Couple's covered wagon serves up meals fit for pioneers

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DELICIOUS TRADITIONS: Steve and Linda Korthanke cook like cowboys in Robinson, Kan.

Donna B. Edwards

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The pioneer life has always fascinated Linda Korthanke. As a little girl, she was captivated hearing of covered wagons and open-air camping, of meals cooked in large black kettles and served with freshly churned butter.

 'I was intrigued by the stories told of my maternal great-grandparents and their covered wagon trip from Clinton, Mo., to Humboldt, Kan., back about 1900,' Korthanke said. 'I remember, as a little girl, my family would have reunions down in the timber. My uncles would show me how to wrap an egg in mud - put it down into the coals to cook. I always wanted to cook that way.'

As an adult, she's gotten her chance. As owners of Pine Tree Acres Chuckwagon Cooking, she and her husband, Steve, rustle up meals from their own covered wagon, cooking from scratch in the same style as pioneers, using antique equipment.

Linda Korthanke got her first taste for Dutch oven cooking at a festival where she helped make apple butter in huge iron kettles. Then, while helping her husband clear out a windbreak on their Christmas tree farm near Robinson, Kan., she suggested they use the area for a cookout.

'I guess it just evolved from there,' Steve Korthanke said. 'Next thing we knew, we were able to make some simple stuff in a Dutch oven. Then we bought a larger Dutch oven and learned to cook some larger serving items in it, and, well, we now have over 20 ovens of various sizes. They range in size from the smallest - one pint - up to a 4-gallon size, which is so heavy I can hardly carry it when it is empty.'

The Korthankes gained so much experience cooking with Dutch ovens, they decided to buy a wagon and serve meals from it. After some nationwide searching, they bought an authentic late-1800s wagon and contacted a wainwright to outfit it for their needs.

From under the wagon's canvas, the couple serves up food at Western-themed celebrations and get-togethers. For the past two years, they have hitched the wagon up at a flea market and served their unique cuisine there.

A day beneath the canvas

The idea is to offer foods others don't, and to prepare it in an authentic, cowboy style. That's no easy task.

To serve at the flea market, the Korthankes get up long before dawn. At 4 a.m., Linda Korthanke is starting the fire and making the first round of 'cowboy coffee,' which she and her husband serve throughout the morning.

They prepare the old-fashioned coffee by boiling water and adding coffee beans that have been freshly ground using an antique coffee grinder attached to the wagon. They let the mix boil in large campfire coffee pots.

Linda Korthanke's morning duties also include making gravy for biscuits. That's about a 45-minute job, not counting the time required for the biscuits.

 'We use a 12-inch shallow Dutch oven,' Steve Korthanke said. 'It only takes 20 to 30 minutes to bake the biscuits, depending on how hot the oven is. You need a really hot oven to bake good biscuits!'

The couple also starts cooking their 'mountain-man breakfast,' a hearty portion of their menu that combines two to three pounds of hash browns, a pound of bacon, six cups of cheese and a dozen eggs. The duo has to pile coals on top of the lid to get things hot enough.

'This takes about one and a half hours just to bake,' Steve Korthanke said. 'In the meantime, we're serving biscuits and gravy, plus we have people constantly wanting hot cowboy coffee, and you learn real quickly whether you're any good at multitasking.

'You have so many irons in the fire - really, really irons in the fire - trying to get all this to come together.'
All that work is just to get breakfast going. Some of the unusual items on the lunch menu include the sarsaparilla and a variety of cream sodas that customers can enjoy with their meals.

The dessert menu includes cobbler made with cherries the Korthankes pick, then pit with an antique 1890s cherry pitter. The couple's hand-cranked ice cream has proven so popular that they plan to make bigger batches by powering the crank with a 1 ½-horsepower, single-cylinder engine from the 1920s.

When the couple is asked the secret to their food's popularity, it sounds like their success owes much to the same things that captivated Linda Korthanke as a girl.

'It's … the fascination of the cowboy and Western style, the way of the pioneers and our ancestors,' she said. 'People seem to be able to relate to that.'

Learn more

Contact Pine Tree Acres Chuckwagon Cooking at (785) 544-6818 or at t2lee99@hotmail.com.