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A Genuine Cowboy Picnic
Source: Town Creek Chuckwagon Facebook

A Genuine Cowboy Picnic

Town Creek Chuckwagon serves up great food alongside American history

This past Saturday, Senator Frank Niceley threw open the gates to his hilltop farm for Frank’s Family Picnic. Aside from live music and enjoyable company, the function featured some very unique caterers. Town Creek Chuckwagon has been serving up old-fashioned cast-iron cooking for over a decade out of what is effectively a traveling antique show. While everyone in attendance enjoyed cornbread, beef stew, and “the best beans [they’d] ever had” (I’d heard exactly this statement many times), I was fortunate enough to get some time with the wagon’s founder, Bart Saucier. We talked about the business, his grounded approach to recipe development and the history behind several items on their 130-year-old chuckwagon.

Saucier and the Town Creek crew have been serving up old-fashioned cowboy cuisine for over a decade, and the mastery of their craft is abundantly clear. What they’re accustomed to, says Saucier, is “a lot of fifty-to-one hundred people events,” like weddings, festivals, and family gatherings. Frank’s Family Picnic, however, saw an attendance of closer to 500 — and Town Creek rose to the occasion. Keeping things simple for the larger crowd, the crew set two enormous cast-iron pots cooking over a fire to serve beef stew and pinto beans with ham.

Picnicgoers enjoyed seconds and thirds, praising the honed-in recipes all the while. When I asked Saucier about how they develop recipes, he told me it’s simply a matter of “trial and error.” Each time they cook, the crew gets together to make small adjustments. Rhonda, a member of the crew, stopped to apologize to me for the beans being “a little too salty” — these being the very same that a dozen or more people remarked were the best they’d ever had.

Town Creek’s cheffing finesse doesn’t end at beans and stew. “We cook a lot of bison,” says Saucier, who has a deal with Lazy G Ranch in Cookeville. They love “the novelty of it,” he explains, and the opportunity to offer something a little different. On the last weekend of every October, you can find Town Creek right on Lazy G’s serving nothing but bison stew. Saucier says Frank’s Family Picnic will be the last event they cater for until the Fall, so anyone looking to give their food a try should mark their calendar.

Competitively Historical

Great food is only the beginning of the Town Creek Chuckwagon experience. Standing at the front of their outdoor kitchen setup was a genuine late 19th-century chuckwagon affixed with all manner of antiques and historically accurate recreations. In fact, the Town Creek crew attend competitions to be judged for their historical accuracy, dressed in period-accurate garb. Most notably, Town Creek attends the Chuck Wagon Cookoff Competition in Pigeon Forge the every year on the first weekend of March. When they arrive Friday, they get to work, setting up their whole wagon with painstaking attention to detail (putting away any cell phones, modern tools, or ziploc bags) to be judged that afternoon on their historical accuracy. Judges take note of everything, from the grain of the wood down to the shape of the bolts to tally a score. “A good judge will spend 30 minutes inspecting the wagon,” says Saucier. After that, the group will spend the rest of the day preparing to serve lunch that Saturday. 

This effort isn’t all for the glamor. As Saucier showed me the careful details of the century-old wagon, it was clear that he had a serious interest in and knowledge of the era following the Civil War when chuckwagons were an integral part of crews, bringing herds of cattle from Texas to the railroads heading up north. Cowboys would ride along with them, relying on the wagon for food, water, and coffee. After he explained this, I got to see the minute details they’ve successfully recreated or stewarded to win competitions today.

The collection Town Creek has assembled is a mixture of things bought at auctions and antique stores, given as gifts, or rescued from backyards. The wagon itself, Saucier explained, had been “sitting out in somebody’s yard full of leaves, about to just rot away” before they bought it in Crossville. From there, things accumulated. “You just end up collecting stuff,” says Saucier. “Once people know you do that they’re like, ‘Oh, my great great grandmother had this cast-iron pan.”

Some antiques and recreations Saucier showed me included a hundred-year-old jack (for wheels, which are greased every couple of years), horse harnesses, a spice rack, a bedroll, sheep hide chaps, coffee cups, and cutlery. Forks back then, he pointed out, had three prongs instead of the four we have today. “I don’t know if you noticed,” he laughs, “but people then were a lot skinnier than they are now.”

A coffee grinder affixed to the wagon for quick and easy access.

Next, he showed me the 30-gallon, wax-lined water barrel, set just on the side so cowboys could ride up for a drink whenever they needed it. Beneath it was a wood panel with a circular cutout in the middle, which slid out: in the 19th century, cowboys would set a big bowl in that cutout for shaving, placing their razors just next to it. “You’re a coffee fanatic, right? You’ll love this,” Saucier casually noted as he led me to the other side of the wagon. There, bolted onto the wagon itself, was a crank-operated coffee grinder. Saucier took a small metal pail from the top of it, hanging it by a handle on the underside before producing some freshly ground beans. 

To say the food and presentation were flawless is an understatement. Many in attendance remarked that Frank’s Family Picnic felt like being transported back to “old times,” and Saucier and his wagon were responsible for that effect. As the sun set over the farm in Strawberry Plains, the crowd dispersed, well-fed in body and soul.

Check out Town Creek Chuckwagon on Facebook.