The cattle drive of years ago is a thing of the past, but the chuck wagon never really bit the dust; chuck wagon cooking is alive and well, with many revivals, competitions, reenactments and shows for tourists. Today’s chuck wagon cooks, like their forbears on the open prairie, pride themselves on their ability to use simple equipment and plain ingredients to prepare memorable and filling dishes, consumed with gusto in an outdoor setting. They cook on wood-fires, using heavy cast iron implements even for baking. Some work full time on ranches; others are dedicated hobbyists.
The American Chuck Wagon Association holds an annual cooking competition between chuck wagon teams, awarding prizes for meat, beans, potatoes, bread, dessert and overall categories. These events also feature cowboy poetry readings, riding and roping exhibitions, and other manifestations of American cowboy and western culture. The 2006 competition held in Lubbock in west Texas featured more than 25 teams, each making chicken fried steak, pinto beans, some form of potatoes, fruit cobbler, and a bread item chosen from cornbread, sourdough biscuits or yeast rolls; enough to feed themselves and forty visitors per wagon.
Even though the food ingredients, utensils and fuel that may be used are simple, the rules for chuck wagon authenticity are exceedingly complex. Among other things, the wagon must have a “complete wooden tongue assembly, with tongue cap, neck yoke, or tongue chains, doubletree and singletrees, wheel wrench and stay chains,” a 30 gallon wooden water barrel, and a traditional chuck wagon toolbox made from regular wood (no plywood). Competitors must dress in proper period costumes and live in authentic canvas tents at their sites.
Texas rancher Charles Goodnight invented the chuck wagon in 1866. An important distinguishing feature of the tough and rather elaborate wagon was a box on the rear with a hinged lid that could be opened while the wagon was at rest so the cook could use it as a work surface. The shelf contained drawers and storage nooks for utensils and food. On long cattle drives, the wagon served as a complete-self contained food storage and preparation center for weeks at a time. The chuck wagon became the social center of the drive once things settled down for the evening. The cook often had to drive ahead alone and prepare camp for the hungry cowboys. When night fell, it was the cook’s responsibility to point the tongue of the chuck wagon toward the North Star so the drive could orient itself the next morning.
With a reputation for irascibility and rough humor, the cook was a feared and aggressive presence on the range; it wasn’t a good idea for a cowboy to mess with the cook’s equipment. A cowboy would never ride so as to kick dust up on the chuck wagon. Paid twice as much as the average cowboy, the cook might act as doctor, tailor, clergyman, psychiatrist or letter writer for the men he fed. He was the man the trail boss might consult if there were a problem.
Chuck wagons, of course, always had plenty of beef, which the cook would fry, stew, or braise in a pot roast. “Son of a gun” stew (there are other colorful names) was made just after slaughtering an animal and contained beef tongue, tripe, liver, kidneys, hearts and other innards. Some theorists believed that chili con carne began as a range food, yet it seems unlikely that a busy cook would go to the trouble of dicing meat into pecan-sized chunks when normal stew-sized pieces would do perfectly well. Chuck wagon cooks might or might not have used dried chile peppers as a spicing if they were available.
Beans, which could be transported in dry form and soaked before cooking, provided the main side dish. The cook would begin the cattle drive with a sourdough starter that, when perpetuated by setting aside a small amount each baking, would form the basis for a cattle drive’s worth of bread for the men. Cornmeal would also be used to make cornbread and grits. Fresh vegetables were a rarity, but canned fruits were available to make special treats for the men (provided they behaved).
Today’s chuck wagon enthusiast can turn to a number of businesses that manufacturer and sell authentic equipment, clothing, and even entire chuck wagons. The large cast-iron Dutch oven, often with a cover onto which hot embers may be placed to cook or bake foods from both top and bottom, is the mainstay of the cuisine. These kettles usually have built in feet that give them clearance over a wood fire. When working with wood as fuel, controlling the heat is not an easy matter, but that is part of the challenge today as it was for the original chuck wagon cooks.
It is not easy in a three or four hour competition to orchestrate a full complement of cast-iron dishes, down to a set of delicate flaky biscuits or a cake that is neither underdone nor overbaked, but this is exactly what the skilled chuck wagon cook had to do to keep the cattle drive doing. Today’s chuck wagon cooks do it because they love it.