Soup’s On at Steam Shows!

Father-daughter duo hark to simpler times when cooking at steam shows for friends and family.

michele Breener and family

Michele Beener and her dad, Michael J. Miller, with Michele’s daughter, Ashley, are crowd pleasers at shows, thanks in part to their gift for cooking for large crowds.

Photo by Beth Beavers

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We’ve all been there – a hard day of showing off our latest find, or a busy day of walking the show grounds, taking in impressive collections. And then it hits you – hunger. Maybe the aromas wafting over from the food court has something to do with it. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, you’re attending a show where Michele Beener is utilizing her father’s most recent restoration to prepare a delicious meal for 100 of her closest friends.

Michele and her dad, Michael J. Miller, are staples at southern Pennsylvania shows like the New Centerville Farmers & Threshermen’s Jubilee in New Centerville, Pennsylvania, and any of the shows at Rough and Tumble in Kinzers, Pennsylvania. For the last 20 years, Michele’s taken on the task of making sure the crews are well fed. “On the first night at the shows, they’re always asking, “What’s Michele cooking?’” she says.

During her childhood, Michele recalls seeing her grandmother prepare enough food for 100 people. When Michele turned 20, she took that tradition to farm shows. “I’m an only child whose father raised her to one, cook – a lot – and two, stay simple,” she says.

Michael’s amassed quite the collection over the years, and Michele’s eagerly been there for all of the restorations. “He only does tractors with steel wheels, nothing newer than that,” Michele says. The family passions for cooking and old iron had a connection reflecting simpler times, and taking care of those around you. As Michael is fond of saying, “there’s nothing worth having if you can’t share.”

Tools of the trade

How exactly does one go about preparing food for hundreds of hungry show-goers using old tractors and steam engines? A mix of ingenuity, innovation and creativity is a good place to start. For instance, about 10 years ago Michael created a versatile cooking tool from an old wheel. He formed a fire ring from an industrial tire’s wheel and welded forklift clips onto it for ease of handling.

Michele uses a swinging hot plate on the side of the ring to grill shrimp or hamburgers, or a community breakfast of eggs and bacon. The tire base also supports a kettle dating to the 1800s. Michele uses that to make her famous chicken and noodles or stew for hungry show-goers.

But Michele’s favorite is pie. “My steam show pie is apple,” Michele says. “I did 12 pies on the outdoor bread oven at one show. My grandma could really bake, and I learned from her, so I always bake from scratch.” As a rule of thumb, Michele and Michael avoid processed food when they’re cooking at the shows. For the chicken and noodles, that means making noodles from scratch. To save time at the show, Michele handles tasks like that, and preparation of other ingredients, at home the day before.

Michael and Michele even use old stone mills to grind flour and corn meal. “That stone-ground cornmeal is to die for,” Michele says. “We use it to make biscuits in the pan.”

Leave nothing to chance

After cooking at shows for the past 20 years, Michele has some advice for success. “Don’t be like me,” she says with a laugh. “Be prepared.” She points to the lack of running water at the average steam show as a major challenge. She recommends asking to utilize showground kitchens, or coming equipped with plenty of bottled water for preparation and cleanup. She also recommends cooking with cast iron, but advises cooks to be familiar with cast iron’s quirks: Make sure it’s properly greased, or food will stick.

Another tip? Know who you’re feeding. “That’s the funny thing,” Michele says. “The first couple of years we made food and no one knew. Now everyone waits to hear ‘soup’s on’ or ‘kettle’s done.’”  Either way, you’ll have too much food or run out if you don’t plan.”

Michele grew up at threshermen’s reunions and jubilees, and she’s seen an evolution over the years. “We have a couple guy friends who always cook on steam engines, usually brisket,” she says. “I’m the abnormal one. I’ll go from running engines to washing up to cooking.” She also says she sees a lot more women participating at shows than she did when she was growing up.

Michele’s gotten her kids into old iron, too. “We pull our steam engine, and my daughter is addicted,” she says. “We pulled three engines, all three females, at a super pull and we pulled the whole track. The crowd went crazy.” That night, the guys on the grounds prepared the meal. “It’s changing,” she says.

Strengthening family ties

Michael’s been an active member in the old iron community for many years. He likes to have a new project every year, taking an old and broken steam engine, gas engine or tractor and restoring it to its former glory. His latest is a 1913 27/57 hp Gaar-Scott steam engine. He travels around the country to show off his latest restorations. For 25 years he was the chairman of various New Centerville Farmers & Threshermen’s Jubilee committees. He hasn’t missed a Jubilee since he was 9.

Michele now has her own family, including four kids, and they embrace a back-to-basics life. “Dad has made us live simple,” she says. That includes an Apple Cider Day every fall, when family members use an antique apple press that Michael restored to press apples from trees on Michele’s land. It’s an event the kids aren’t allowed to miss.

“They used to be like, ‘really?’” Michele says. “But now my oldest daughter is 22 and it has given us a sense of stability. We have to keep those old ways. It’s harder to be simple and connect with people when everything is digital, texting and email. We have a very close family.”

In 2007, the family was shaken when Michael was hit by a tractor-trailer while working on a state road crew. “It was critical,” Michele says. “When he came to, all he was worried about was his engines. That got him through, being able to teach the kids about it.” Michael recovered; today he’s still rebuilding steam engines. Over the years, the role of old iron in the family has been elevated. “It’s so important to our family,” Michele says. “We almost lost him, so it’s so important.” FC


Michele Beener’s Whole Wheat Biscuits

Best with stone-ground, fresh-milled flour.

• 1 cup whole wheat flour
•1 cup white flour
• 2-1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/3 cup lard or shortening
• 3/4 cup whole milk
• 2 tbsp. butter

Mix dry ingredients using a whisk or sift. Using pastry blender, cut in shortening. Make a well in center of mixture and add milk. Lightly knead in bowl. Since steam show settings don’t allow for rolling and cutting, Michele hand-shapes the biscuits in small, slightly flattened balls. Use 1 tablespoon butter to grease a cast iron skillet. Add first biscuit to center and remaining ones around the first. Melt remaining tablespoon of butter; brush over biscuit tops. Bake over fire about 10 minutes (to bake biscuits in a gas or electric oven, set the oven to 425 F).


Michele Beener’s Chicken & Dumplings – Kettle Style

• 2 large packages of chicken pieces
• 1 bunch celery, chopped
• 1 large bag of carrots, peeled and chopped
• 2 large white onions, peeled and chopped
• Chopped garlic to taste
• 5 1-gallon jugs distilled water
• Herbs: use whatever grows in your garden but definitely parsley, rosemary and thyme
• 8 oz. chicken soup base
• 2 large bags noodles (or homemade noodles)
• Pepper, salt and garlic salt to taste

Cook chicken in advance in a roaster or slow cooker. Michele does this at home the night prior to the show. Once cool, remove chicken from the bone, reserving broth.

Prepare kettle. Start a wood fire using kindling cut for steam engines. Make sure your kettle is clean, then coat the inside with lard. Prime kettle over wood fire. Note: it’s important to cover the kettle during cooking to prevent ash contamination. Also, have a long ladle for stirring and serving.

Put water in the kettle and add chopped vegetables, garlic and soup broth. Bring to a boil and cook 5 minutes. Add chicken and reserved broth, then herbs. Cook additional 5 minutes, stirring. Add noodles; cook until noodles are done. For a thick soup, use less water and more noodles.


For more information: Contact Michele Beener and Michael J. Miller at mrmbeener@gmail.com.

Beth Beavers is the former associate editor of Farm Collector and Gas Engine Magazine. You can contact her at
beth.beavers@gmail.com.