(or, the Great Camp Chase Gazette Cook-Off) By Al Aronson and Jonah Begone
We in the Pequot Mess knew that it was only a matter of time before we confronted that Camp Chase Gazette culinary fraud "Chef" Enoch. For years we have been taunted by our messmates about the Chef. The general consensus was that anyone who evidences such insight into the Hobby must, indeed be an excellent cook. However we have pointed out continually, to no avail, that he has yet to have produced an printed, edible recipe and we have met no living (or surviving) person who could attest to his skills around a cooking fire. When Grant MacMeans suggested a cook-off we jumped at the suggestion and began immediate preparations. A major event like a cook-off requires a great deal of careful planning and preparation; we had to lay in supplies, replace the current wheels on the wagons with a superior, greater load-bearing type, hire additional help, prepare cooking schedules and make such things as hardtack, cornbread, apple butter and, of course, motel reservations.
Finally the day came. The venue for this battle was the small town of Thurmont, MD, where was held an event commemorating one of the little known actions in the Gettysburg campaign. A Confederate brigade under General "Extra Silly" Smith was passing nearby when word came that Thurmont contained a large supply of lacy underwear, an item that the Rebels had not seen for many a day. The grey ranks expected no opposition, anticipating a minor delay before resuming their trek northward. However, they didn't count on the women of Thurmont! The men of the town had long since gone to war and the ladies were thrilled to hear the news of so many eligible young men heading their way. Too impatient to wait for the Confederates, the women put on their Sunday best and went forth to meet the army. As the brigade was sighted, one after another of these rather large ladies, of German extraction, broke into a trot so as to not be left out. By the time the Rebels caught sight of the advancing beauties all they could discern was a cloud of calico-tinged dust rolling their way. No man could withstand such an onslaught and as valiant as they were these brave soldiers of the South were no exception. They broke and ran for their lives. The ladies were involved in a mopping-up action that lasted well into the night. The historical "Dutchy Girl Charge" is a highlight of this event and all Federal troops were expected to galvanize (cross-dress) for the "battle."
Arriving late Friday afternoon, we quickly found the registration tent and discovered word of the contest had preceded us. We were given a prime location right next to Chef Enoch's cooking pavilion. After reviewing the schedule and getting our signatures on the legal disclaimers (ours were special and had wording concerning permanent gastrointestinal disorders) the registrar offered us a guide. In the corner of the tent lay a bundle of woolen rags, but at a call this heap bestirred itself, belched and stood unsteadily. It was a scrawny little human being, much the worse for wear, coat begrimed and black slouch hat pulled down until all that could be seen was the glimmer of two rodent eyes. This, we were informed, was the infamous Jonah Begone. With a gesture and an unintelligible grunt Jonah indicated he wanted us to follow him.
It was a considerable distance to the Duchy Girl (Union) Camp. Passing the Sutler's Row and
Food Court (near the Crystal Sibley where the Sunday sermons would be held) we descended into
a swale where rank after rank of Porta Potties were set. Just beyond these steamy facilities we
beheld the most unusual setup we had seen in our long years of reenacting: A series of carved
wooden poles, like unholy totems, were arranged in a haphazard fashion, and over this
construction was laid carpets, canvas, muslin, and what appeared to be the rotting carcasses of
large animals. Written on a hanging cattle skull was the legend "Camp Chase Gazette Mess." All
this was not as odd, however, as the person standing therein, holding a bloody meat cleaver in
one hand and what appeared to be a chicken corpse in the other. As we approached he,
recognizing Jonah, rose, tucked the chicken into a pocket and walked towards us. The cacophony
of fabric covering his hootch was repeated on his body; a frock coat that evidently had been used
to dry pots, pants held up by one suspender and a vest which, in all probability, had its origin in
some Victorian brothel. Atop his head perched a straw hat which had lost its ability to retain any
shape, held together merely by its sweat band, with a dainty yellow flower stuck in for effect.
Evidences of previous meals matted his beard with sympathetic residue cascading down his front,
and as he moved, intertwined musket balls bobbed therein. A necklace of various bones of animals
large and small graced his neck. Overall, his appearance seemed to state to the world, "I am Chef
Enoch - dine with me if thou darest, Oh Strong of Stomach."
The Chef's manner was friendly despite his appearance and he briefed us on the contest. Each of
us would prepare the major meal on one day - the Mess would cook Saturday and the Chef would
provide the Sabbath repast. Jonah Begone had been designated as the judge for the competition.
"By whom?" I responded. (He didn't appear to be the ideal person for the job and I said as much.)
The question hung in the air for a moment and Jonah's sneering retort that it didn't appear that I
had missed too many meals, coupled with a hidden nudge and wink from the Chef, bode ill for our
chances. Nevertheless we proceeded with our setup and manfully entered the fray.
For our entry we had chosen a menu consisting of Salt Beef Stroganoff, Red Pickled Cabbage and
Cornbread with Apple Butter, one of our tastiest. Now, the Mess cannot ever be found wanting in
the amount of food cooked, so even though our only potential diner was Jonah we cooked for a
full company. (Ever wonder why the Porta Potties fill up so fast? We have to put the excess
somewhere and we do it without the middleman! Sorry for any inconvenience.) Obviously, we
were exceptionally busy throughout the morning and forenoon.
Enoch sat quietly for most of the time on one of our stools, occasionally sipping from his flask
and picking small pieces of dried stew out of his beard. This is not to say he was unfriendly but
evidenced the strong respect of one professional for another. Once or twice he would wander
over to the cooking kettles and breathe deeply, savoring, I suppose, the delicious odors emanating
from within. During his infrequent bouts of conversation we got to know something of his
background. A graduate of one of the finest reenactment cooking academies in the nation, he had
succumbed to the glamour and panache of the fast food industry and had developed a franchise
specializing in Norwegian cuisine. One could drive up to the order board, speak into the navel of
a large Viking and order such delicacies as pickled herring, pickled beets, pickled liver loaf and
the ultimate, jellied fish balls. He became quite successful in the Twin Cities area but when he
attempted expansion into the Southwest, advertising as "The Man With The
Herring-On-A-Stick," the concept fell flat. Enoch took to the Akvavit and joined the ranks of
professional reenactors, traveling like the Flying Dutchman from one event to another living off
the sale of his stores to his competitor. He had one brief shot at glory when the Disney people
were planning their Manassas theme park but even that failed when the Eisner executives realized
there was such a thing as too much diversity.
At last, we were ready to dine but Jonah was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared when the
announcement for Cow Flop Bingo was made. It wasn't until late afternoon that he appeared,
wearing a blue print camp dress and a snood, looking very disheveled. He had evidently found
some of his pards in "Dirty" Mike Shurig's Ohio unit who had talked him into participating in the
Duchy Girl Chase (after Dirty Mike had fully explained the details of his recent yeast infection, a
stock Shurig conversational piece). Jonah had become separated from his unit during the
skirmishing phase and wound up on the Interstate. It took him over an hour to fend off the
amorous advances of a truckload of migrant chicken pluckers from West Virginia (or so he
Frustrated by the delay we insisted that he sit and eat. This he did and we must say the man
deserves the Clean Plate Award. For a little fellow he put away considerable food, being specially
fond of the Red Pickled Cabbage. Only after an hour of solid work did he queasily proclaim
himself done. Easing gently off the stool he proceeded to lie carefully in the shade of the mess
tent, splaying out all limbs and immediately falling fast asleep. Meanwhile, Enoch was busy
preparing his own meal, some small indeterminate animal roasting slowly over his fire (my partner
swore he could see tire tracks on the hapless creature).
After a half hour or so, while we were cleaning up from our chores we began to hear unearthly
rumblings. Was it thunder in the East? No. Inspection revealed that the sounds were coming from
the recumbent Jonah, and his overworked digestive system. Jonah must have been feeling the
effects of his great effort in his dreams as he began squirming and twisting like a young woman
trying to put on tight jeans. Suddenly his eyes opened and he sat bolt upright with a look of terror
on his face. Rising slowly as if he were afraid to burst, he set off slowly but purposefully toward
the necessary conveniences. His progress quickened until he was running as fast as any man could
with one hand holding up his pants and the other holding tightly to his midsection. The first door
was locked, so was the second and right down the line; all were occupied. A cry of anguish.
Jonah was a sight to behold, alternately banging on closed doors and dancing from one foot to the
other with an occasional piteous groan. Finally one stall opened up and with a rush Jonah bolted
for the opening. He barely beat out a hefty dismounted cavalryman who also seemed to have a
strong sense of mission but was slightly less motivated.
The next day was Chef Enoch's turn. We were very curious as to what the Chef was going to
submit as his entry. He has long threatened to cook and serve his specialty, "Binder," but from the
accounts we have heard it would not win any contests. His cookfire contained but one kettle,
balanced precariously on two flaming logs. He would disappear into his shebang and reemerge
with a mysterious sack, dump it in the kettle and then repeat the process with another ingredient.
Nothing recognizable by shape, color or smell was added - yet an unusual aroma wafted our way.
Jonah, having recovered from yesterday's meal after a fashion, hovered around the Chef like a
small annoying child. Whether it was from hunger, curiosity or self-preservation he would not
leave his side. It was a true picture of a man torn between hunger and fear. Suddenly, one of the
supporting logs collapsed, the kettle tipped and before the Chef could right it a large grey object
spilled out of the pot onto the ground, and the liquid in the pot greasily sloshed around. Grabbing
a fork the Chef stabbed the ejected object and thrust it back into the pot. While it was airborne we
noted that it appeared to have several long appendages attached, legs, veins or roots, which hung
down in a most unappetizing way. Jonah, witnessing this, began remonstrating with the Chef,
visibly agitated but Enoch merely gave him an encouraging grin and turned away.
Jonah opined that there was no way he was going to sample whatever it was that had escaped
from the pot, regardless of what Grant MacMeans demanded. Suddenly Enoch roused himself
from his quiet contemplation and bellowed "Lunch!" (causing half the camp to look around
expectantly). Jonah announced he thought that he would pass on lunch, because he was rather full
from yesterday's meal. Enoch paid him no attention but went on ladling a thick, chunky, grayish
concoction into a mess tin. When it was full he brought it over and laid it in front of Jonah,
placing a fine linen napkin (with a skull and crossbones embroidered on the corner) neatly on his
lap. Once again Jonah protested that this was far beyond what Grant could expect of him. Enoch
casually reminded Jonah of several photographs in Grant's possession (some of which had been
used as the basis for Mike Shurig's art prints on velvet). These photos, Enoch reminded Jonah,
could be scanned and published in lieu of a cook-off report. Jonah blanched, looked at the plate
doubtfully, trembled a bit and then reached for a spoon, eyeing us soulfully.
Slowly, almost painfully, the first spoonful made its way to Jonah's mouth. Closing his eyes, the
little fellow gulped once, not even making the pretense of chewing. Jonah's complexion began to
match the contents of the plate, animal noises rose from deep within his soul until, finally, he
could take no more. Jumping up, he ran into the mess tent, grabbed a roll of toilet tissue and ran
towards the line of powder blue Porta Potties. It was almost half an hour before he emerged
looking quite drained but relieved. Enoch, meanwhile, had taken the unfinished portion of the
meal and brought it back to the pot where he poured it in with the admonition, "Waste not, want
The award announcement was scheduled to be made at the closing ceremonies. These were quite impressive with the Confederates drawn up on one side and the Union forces on the other. One side quite drab and surly in its butternut and grey, the other a riot of calico, taffeta, ribbons and bows. Presentations came and went but no Jonah, and no announcement of a winner. Finally, the massed troops were dismissed and we returned to camp quite disappointed. Enoch confessed that he was at a loss, since he was counting on the award to rehabilitate his reputation following the Disney fiasco. Resigned, we all began breaking down and packing for the long ride home, Jonah still among the missing.
It was only as we hit the road was there any clue to the missing Begone. While sitting in a line of traffic a dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle pulled up next to us. A face appeared at the window for the briefest of seconds, Jonah's. He was wearing his lovely floral print dress and a look of panic was evident on his face. He mouthed the word "Help" before the light changed and he disappeared. Presumably he has a good health care plan and a couple of days of sick leave due him.
THE CHEF SERVES UP A RETORT
by Chef Enoch
I'm a simple man, and slow to anger, but for some time now the Pequot Mess has been stepping on my toes. It wasn't enough that they began showing up in the magazine with their fancy recipes and foreign-sounding names. Soon they were taking cheap shots at The Chef, making disparaging remarks about his cooking. Now they have misrepresented the events of the Camp Chase Gazette cook-off. Allow me to set the record straight.
First of all, I do not now, nor have I ever, worn a frock coat or brocade vest. As my bunkies can attest, when the morning formation is called, it is "sack coats only" for Chef Enoch. And I know nothing of Minnesota or herring. As will be made clear in the forthcoming movie, "Cooking With Enoch" (starring Scott Baio as Chef Enoch and Charo as Cookie, the gruff but lovable sidekick), I joined the Camp Chase Gazette when Grant MacMeans and Bill Holschuh picked me up by a roadside in Illinois. They assumed I was a reenactor hitch-hiking in uniform to an event. Imagine their chagrin when they discovered I had been raised by an Amish family. Anyway, they taught me to drink beer and watch TV, and I have been with them ever since. But I digress.
I had misgivings about this cook-off from the start. First of all, I was scheduled to cook on Sunday, and Chef Enoch likes to beat the rush on Sunday by slipping quietly out of camp during morning drill. So this challenge was going to require some thought, and would require something that would do the job quickly. Pickled cabbage and apple butter may be all well and good for someone who has plenty of time to kill, but it was Begone's appetite that I had to kill, and kill quickly. This was going to require blunt force rather than finesse.
There is always binder to do the job, of course. But binder has been known to take up to 15 or even 20 minutes to finish off an appetite, and I just didn't have that kind of time. I had to get Begone over to the baker tent for an early brunch and be rid of him by the time I had my gear packed. This was sound military strategy at all times, I knew, although it is sadly ignored in this day and age. Few great leaders since the Middle Ages have given adequate thought to the importance of diet to an army.
Napoleon said, "An army travels on its stomach," but look at what has happened to just about every French army since Hank 5 kicked frog butt at Agincourt. Inevitably, as the French are topping off their morning croissants with a second cup of cafe au lait, the British (Russians, Germans, whomever) are already on the march, having finished with their breakfast of something stale and probably moldy, and feeling more than a little testy. A testy army is a dangerous thing.
No general understood this principle better than Genghis Khan, whose hordes overran much of Asia and parts of Europe during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, sustained on a diet consisting primarily of a delicacy known as "pomme de la rue". Don't bother to look for recipes. As any mounted cavalryman can tell you, it is a dish horses produce quite naturally, with no urging whatever.
A nice dish of road apple dumplings was a possibility for the cook-off, but unfortunately my relationship with the cavalry had soured since that unfortunate incident with the mare. But the less said of that, the better.
I racked my brains for other culinary references. Pliny the Elder tells us of a dread tribe known as the Anthropophagi, whose diet consisted most notably of choice cuts from their unsuccessful opponents. But a dish of human flesh seemed impractical. That cannibalism taboo, you know. (What's more, Begone might be able to identify the body part.)
Haggis was a possibility, but just try getting a sheep's stomach on short notice. Even from Sutler Row.
I had almost despaired of finding the appropriate menu and was walking absent-mindedly over to stir the pot simmering over the fire (where I was putting a fresh patina on a new batch of buttons), when I noticed someone had apparently been dipping into it. There was a soiled dish sitting near the pot, with a spoon beside it.
I never did figure that out. But my concern over the cook-off was wasted, as Begone never did show up. The last I heard of him he was suffering acute gastrointestinal discomfort.
I hope this clears up any misunderstanding over the events of the cook-off, and I hope he gets better soon so that we can resolve this cooking mystery once and for all.
[Check out the Chef's "Binder Song"]