In the hills between the Salinas Valley and Big Sur, 15 miles from the southern border of Monterey County, dry fields are dotted with old, twisted oaks. In the crisp air, small birds flit about, wild turkeys peck at the ground, and hawks criss-cross the sky. This is Lockwood, consisting of one general store, post office, K-8 school, church hall and about 170 households. Not far off are the small communities of Bryson-Hesperia, Jolon, and Bee Rock. All are sparse in population, but rich in history. Many residents are descendants of gold rush settlers, cowboys, missionaries and bandits. Their stories, along with their recipes, are recorded in a 200-page cookbook titled Treasures Under the Oaks, published 21 years ago and now back in print.
“We named it that because it’s so natural here for people to cook food over oak wood fires,” says Erick Reinstedt, who co-authored the book with his wife, Mary Ann Reinstedt. Erik is the pastor of True Life Christian Fellowship, the only nondenominational church in the area. He wanted to create a book he could sell to raise money for his church’s youth group to send every child to Hume Lake Christian Camps for free.
“Through donations, book sales and quilt auctions, we’ve never turned a kid away in 23 years,” Reinstedt says. “God broke my heart for these kids, all the pain they’ve had in their lives. I want to show them that we care for them and love them, that money is not an issue.”
Brandi Williamson, whose sister and children have attended the camp for years, says that despite some parents’ more secular beliefs, their kids keep coming back every year.
With every penny from sales going to the youth fellowship, the book serves its purpose as the main source of funding for the group, which supports 15-20 kids each year. The unanticipated benefit of Treasures Under the Oaks, however, is that it provides a comprehensive recording of the history and culture of the southernmost communities of Monterey County. The cookbook contains over 200 recipes – many authored by people who are no longer living – as well as outdoor cooking tips, historic photographs, Wild West stories, newspaper clippings, postcards, poems and more. It includes stories of padres and Native Americans during the height of the nearby San Antonio Mission, gunfights between feuding ranchers and the arrival of the first gasoline-powered tractor in California.
Beyond the humorous and chilling stories are recipes for Jessie Patterson’s drunken beef stew, Donald Gillet’s Dutch oven cinnamon rolls and Judy Grindstaff’s shrimp tortilla soup, among others. “Much of the value of this book is in the history it captures,” Mary Ann says. “So many of these stories and recipes have never been shared. Nothing of this magnitude existed before.”
In 1999, Treasures Under the Oaks was an unexpected success. “At first we were hesitant to print 300 copies, but it was so popular that by now we’ve printed about 3,000,” says Reinstedt, noting the cookbooks are gifted to newcomers by some local real estate agents.
In 2009, the book was re-released as More Treasures Under the Oaks – with 100 more pages of recipes focused on cooking outdoors, such as John Plumb’s fire-roasted wild boar, the Beard family’s Dutch oven enchiladas and recipes from local volunteer firemen.
The Patterson family, whose recipes, photos and stories are featured in the cookbook, has been cooking outdoors in South County for generations. “Lester’s family came in the late 1800s,” says Dawn Patterson, referring to her husband’s ancestors. “There are photos of them cooking over a fire with mattress springs for their grill. They’d have 40 Dutch ovens going at once.”
Every May, the Pattersons host the region’s annual Dutch Oven Cookoff on their property, which is rumored to be the largest such cookoff west of the Mississippi. Several stacks of Dutch ovens stand in their kitchen – and they have a boxcar out back with about 50 more. Also out back, Patterson proudly shows off her old Studebaker chuckwagon – essentially a traveling kitchen to feed the cowboys when they herded thousands of cattle across the land. Her wagon is joined by a few more at the Dutch Oven Cookoff to remember the original outdoor chefs of the late 1800s.
Patterson’s chickens murmur in their coop. She offers fresh eggs to the Reinstedts, who have already accepted fresh eggs and milk from another neighbor this week. Between the abundance of wild and locally farmed food and camaraderie among residents, it is easy to see why the Reinstedts’ cookbook-scrapbook has been so successful.
“Nearly all of our community events are centered around cooking outdoors,” Reinstedt says. “This book brings our traditions and heroes to light.”
MORE TREASURES UNDER THE OAKS is available online at truelifecf.org