“The sun is going down, it is golden hour, and the temperature is just right. There is a little breeze, and you can smell the chicken and the potatoes. It’s euphoric! We all line up for food, and the cowboy serving us has a big gray beard and gallon hat.”
We have been celebrating the 24th of July my entire life, and in my twenty-six years, the meal has never changed. My grandparents’ family were Scandinavian settlers in Fairview, Utah, they emigrated from Sweden in the late 1800s. My grandma grew up in Fairview, my parents live there now, so we have very strong ties to the town. Fairview is very small. There is this joke that if you blink while driving by, you will miss it! Every 24th of July, we have a chuck wagon dinner, to celebrate Pioneer Day, a commemoration of when the Mormon pioneers settled in Utah. I grew up Mormon. I was baptized into the LDS (Latter-Day Saints) church, and I was a practicing Mormon until I was thirteen. Now, I identify as agnostic. A lot of places around the state will do things to celebrate this day, like rodeos, or demolition derbies. We have been celebrating this since my mom was a kid, so six decades!
I am in the middle of rural Utah and am driving up to a large park. I see my family, a mix of familiar, and unfamiliar, faces. Everyone is mingling in front of the gazebo, and the older folks are sitting on the red wooden picnic table in the shade surrounded by massive rocky mountain pine and maple trees. To my left is a street separating us from the local cemetery. To my right is the volleyball net, the poorly kept horseshoe field, the rough around the edges skate park, a jungle gym, baseball field and the rodeo grounds.
When I was younger they would have a chuck wagon pull us all up into the mountains, by a tractor. We would celebrate at this campground. We always have grilled chicken, potatoes, cheese, fruit, scones, and homemade root-beer. It has never changed. It has always brought a lot of comfort to me.
The chuck wagon dinner came about because my grandma, my great aunt Cathy, my great aunt Cleone and my great aunt Betty Jo, all wanted to make sure we had enough food for the 24th! So we hired the Caviar Cowboys to cater. They are a local family who have also been celebrating this day for as long as we have. We wanted everyone to have enough food, for it to be tasty, and for that food to bring people together. The whole point is to feed everyone, and have fun!
I’m with a very Utah looking crew. It is a large family gathering with my cousins, second cousins, great aunt and uncles, all sprinkled in with everyone’s new partners. My family likes to stick to their traditions, so this gathering has been going on for decades, with very little variation.
I am a social butterfly, so anything surrounding human interaction, brings me comfort. I like hearing people talk, the chatter, the laughter, so I really love when my family gets together. It gives us the opportunity to hear everyone’s stories, what they have been up to throughout the year.
I think I am the person in my family that is the most interested in food. When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to go to culinary school. I grew up in a household with both of my parents cooking. I have a lot of relatives that brew their own beer. Through all of high school I was very into the idea of cooking as a career. It was when Alinea was popular, and I read Chef Grant Achatz’s book. Also, Christina Tosi from Milk Bar, influenced me a lot. She is a chef that came from a small town, like me. She moved out to New York, and now she is a restaurant queen! After I read about her, I thought I could move to Chicago, go to school, and be a chef. But then I fell in love with design, so I pursued that instead, but I still moved to Chicago!
I smell fresh, clean country air. It is a scent I can’t explain because it is just clean and empty. This smell doesn’t last long in rural Utah, in July. I begin smelling the alfalfa growing in the fields around us, mixed with the smell of farm animals. Those smells slowly begin to fade away as the dutch ovens start to heat up. Now I smell the homemade root beer as they mix it with dry ice to get it carbonated, the savory grilled chicken and cheesy bacon potatoes. Then I smell sweet—scones being deep fried and the cobbler baking.
I have a very positive relationship with food. Any trip I plan, or place I go, the itinerary is based on restaurants, or chefs. I will always try something, at least once. What if I actually love dried squid?? I have tried it, and I do not love it, but I would not know unless I tried.
I hear my uncle Steve laugh at a joke. His barrel laugh carries throughout the gazebo. I hear the old cowboy serving up the food, chiding me because I don’t have enough on my plate. I hear my great uncle Spence, who has a slight whistle lisp, chatting with my sisters.
With my friend and business partner, Sarah, The Goods was created. We are both transplants to Chicago—she is from Florida, and I am from Utah. Chicago has so many amazing restaurants. The smallest hole-in-the-wall will be the best taco place! This is something Utah does not have. Here in Chicago, I was overwhelmed by the wide range of restaurants, and cuisines. The Goods aims to highlight these spots, to inspire people to explore outside of their neighborhood. Chicago is very segregated, so we call attention to that.
I wait all year for the cheesy potatoes. They are savory, with the perfect amount of salt. The scones are hot and sweet, with honey butter, paired with fresh fruits. To wash it all down, a tangy root-beer. I hold these times close to my heart. I cherish being a close-knit family, and continuing to come together each year.
Soda-pop shops run the world in Utah, but a dish unique to Utah is called “Funeral Potatoes”. We have them at Thanksgiving and Easter. It consists of cream of chicken soup, sliced potatoes, cheese and breadcrumbs. It got its name because it is a casserole dish, so when someone passes away, people take this dish to funerals. It is much bigger than that, now. It is not very flavorful and it is all one tone, one color. In my family we’ve started adding some spices and color, even if it’s just paprika!
The sun is going down, it is golden hour, and the temperature is just right. There is a little breeze, and you can smell the chicken and the potatoes. It’s euphoric! We all line up for food, and the cowboy serving us has a big gray beard and gallon hat. We all eat at these big picnic tables together. After a while, they bring out the desserts—chocolate chip cookies and rice-crispy treats, but they also make traditional, homemade cobblers in the dutch ovens. The dutch ovens are essential. Everything is cooked in the dutch ovens. They serve the cobbler with homemade vanilla ice cream!
Italian Cheesy Boys:
Place a ritz cracker on a baking sheeting, cut a small square of Colby-Jack cheese and place on top of the cracker. Set your oven to broil and pop those suckers in until the cheese is oily but not completely melted. Then take them out and plop one marshmallow on top (I rip it in half) then stick those bad boys back into the oven until the tops are browned and toasty. Serve warm.
[ Mason Galecki is photographed at the Harold Washington Library, in Chicago, a special place they like to frequent, on 120mm film. ]