Every year in February we load all we can tote and head east toward Pigeon Forge, Tennessee for a cowboy festival called Saddle Up. Folks, I’m here to tell you it is a long haul to the southeastern tip of Tennessee. In the old days that old cook would have stopped and pitched camp at least 40 times before arriving to this destination. And after we get all loaded for our roughly two-week journey we sort of look like the Grapes of Wrath. During this festival we feed about 1,000 folks, so all the cast iron gets a boarding pass. We’ve got ice chests tied to the wagon wheels, enough propane tanks to launch a space ship and five suitcases… four of which belong to Shannon.
We usually break this trip up and go as far as Nashville the first day. We have a nice B&B there with our friend Donnette. She has the latest and greatest amenities, you know- indoor plumbing and electricity, always bonuses in our business. While in Nashville we usually do some radio and TV interviews to promote the event and then it’s off to Pigeon Forge. Let me tell you – the state of Tennessee might not be very wide north and south but going east and west it takes forever on that super slab of asphalt. It’s 455 miles across and one thing you can count on is every semi truck in the world is driving on it the same day we are.
This was the 15th year for the festival and most of those 15 years have been in pretty decent weather. This year however, the thermostat must have broken because it never did get above freezing. The warmest day was 24 degrees and the most frigid was 0 degrees. You add in a little tropical breeze and it’s just plain cold! No refrigeration needed here. In fact, we actually had to put cold items inside our Igloo coolers to keep them from freezing up.
Grilling in cold weather is a little different. Y’all have heard me say let your steak come to room temperature before tossing it on the fire. Room temp ain’t going to happen today. But that stove y’all have come to know as Bertha likes a challenge and she kept her end of the bargain. Normally she likes to make you sweat, but there sure weren’t any perspiration this time –just frostbite and ice-sickles.
During part of this festival there is also a chuck wagon cook-off we started about 8 years ago. Each year we get more wagons and more hungry folks turn out for some good cowboy cooking. Unfortunately due to weather and impassable roads we did have a few wagons that couldn’t make it. However, we did have some brave souls from Tennessee and Georgia that represented well. Bigger fires and a few more layers of clothing and these folks were ready! We had five wagons compete all together and let me tell you- these folks cowboyed up!
In Mother Nature’s kitchen, the weather is always a factor. But a chuck wagon cook is just like the mailman – neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night shall keep us from feeding hungry folks!
This was also a particularly meaningful Saddle Up for both Shannon. Every year we cook for the Hospitality Association’s annual luncheon. It’s always a good group, but due to the storms our lunch got cut from feeding about 300 to 65. Folks were still appreciative and it was a nice intimate meal. After serving and the last strawberry peach cobbler was passed out the mayor got up to address the crowd and to thank those that could make it. He then thanked Shannon and I for cooking and then asked us to come up in front of the crowd. I didn’t think much of it- but I’m like an ol’ coyote and I sure don’t like things to sneak up on me. That sneaky mayor of Pigeon Forge then slipped into a heartfelt speech about our contributions to the community and presented us with a document declaring Red River Ranch Chuck Wagon as the “Official Chuck Wagon of Pigeon Forge,” – and even Bertha made it into the Proclamation! I don’t tear up much, but underneath my hat, I think I had one welling up that day. It sure meant a lot for those folks to do that for us, and it sure makes all the sweat, smoke and frostbite all worth it!
I guess Saddle Up had more meaning for us this year. Among all the obstacles, changed plans and freezing weather, we still saddled up and served up good food with great people. And if they don’t kick us out- we’ll do it again next year!
Hope to see y’all there in 2016.
For more info on Saddle up click HERE