“Chuck away, come and get it!”
The chuckwagon has always struck me as a fun part of cowboy history. Just as kitchens were the heart of the home, the chuckwagon was the heart of any cattle drive. Movie’s generally show a colorful, jovial sort of fellow, “Cookie” as they are often fondly called, in charge of keeping a cattle outfit fed. In truth, most chuckwagon cooks were known to be ill-tempered and stern. These chefs of the open range were far more than simple campfire cooks. Cookie was also the doctor, barber, dentist, letter-writer and banker of the cattle crew, and he was regarded in high esteem only second to the trail boss. His pay also came second to the trail boss, often double or triple to that of a cowhand.
On the cattle trail chuckwagons were loaded down with all the cowboy bedding, water barrels, dough kegs (a main staple), cast iron Dutch oven as well as the food supply. Canvas usually draped the outside of the wagon in a hammock fashion, which stored fire wood, tools and dried cow chips. Packing and unpacking a wagon was a skill all its own. These wagons were usually drawn by oxen or mules and followed along behind, usually joined by the cattle crew’s “wrangler” – a young inexperienced cowpoke charged with herding the spare horses. Once parked, the chuckwagon became cattle drive headquarters–and the cook was in charge.
Charles Goodnight, co-founder of the Goodnight-Loving Trail running out of Texas and through New Mexico and Colorado, needed a sturdy wagon that could withstand five months of rugged travel along the cattle trails. He rebuilt his Army supply Studebaker wagon, adding steel axels and what became known as the “chuck box” at the back with a hinged lid that also became a work table when parked. In 1866 the first “chuckwagon” hit the Goodnight-Loving Trail.
“Chuck” is considered to be the least-expensive cut of beef. This gives some indication of the type of food served from these contraptions. There’s a misconception that most cattle crews had all the beef they could eat while on a long drive — not so in most cases. Cattle drive outfits were generally contracted to drive cattle by the owners, and those owners expected their beefs to arrive alive and kicking at the stockyards, not in the bellies of cowboys. On most drives, while beef was served occasionally, these hard working beef herders ate mostly salted pork, beans, black-eyed peas, potatoes, sour dough biscuits and cowboy coffee. A cowboy hungry for a steak must have felt a lot like a thirsty sailor…steers as far as the eye can see, and not a steak to eat!
Cookie had no shortage of responsibilities, rising hours before the crews to prepare breakfast, staying on the move and having meals ready for the returning crew—cooking rain or shine, freezing snow or brutal heat–no wonder they were cranky! He was expected to know practiced medince and tended to any injured cowboys riding in, and truly seems to be a source of rough-handed nurturing for young cowhands far from home. If Cookie was having an agreeable day and feeling generous towards the boys, he might whip up some Spotted Pup for desert (sweetened rice with raisins) or pie using dried fruit.
I have read that chilies and peppers were planted by cooks along the edges of many cattle trails for added convenience. I wonder if there are still wild peppers and chilies growing in those areas.
Who remembers that Chuckwagon dogfood commercial? YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BBqgMQluDM
Did y’all know Chuckwagon Racing is competitive sport? Here’s a couple fun You Tube links: