Based in St. Louis, Mo., Dean Ramponi and his wife, C.J., are the proprietors of Ram and Poni food concessions. During the Heritage Festival, the couple was set up at the Living History Village serving buffalo burgers, elk burgers, elk chili, barbecue pulled pork, fried potatoes and onion soup.
"We've been doing concessions at living history events for about 15 years," Ramponi said. "We've been on the road four or five weeks now. We'll be back home the end of October."
As a young man, Ramponi ate venison, and he worked at a country club where game meat was served. Later, he was a chef in a restaurant in a St. Louis suburb. Buffalo steak and burgers were served there. Next, Ramponi opened his own barbecue restaurant, but the business only lasted a short time. A friend had introduced Ramponi to re-enactments and living history events, so Ramponi decided to mobilize the restaurant equipment he had purchased. He and C.J. started setting up at various historical events five months of the year.
PHOTO BY STEVE WILLIAMS
Dean Ramponi waits for Heritage Festival customers who may want to try his burgers and chili made with elk and buffalo.
"Earlier in the business, my children traveled with us and helped us, but now they're grown up and they've got their own lives. Sometimes we'll have somebody traveling with us and working with us. Sometimes we just find help wherever we go," Ramponi said.
Posting ads on craigslist has been helpful about half the time. If no one is available, the husband and wife manage as well as possible at a given stop.
The meats come from suppliers frozen or shrink-wrapped. The buffalo meat comes from a ranch in Wisconsin where the buffalo are grass-fed, "just like what the Indians and pioneers ate."
Elk was something Ramponi discovered through the buffalo farm. He said for years he served elk chili before putting the meat into burgers. Many of his customers order his pan-fried potatoes smothered in the chili, which is made mild enough for the average person.
"I usually have two or three different hot sauces on the front table so people can jazz it up how they like. At home, I make it spicy," Ramponi said. "The chili is my recipe. I make it with elk and a little bit of pork, because it needs a little fat. The elk is so lean. I use two kinds of beans, spices and tomatoes ... it's even better after it simmers two or three hours."
The Ram and Poni also serves a layered dish called the "Mountain Man Slinger." Served on a 10-inch plate, it starts with fried potatoes, topped with an elk or buffalo burger, shredded cheese, two eggs and a ladle of chili. A big appetite is required.
The couple expects to return for the 2014 Heritage Festival, but patrons won't have to wait a whole year to sample Ramponi's offerings. He and C.J. are booked at an event in Findlay next weekend, and they are to be set up for the Civil War encampment the first weekend of October at the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont. See their Facebook page (ramandponi) for more details.