis) walk at 10, and now dinner before calf roping.”

The teams range from Clovis to El Paso.

“We only invite people who are exceptional cooks,” Fulgham said. “Not everyone can cook chuckwagon style.”

However, Pierce said, it’s a good meal from those who can.

“It’s got a little different taste,” Pierce said. “I don’t have a word to describe it, but there’s a difference.”

That difference is what pushes a Petersburg, Texas, cotton farmer like Fullingin to do at least three cookoffs annually.

“It just gets us back to the way we used to live,” Fullingin said. “I’m farming on land my granddaddy homesteaded in 1896.”

The group will also host an $8 chuckwagon breakfast today from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., also at the fairgrounds, followed by cowboy church.