Community shares in tradition at annual pan de campo cook off

Estella Morin prepares the pan de campo dough for baking during American Legion Post 408 41th annual Pan De Campo Cook-off on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

EDINBURG — The community gathered Saturday at the American Legion Post 408 for the 41st annual pan de campo cook off.

The cook off is a competition in which participants compete in five categories: fajitas, carne guisada, charro beans, pork ribs and, of course, pan de campo. Each category is judged on taste, appearance and tenderness.

For Commander Rene Rodriguez, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, this is his first time hosting the yearly cook off since being elected commander of the post.

“It brings the community together,” Rodriguez said. “The members and other veterans show up. It’s our major fundraiser. We use it to raise funds for the post. It’s very positive.”

Rodriguez said that his mentor, Dr. Thomas Esparza, was one of the originators of the cook off. The post has a plaque with the names of the members who helped establish the cook off in front of the building.

Pan de campo, officially declared the state bread in 2005, is an old recipe that originated on the ranches of South Texas. The flat bread is traditionally made in a cast iron Dutch oven in a fire pit buried a few feet in the ground.

Dhalia Morin has been making pan de campo for just over 10 years. She said that the process of preparing and making the “cowboy bread” can be time consuming.

“Last night, we got together to make the masa,” Morin explained. “About 10 of us got together, and we were up preparing it until about 11 o’clock at night. Then this morning, at 5:30 in the morning, we had to get up and get over here, bring out the pits, set up the tent and the tables, get the fire started.”

“Yeah it’s a lot of work, but it’s nice because we know we’re doing it for a good cause,” Morin staff. “It’s for the American Legion, and they help the community. We’re just happy to help.”

Gerard Mittelstaedt and his wife Mona have attended the annual cook off for years. Gerard, a retired librarian, said that his interest in pan de campo and the historic aspect of the cook off are what draw him back each year.

“It’s a traditional bread. It’s interesting that it has to be cooked in small batches,” Gerard said. “If you look over the whole world, everybody has a flat bread. There’s flat bread in China, all over the Middle East, and this is our version in South Texas and the ranching community.”

Gerard noted that the number of participants in this year’s cook off (about 17) was noticeably smaller than previous years. Mona attributed that to the strong winds.

“It’s interesting. Like he said, it’s a little thin, but that’s probably due to the wind and the dry conditions that we’ve had,” Mona said. “People are afraid of their tents and things blowing away, I would imagine. It’s nice for people to get together and share this kind of experience. Camp cooking, the way it used to be done a long time ago, is very interesting and its educational for the kids too.”