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Fun judging food

Locals gather at annual Chuckwagon Cook-off

Olathe corn, Palisade peaches, Bayfield farmers' market tomatoes - as a food lover, this is one of my favorite times of year.

Another highlight is when the organizers of the La Plata-Archuleta Cattlemen Chuckwagon Cook-Off call the newspaper office, needing judges for their event. Unless I'm out of town, I always try to come help out.

Before the judging begins on Saturday night, I like to visit the campsites and take photos. Chuckwagon cooking is an all-day affair and lots of hard work. I'm always impressed with the wagon crew members' prowess at moving big iron pots and Dutch ovens over the campfires and coals, somehow managing to rarely burn anything they're cooking while working in stifling heat and wearing period clothes.

The crews are always busy during the last hour of preparation, so I try to stay out of the way and not ask too many questions.

Then it's time to head into the extension building for judging. There are 15 judges for the event, three each for beef, potatoes, beans, bread and dessert.

I know a few of the other judges, and it's always a good time to catch up with folks I might not have seen in awhile. This year, I sat at a table with LaVina Mars, the retired Bayfield Town Clerk, so we discussed making jam. Also joining us was Dave Saleh, an investment banker and past president of the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce.

Perry Jefferies informed us that we're judging the authenticity of re-creating cuisine from the late 1800s, and one of the judges joked he's not that old, so exactly how are we to know if it's authentic or not? We chuckled at that one. To be truly authentic, she explained, not a lot of spices were used.

Each table draws the categories out of an envelope to see what we will judge, and LaVina pulled dessert, so Dave and I were pleased. JoAnne Spina, the county manager and a fellow dessert lover, was a little sad she wasn't at our table.

The desserts are numbered and brought in, and we judge each entry by its number. This year, the featured ingredient for dessert was peaches.

Desserts featured two cobblers, one crisp with an oatmeal and sugar topping, a surprisingly moist bread with pecans, and my favorite, a gingerbread with baked peach topping.

Judges have a bottle of water and plate of grapes to cleanse their palates between sampling each entry. We rate each entry on appearance, taste and texture.

While I liked the gingerbread, the other two judges preferred one of the cobblers, with the top entry going to Harry Baxstrom and his Poverty Flats wagon crew, which is always a top contender at the event. The gingerbread, made by Durango Cowboy Church, took second, and third place went to Canyon Trails Ranch for their peach crisp. Every entry was delicious, particularly since they're cooking over uneven heat.

I had divided my desserts in half - there are always generous portions for the judges - and went to share mine with Spina and the other bread judges. This also gives me the chance to sample sourdough biscuits and campfire rolls, another favorite.

After the judging, we judges get to go enjoy supper with about 400 other folks, and the five wagons serve all of those people in about half an hour, another impressive feat.

This is the 15th year for the cook-off, which raises funds for scholarships for local students studying agriculture and related fields, and organizer Barb Jefferies said she hopes the event will be around for many more years.

I second that thought!

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